Every chair has its own story to tell. Some antique chairs have obvious stories, told in a loud voice. Other chairs hold a quiet mystery that needs to be coaxed into a story, one whisper at a time. An important key to knowing a chair's story is finding its age. Clues can indicate the date that a chair was built. Some clues are obvious, and others take a little more exploring, but when you know what to look for, dating a chair can be easy.
Look for a maker's mark or trademark. Check the bottom of the seat by turning the chair upside down. The maker's mark or trademark is defined by any type of writing. It could be written in pencil, burnt into the wood or attached as a small metal plate. (Less commonly, the maker's mark or trademark will be on the back of the chair.) There may be an actual date on the maker's mark. If not, knowing who produced the chair will give you a time period for the production.
There may not be a maker's mark if the piece wasn't made by a professional carpenter or manufacturer. This doesn't mean that the chair is not an antique; it just means that you'll need to do more research.
Explore the provenance, or history of ownership, of the antique chair. One of the best pieces of provenance for a chair is an original bill of sale that describes the chair and includes a date. Of course, most chair owners aren't that lucky, but there are other items that are considered provenance.
For example, if you have a photo or portrait of someone in the chair and you can date that photo or portrait, then you know that the construction of the antique chair predates the picture. References to the chair in a diary, thank-you letter or last will and testament are also good indicators of the chair's age.
If you can't find any clear evidence of the date the antique chair was built, look at the construction of the chair. More specifically, check out the way the joints were built. This alone won't pinpoint the date of the chair, but it can give you a time period.
Mortise and tenon joints indicate that the antique chair was constructed prior to the mid-18th century. Vertical softwood blocks came into use in the mid-18th century, followed by the use of corner cleats in the early 19th century. A joint block that braces the sides while avoiding the corner indicates 20th century construction.
The presence of screws or screw holes also helps to narrow the time frame of when a chair was built. Screw holes on the chair rail indicate mid-19th century, while screw holes on the cleat indicate the 20th century.
If you think the joints on the antique chair predate the 18th century, take a look at the chair as a whole. For example, if the back legs of a chair are not extended to form the frame, it's likely that the chair was built before the 17th century. The style of the chair will provide a clue as to when it was built. The neoclassical style is associated with mid-18th century chair building, while Empire French and Regency styles are associated with the early 19th century. Upholstery on a chair is a good way to narrow the time frame. For example, upholstered seats became popular after 1660, and upholstered arms came into vogue a few years later.
Age is not the only factor that determines the value of an antique chair. It's best to have an antique chair appraised by a professional for insurance purposes.