Furniture styles change considerably from one period to the next. Very early furniture, rarely seen today, was large and extremely heavy. After the 1600s, furniture gradually became lighter in weight. The late 1600s to the early 1700s brought the William and Mary style, which was well-known in America by 1720. Each period brought with it different designs for wooden dining chairs. Ladder back and slat back chairs were popular in the late 1700s, and they are usually dated by the number of rungs on the back of the chair and the overall general design.
Determine what carvings, decorations, designs and the general shape of the back of the chair is. These are key factors in identifying the style of the chair.
Check the shape of the back of the chair. A rounded back could indicate a Queen Anne chair while a square straight-backed chair may be a Chippendale. The Chippendale chair may also have curved legs with the ball and claw foot or square straight legs with a high back. The Philadelphia Chippendale chairs which were popular had ornate carvings.
Check the back of the chair to see if there are rungs, spindles or if it has a shield shaped back. Rungs may indicate an earlier 18th century chair while vertical spindles on the back would indicate a Windsor-style chair. The more spindles a Windsor chair has, the older it may be. Hepplewhite chairs, used in the late 1700s to the early 1800s, had a shield-shaped insert in the back. The lines of the Hepplewhite were more delicate and more slender than the Chippendale. The Sheraton style is also delicate and graceful.
Check the chair design and overall look. Simple classical lines may indicate a Sheraton chair. The Sheraton chair has a rectangular back and very few carved decorations, if any. The legs are usually rounded or have vertical carved lines going up the length of the leg. This is called a reeded design. The Empire style furniture pieces that were popular from 1804 to 1830 had straight backs and hard uncomfortable seats.
Check the weight of the chair by lifting it if possible. Victorian chairs were heavy. Many of these chairs had elaborate carvings which consisted of curls, scrolls and other detailed designs. These chairs were popular in the United States from the mid-1800s to the 1900s.
Determine what type of wood the chair is. Earlier chairs were made with oak and walnut, especially the pieces from England. The later more delicate pieces were usually made with mahogany, satinwood and other fancy woods which also made them lighter in weight.