I’ve long been fascinated by legends involving old chairmakers. Here in Kentucky we had Chester Cornett, an enigmatic bearded maker of the wildest ladderbacks and rockers I’ve seen. In Indiana we had a chairmaker in the southern part of the state who in the early 20th century made ladderbacks with a woven seat that look incredibly modern.
In Australia, they have the “Jimmy Possum” chair. Reader Bradley van Luyt sent me a link to this interesting television story on the chair, and so I started digging a little deeper.
Here’s the Cliff Notes version of the legend: Jimmy Possum was a bearded chairmaker, possibly aboriginal, who lived in a stump and made these chairs for sale in the late 19th century. Lots of people have debated whether Jimmy Possum was a real man or more of a Hoop Snake or Drop Bear from the Australian imagination.
If you want to read more about these investigations, check out these links:
To my eye, the chair looks a lot like an Irish stick chair with some interesting variations. The most unusual part is the role of the legs in the chair’s structure. Take a look at the legs. They pass through the seat to become the stumps for the armrests. The legs are tapered so that the seat simply wedges onto them. And, like a Windsor or Welsh chair, the more you sit on the chair the tighter the joints become.
Many of the accounts I’ve read indicate these chairs are shaved and not turned on a lathe. So the legs were likely roughed out with a drawknife and finished with a shave or knife. Some of these chairs suggest the holes in the seat were burned out instead of bored. Two of the back spindles also intersect the armrests, adding to the structure without adding components.
Whether Jimmy Possum is real or not, this style of chair is compelling and is a fascinating footnote in the history of vernacular chairs.
And, of course, now I want to build one.
— Christopher Schwarz