In the last century or so, outdoor entertaining has become not only acceptable but popular. Many of us remember the classic redwood picnic table that hosted family picnics and the Aunt Bert's porch glider. Vintage patio furniture reminds all of us of a simpler time when summer seemed long and lazy. The good news is that these classic pieces are available again in reproductions as well as restorations.
Outdoor furniture originally meant a rocking chair on the porch. On hot summer nights, kitchen chairs were often brought out, too. If the house was just too hot, a table and chairs might be set out under a tree for dinner. Well-to-do hosts created a market for furniture specifically designed for outdoor use, beginning with wrought iron, ship-style hammocks and canvas-seated chairs modeled after military campaign chairs. By the end of the nineteenth century, middle class homeowners were putting wood and wicker furniture out on the porch and when the movies popularized the California "patio" early in the twentieth century, homeowners used a variety of types of furniture to entertain family and guests outdoors. Today, the patio resembles an outdoor room with kitchen-grade appliances, arbors and fireplaces for cool evenings. As for technology, new synthetics and engineered materials make furniture that differs little from that used inside the house.
As patios gained favor, new materials were used to fabricate new styles. The standard steel chair and glider settee, made of rolled steel with molded seats and backs shaped like sea shells or flowers, appeared after World War II and can still be found on patios and porches. Folding wood furniture was made more permanent and the Adirondack chair, a simple lawn form using unadorned flat lumber and simple design to create a relaxing form, was reduced in scale and "dressed up" to resemble indoor furniture in cedar and, beginning in the 1960s, teak. Furniture makers learned to perforate solid metal surfaces and construct slatted seats and backs on wood furniture to drain water and avoid rust and mildew. By the 1940s, matching "suites" of patio furniture were common.
Vintage patio furniture may be wrought iron but wrought aluminum, a material developed in the 1920s is lighter and less likely to rust. Fabricated steel, or "heavy metal," furniture became popular in the latter half of the century as defense industries transitioned to peacetime production. The glass top table gained popularity in the 1950s and wood furniture made a comeback as the children of the 1960s looked for more "natural" materials to put on their patios in the 70s and 80s. Umbrellas, few of which have survived, tended to be large-ribbed, canvas-covered affairs.
Inspect carefully to find any rust or previous repairs when shopping for vintage outdoor furniture. Wood shrinks and glue dries out with time so be prepared to do some refurbishing. Check the canvas--if you need to replace it be sure you know how it's "rigged." Old "redwood" furniture is real redwood and must be oiled or stained regularly.
Maintain genuine antique steel or cast iron furniture carefully to avoid rust. Keep cushions out of the weather when not in use. Shop carefully for old pieces--like any antiques, prices will vary widely.
- Photo Credit ironrenaissance.com, Overstock.com, vintagegliders.com
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