What is a Barrel Chair?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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The barrel chair is a style of chair that is distinguished by a smaller frame that is constructed to resemble the shape of an old-fashioned nail barrel. One side of the round construction is cut out to allow seating and back padding that forms a comfortable nook that is surrounded with a higher back and arms. Generally, barrel chairs are designed as swivel chairs and tend to be more appropriate for casual décor.

Chronicling the development of the barrel chair can be somewhat difficult. The exact origin of the barrel chair has been debated for a number of years. Varying sources place the origin of the chair in such diverse locations as the United Kingdom, the Virgin Islands, Italy, and France. What is fairly well established is that the design was in use around the world by the middle to late 19th century, and enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the United States during the middle of the 20th century.


There are examples of antique barrel chairs that are constructed with authentic barrels. Using nail barrels rescued from hardware stores or pickle barrels from country style general stores, the body of the barrel is mounted on a swiveling device. A third section is cut out of the body to allow for the insertion of padding and upholstery for the seat and back areas. Some forms of the antique barrel chair use leather upholstery paired with a deep stain to bring out the natural beauty of the wooden body. Others are detailed with gilding to highlight some of the natural formations found in the wood grain.

Over time, the barrel chair evolved into the ideal seating for a casual wood dining set. Scaled down slightly and matched with hardwood tables, the chairs proved to be especially popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In addition to the use of wood, colorful plastic versions also began to appear during that era. Today, the traditional barrel chair remains a favorite for people who wish to go with a more natural and rustic feel to the dining space in their homes.


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