For years, Robert Gibby sat in Windsor chairs as he showed them to his corporate clients. The owner of an office furniture business in New York City, Gibby said that he sold hundreds of Windsor chairs.
Little did he know then that one day he would be riding atop a very special Windsor-style chair that is part of a new 18th-century reproduction riding chair.
Debuted this week, the riding chair was made possible in large part due to Gibby’s generous donation. Gibby is a member of The Life Guard of Historic Mount Vernon, a prestigious volunteer leadership group that takes its name from the small circle of soldiers who protected General Washington throughout the Revolutionary War. He has given to the Estate in the past, contributing a collection of historical prints as well as spearheading an effort to incorporate George Washington into history books throughout the county.
AN ORIGINAL RIDING chair has been on display at Mount Vernon, but could never be ridden. That original piece will now be put in storage and this new riding chair will be on display and used for special events.
“It’s significant because it’s the most complete example of an 18th-century riding vehicle,” said Emily Coleman, assistant director of marketing for Mount Vernon. “It was a very popular means of transportation and this is the best example of one.”
Linda Ayres, assoc. director of Mount Vernon for collections, said, “It’s a wonderful collection for all of us. Mr. Gibby said that it touched his heart, because not only did he sell hundreds of Windsor chairs, but his great-grandfather, William Gibby, patented the wagon wheel in 1845.”
“Today is a wonderful day,” said Carol Borchert Cadou, curator. “It’s wonderful to see this riding chair. We were absolutely thrilled when our colleagues at Williamsburg asked to research and reproduce this product.”
AFTER RECEIVING THE GENEROUS DONATION from Robert Gibby, Mount Vernon commissioned the Historic Trades Department of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to manufacture the new riding chair last year. In all, 12 tradesmen from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation worked with Mount Vernon staff to research and craft the one-person vehicle. It features a Windsor-style chair bolted to the platform of a two-wheeled carriage. It was a common means of transportation around a plantation, in town or on extended trips. These riding chairs were popular in the 18th century but fell out of favor in the 1800s, making surviving examples extremely unusual.
"Mount Vernon is very fortunate to have the best example of what was once a ubiquitous object in the 1700s," Cadou said. "George Washington owned a riding chair as a young man—quite possibly his first vehicle—so it is important that we show visitors how he and his contemporaries traveled. Having a reproduction of an 18th-century riding chair will allow us to demonstrate this."
Mount Vernon's riding chair did not belong to Washington but rather to his neighbor Thomas, the sixth Lord Fairfax. It was a higher-end model dating to the last quarter of the 18th century. The original riding chair was analyzed and found to feature vibrant paint colors, which were reproduced by painting the vehicle primarily in deep green and purplish gray with yellow and scarlet highlights.
A demonstration of the riding chair was given by a costumed reenactor, and then Gibby himself took a ride around the mansion circle.