In Research of a Chair

I HAD always been a great admirer of research. Men impressed me who had strings of capital letters after their names, and their findings, always expressed copiously and in tongue-troublesome words, seemed to bear authority’s own seal. I still believe in research, but I remember also the matter of my folding chairs.

We have a small library of some ten thousand volumes, the largest our town can afford. This library is in my charge, and in most respects I am well content with it. In most respects, I have said. The children’s room of the library is not satisfactory. During the Story Hour you will find all the children sitting on the floor. Six years ago I set out to buy two dozen folding chairs. It was in June 1925. The Board had given me full authority, leaving even the price to my discretion, and making only one stipulation. This was that I should consult with Dr. John Littlejohn, a research specialist and a friend of one of the Board members, and buy nothing without his thorough approval.

I had never met Dr. John Littlejohn until the day I went to him full of enthusiasm about my chairs. He received me most cordially in a study lined with books, census reports, statistical analyses. Portions of the wall not beetling with bookshelves were covered by charts with mercuric red lines going places. He heard with a superior, smiling patience my brief story of the need for chairs in the children’s room, the Board’s favorable action, and my desire to go down to the furniture store that very afternoon, if he could be induced to accompany me, and order them.

It was at this point that Dr. John Littlejohn broke in. Folding chairs, he assured me, were more of a problem than that. Did I realize that not only the present comfort but much of the future health and well-being of our citizens depended upon obtaining the right kind of folding chairs? How could I suggest buying the chairs until the whole subject had been thoroughly examined?

First, there was the matter of the age and height of the children. Would I please tell him the exact ages, by the year and month, of the children who had attended the Story Hour sessions for the last year? I told him that I had no such exact record, but the ages ranged generally between five and eight, and of course we should have to see that the chairs were low enough so that the children might have their feet comfortably on the floor. Dr. Littlejohn was really very polite about my lack of definite statistics, but he pointed out that, aside from the desirability of getting the chairs for exactly the right present age, a still more serious question was involved. Were children who came to Story Hour sessions to-day of the same age as those who came five years ago, or was there a general tendency for younger children, or older children, to attend? We were not buying folding chairs for a day, and it would be necessary to know present tendencies in Story Hour practice in order to plan for future needs.

I had to admit that I had no definite figures on the subject, but simply the general impression that the age remained about the same. Dr. John Littlejohn pointed out that this was a dangerous ignorance. For example, the growth of kindergartens was tending to bring younger and younger children up to appreciational standards suitable for the Story Hour, and before I knew it I might come to be needing cribs more than folding chairs. On the other hand, there was the increased use of the story as a teaching medium for older scholars and the whole adult education movement. Perhaps grandfathers, too, might need to be provided for. Since I lacked adequate figures, he would have to compile them from other sources. I might return in a month.

When I came back early in July, Dr. Littlejohn had compiled his age statistics, but on further reflection did not consider these adequate. How were they to be correlated exactly with height, which was the important matter with regard to folding chairs? Nothing was clearer from anthropological studies than that the height of the human race had varied considerably in the course of human development and climatic change. Ten years from now, would the height of a sixyear-old child be greater or less than at present? More specifically, would a change, supposing there were any, be evenly distributed over the whole body, or might children’s legs (which chiefly the folding chairs had to fit) change independently or perhaps even in opposition to the torso or head?

The next time I visited Dr. Littlejohn he was absorbed in the question of color. I had taken the usual yellowish-brown for granted, but he pointed out the enormous psychological influence of color. Now what attitude did we wish to induce — cheerfulness, repose, warmth, coolness, or passion? (I decided against passion.) There was the possibility, too, of alternating two different colors of chairs. One had to remember also that the primary colors appeal to the child mind, while to the adult the more complex mixtures and pastels are more attractive. This in turn raised the question of whether we should cater to the child mind as it is, or endeavor to educate it toward adulthood by painting our chairs green, or purple, or ashes of roses.

I think it was early the next year when the question of the wood to be used came up. It would be desirable to have cost figures on the various woods, to compare them for appearance and for wearing quality, with due allowance for the altitude, moisture, and general temperature of our particular library room. The amount of paint the various woods would absorb was also a factor, as was the season when they were cut.

I began to be disturbed at the growing amount of research required before my children could sit down. At the next meeting of the Board I presented again the problem of the folding chairs with developments of the last two years. I respectfully begged that something might be done speedily — say within the next year or so. They inquired further into Dr. Littlejohn’s investigations in our behalf, and agreed among themselves that he was doing a fine and thoroughgoing piece of research. They remained perfectly willing that I should order the chairs, but, since we ought to be sure we had the best possible chairs for the purpose, it was necessary to await Dr. Littlejohn’s findings.

I think it was in 1928 that we finally got around to the design of the chairs. This proved to be a problem of enormous importance. There was the artistic side. Should they have Duncan Phyfe legs? What period in furniture would be most appropriate for folding chairs for a Library Story Hour? Perhaps we should investigate the average period and appropriate setting for the stories we expected to tell. More practically, there was the question of width. It was essential that as many chairs as possible be got into the room without undue crowding. How thin or how fat is the average child? Is our civilized diet tending to make children steadily more anaemic, so that the width might be decreased? What was the relative percentage of boys and girls? (Girls were wider at the hips, boys at the shoulders.)

We had almost decided on a design when Dr. Littlejohn began delving into the subject of posture. Because the back of a folding chair is continued into the forward legs, these backs are usually slant. From considerations of health and the future erectness of the race, ought not the children to sit upright? Moreover, should not the back of the chair undulate to fit the curves of the normal spinal column? What was the normal spinal column at the required ages?

Again I reported to the Board, in some desperation, that I did not have the folding chairs. I suggested that, although of course we should not think of buying permanent chairs until the conclusion of Dr. John Littlejohn’s investigations, we might purchase cheap ones for temporary use. Possibly they would be worn out by the time Dr. Littlejohn had completed his studies. My suggestion was not taken in the helpful spirit in which it was offered, and the children continued to sit on the floor.

I forget many of the other questions which came up after that time. There was the matter of whether the braces at the bottom of the chairs should be left square or rounded; whether the screws should be countersunk to avoid tearing clothes, or left open to teach the cardinal virtue of carefulness; whether — but after all I may as well omit several years of discussions and jump at once to the one which brought about our final disagreement.

Early in 1931, Dr. Littlejohn began proposing extensive tests for durability and strength in connection wdth all materials entering into the chairs. ‘For,’said he, ‘there is no use putting a thirty-year screw in a ten-year chair, or a seat that will outlast a leg. We must be careful to have everything wear out at precisely the same time.’

‘Like the one-hoss shay,’ I commented.

‘Shay? . . . Shay? I never heard of shays,’ said the doctor. Then, waxing enthusiastic: ‘But that is our ideal! We must bend all our efforts toward getting materials of the same strength and durability. For efficiency, every part of these folding chairs must collapse at once! ’

‘However perfect such a collapse is as an ideal,’ I said, asserting myself for the first time, ‘ for the person sitting in the chair it would be disconcerting.’

That sentence brought my downfall. I had not known before how thoroughly upsetting the introduction of a practical consideration may be to your real research enthusiast. I emerged from that session a humbled person.

Meanwhile, during Story Hour, the children still sit on the floor after the old Japanese custom, of which I do not approve. Twelve national surveys are being undertaken, and two of international scope. Perhaps the world will be the better for all of this, but I wish I had my two dozen folding chairs.