The history found at the Mathias Ham Historic Site is vast and the tales are plentiful. Here is where we hope some of those stories can live on. Shared from the perspective of our historians, enjoy journeying through the life once lived on Lincoln Avenue.
Today, I would love to introduce you to one of my favorite pieces in our collection – the conversation chair. This chair was considered to be the furniture piece during the Victorian era. You would have been able to find this chair in any formal establishment or parlor that was considered part of high society.
This particular chair belonged to the Ryan family who resided in the Ryan House here in Dubuque. It was donated to the Dubuque County Historical Society by James Ryan, the great-grandson of William "Hog" Ryan. This chair passed from "the aunts" Helen and Alice Ryan to Roger Ryan, the donor's father, and finally to the donor. It is currently on display at the Mathias Ham Historic Site in the formal parlor.
There have been many names over the centuries for this piece of furniture – the conversation chair, the chaperone chair, the gossip chair, a tête-à-tête, or the vis-à-vis. The chair was designed to allow the sitters to have a discreet conversation. The most basic chair was designed for two or three individuals. More elaborate styles could support five to eight individuals and could be circular or resemble modern-day sofas. These chairs were built specifically for spreading secrets and plots as well as eavesdropping.
Imagine what it felt like to be chaperoned by your governess or older sibling as you tried to have a romantic conversation with your suitor, or imagine whispering amongst your friends about the latest gossip, or imagine sharing your concerns about the rumors of war in Europe. Can you imagine all the conversations that happened in this chair – the hushed secrets, and the gossip, that happened over the years? I love the memories that this chair represents. It was not simply an object that was elegant or useful, it was a facilitator of moments, and that is why it is one of my favorite pieces, if not the favorite.
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