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The rocking chair as displayed in the With Liberty and Justice exhibit in Henry Ford Museum. THF.77652


April 2012

Curators Explore Museum Icons: Fourth in a Series

The Lincoln Rocker

As curators, we devote much of our time and energy to studying objects—who made them and why, when and where they were made, and how they represent certain ideas, events, and people. When we decided to choose and write about 12 iconic objects from our collection for this year’s Pic of the Month feature, we had to consider what makes an object truly iconic. In the end, we came up with three criteria that we felt needed to be present in every one of our choices: national significance, uniqueness to our institution, and resonance to museum visitors.

Using these three criteria, this month we explore what is iconic about the rocking chair Abraham Lincoln used the night of his assassination on April 14, 1865, as he enjoyed a night at Ford’s Theatre—just days after the Civil War ended.



MORE:  The Lincoln Rocker


Abraham Lincoln as President

At the time of his assassination in April 1865, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was considered by a majority of northerners as a competent president. Yet, this was not always the case. Lincoln was elected president at a critical time when the nation was at a breaking point over issues of states’ rights and slavery. As a direct result of his election, eleven states left the Union before his inauguration in 1861, touching off the Civil War.

During much of his first term of office, Lincoln was viewed by many as lacking the skills necessary for the role of President of the United States. He was lampooned as unsophisticated and criticized for tolerating ineffective generals. Lincoln, however, was a skilled politician—wise, tenacious, and perceptive—and learned from his mistakes.

Abraham Lincoln was committed to preserving the Union. He believed that the United States was more than an ordinary nation—it was the testing ground for a unique form of democracy. Many, including Lincoln himself, described one of his greatest achievements as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which shifted the goal of the war from a fight to preserve the Union to one of freeing the enslaved. With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln’s vision of an indivisible Union—and a more perfect one—was fulfilled.

Abraham Lincoln as American Icon

The event that transformed Lincoln into an American icon, equal to Washington and Jefferson, was his assassination on April 14, 1865. The nation was stunned—after winning a four-year struggle to preserve the Union, the leader of that struggle was gone. As a natural reaction, Americans poured out their grief. For days, people filed past Lincoln’s body as it lay in state in the White House and in the Capitol Rotunda. Then, it was borne by a funeral train to Springfield, Illinois, making stops in major cities along the way to allow grief-stricken Americans to pay their respects. Upon reaching Springfield, the president was laid to rest on May 4, 1865.

As the president who saw the nation through four grueling years of the Civil War, Lincoln would have been regarded as an important president and his place in history assured. However, his tragic death completed his transformation into an American icon. He became “Old Abe” who “held the Union together and freed the slaves.”

The Chair

It took longer for the chair to emerge as a symbol of Lincoln’s greatness and personal sacrifice. The comfortable parlor rocker had been placed in the theater box by the manager of Ford’s Theatre for Lincoln's use that evening. After his assassination, enterprising photographers sold pictures of the chair to a public eager for images in an age before photojournalism. The chair was used as evidence in the trial of the conspirators. Then it languished in storage for decades.

  Matthew Brady produced and sold this photograph of the rocking chair within days of the assassination. A pioneering photographer, Brady took images of Civil War battlefields within hours of a battle and quickly made them available to the public. THF.73375
  This 1880s stereograph image of the rocking chair was published as part of a series on the Civil War. Stereographs, or double images, could be looked at through a special viewer that made the image appear three-dimensional. THF.49235

In the late 1920s the chair was sold at auction, having been deemed the property of and returned to the widow of the Ford’s Theatre manager. Henry Ford bought it. At the time, Ford was collecting objects for his museum and historical village. He liked objects associated with great Americans, especially self-made men who came from humble backgrounds. Henry Ford clearly understood the importance of this object—he had the chair’s arrival and unpacking filmed. Click here to see a video of the unpacking.

The rocking chair during unpacking at the Logan County Courthouse, 1929. THF.9134

For decades, visitors to The Henry Ford have sought out the Lincoln rocker. They are drawn to it not simply because of its role at the center of a tragedy, but as symbol of a beloved president. There is a unique sense of awe and reverence that the chair provides. As such, this rocking chair personifies the sacrifice made by Abraham Lincoln in fashioning a more perfect Union.

-- Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts


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