Big Day For the Big Chair

Fifty-nine years ago today, Curtis Brothers Furniture Company declared July 25, 1959 Big Chair Day to celebrate the oversized chair that stood as a conspicuous advertisement in front of their showroom at the corner of V Street and Nichols Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue) in southeast Washington, DC. A piece of the original Big Chair is in the Museum’s collection, bearing testimony to one of the Anacostia neighborhood’s most famous landmarks.

Modeled in the Duncan Phyfe style and crafted out of mahogany, the 19 ½ foot, 4,600 pound chair was installed atop a four foot high concrete pedestal with a plaque touting it as the “World’s Largest Chair.” It took skilled laborers from Bassett Furniture Industries 900 hours to construct it in late 1958, and once erected, it became an immediate attraction, drawing visitors from all over the city.

January 16, 2018 – Bolivian dance troupe Tinkus Tiatako dances near the Big Chair sculpture during the annual Martin Luther King Jr Day Parade in historic Anacostia.
Photo by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The Curtis Brothers Furniture Company capitalized on people’s curiosity and celebrated Big Chair Day extravagantly with a carnival-like atmosphere. The company gave away furniture and other prizes, offered pony rides for children and orchids for women, hosted live music by The Buckskins, and offered free photographs of customers with the Big Chair. The crowning moment of Big Chair Day 1959 was the coronation of Maureen Reagan, daughter of future President Ronald Reagan, as Miss World’s Largest Chair.[1]

The Curtis Brothers continued advertising their company as the “Home of the World’s Largest Chair” until it folded in 1975. Just months after hosting Big Chair Day, the company celebrated the Christmas holiday with advertisements calling on Washingtonians to “come and see the World’s Largest Santa sitting on the World’s Largest Chair.”[2] Another marketing gimmick featured a 9×10 foot furnished glass house placed atop the chair. A young woman named Rebecca Kirby, a model who went by the name Lynn Arnold, lived in it for forty-two days. The event was widely advertised by the furniture store and covered by the local press.[3] Local residents who witnessed it talked about it for decades[4]

Chuck Brown performing atop the Big Chair.
Photo by Steven M. Cummings, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Since its construction, the Big Chair has functioned as more than an advertisement for furniture. It has served as a gathering place for local residents, a way-finding marker for those giving directions, and a focal point of Washington, DC’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. Even after the Curtis Brothers Furniture Company closed in 1975, the chair remained at the same street corner, unchanged for decades save for repairs and painting by its caretaker, John Kidwell.  George Curtis III, son of the original furniture store owner, stated in 1986 “There’s no difference between that and the Washington Monument. It’s a landmark.”[5]

As befits a landmark, the Big Chair has shown great longevity. Although the original mahogany frame had to be dismantled in 2005 due to weathering, a new Big Chair was quickly erected in the same location, largely funded by the Curtis Investment Group. It was unveiled on April 25, 2006, in front of 250 invited guests, civic leaders, and politicians, including then-Washington, DC Mayor, Anthony A. Williams. The new Chair is cast proportionately to the original, but made of 2,600 pounds of painted aluminum, which requires less maintenance and lasts infinitely longer than wood. It continues the tradition of anchoring the community and standing as a landmark of Anacostia.

Souvenir block from the original Big Chair. Object no. 2006.0007.0001

As to the remainder of the original Big Chair, the discarded mahogany was cut into souvenir blocks, one of which was eventually donated to our Museum. Though a simple wooden block, it carries the weight of a neighborhood’s history – conveying some of what the Big Chair has meant to Anacostia in the six decades since the Curtis Brothers Furniture Company crafted it to draw in customers.

[1] The Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 24, 1959, sec C, 20. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[2] The Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 21, 1959, sec A, 4. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[3] “Model Gets Her Feet On the Ground Again,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 24, 1960, sec A, 8. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[4] Paul Schwartzman, “The Return of the Big Chair: A Very Big Deal,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/25/AR2006042501682.html (accessed July 17, 2018).

[5] Sandra Fleishman, “It May Not Be the Biggest but It’s Ours,” The Washington Post Magazine, November 23, 1986, 17-18. Proquest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877 – 2001), (accessed July 17, 2018).

A Pin Box in a Haystack

In honor of Presidents’ Day, the Museum’s Registrar highlights the museum’s curious connection to President Wilson.

From George Washington’s first inauguration until the present, Americans have been captivated by the nation’s highest office, and immediately that fascination extended into collecting and preserving objects associated with the Presidency. What started as a personal pursuit in the early 19th century has become the purview of museum and library professionals who collect, preserve, and curate objects related to each Commander in Chief.

As the Smithsonian’s community museum, our interest is in the everyday lives and experiences of ordinary people. As such, we are most interested in the local and personal manifestations of the Presidency. Our collection includes campaign buttons worn by community organizers, and pens that signed legislation into law.

One item in our collection, a small porcelain box with lid, recently caught me by surprise. The box was labeled as an archaeological artifact, part of a group of objects excavated in 1991 prior to the construction of the Anacostia Metro station in Washington D.C. It was stored in a cabinet with other archaeological finds from this dig, including early 20th century glass bottles, broken porcelain, keys, and other small items. At first glance, the attribution made sense because these things were all early 20th century household items. A maker’s mark on the bottom of the box, ‘Victoria Carlsbad, Austria,’ identified it as a fairly common item, readily available for purchase in Washington in the early 1900s.

This porcelain pin box in our collection is said to have been a gift from President Wilson’s wife to a local dressmaker. Object No. 1991.0064.0008a+b.

However, two recent discoveries caused me to question this attribution. Our friends from the D.C. office of Historic Preservation came to do an inventory of all the archaeological finds and field notes, and found no specific mention of this box. While not entirely unusual, this was intriguing. Meanwhile, a team of collections researchers were scouring through hundreds of files related to past exhibitions at the museum. One file referenced a china pin box donated by Mrs. Rosa Ware Jones, which was displayed in the museum’s 1977 exhibition The Anacostia Story, 1608-1930. This reference immediately attracted my attention.

What was so distinctive about this reference? I noticed the word “donated” – implying the box in the exhibit was a gift to the museum – yet I knew of no “china pin box” documented as such in our collection. Exhibit documents recorded the box’s provenance: given by one of President Woodrow Wilson’s wives to a dressmaker named Lillie Green, born in 1882, who lived on Elvans Road SE in the 1910s.

The Green family listed as living on Elvans Road SE in the 1910 Federal Census.
Year: 1910; Census Place: Precinct 11, Washington, District of Columbia; Roll: T624_149; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 0234; FHL microfilm: 1374162

Could this be our box? I looked for additional sources that might corroborate the box’s origin. Inventories conducted by museum staff over the years all list the porcelain box, but offer little additional information. Yet I noticed that an inventory conducted in 1988 described a “china pin box,” using the same words as the Anacostia Story exhibition script and thus confirming that the museum kept the box after the exhibition. Later inventories continue to list this box and no other, even after the 1991 acquisition of the archaeological artifacts – casting further doubt on the archaeological provenance. Finally, a grainy photograph of the exhibition surfaced, showing a small white object on display. The poor quality of the photograph makes it difficult to see, but the item could be our box.

Knowing all of this, and looking again at the box and lid, its attribution to the archaeological dig is suspicious. It is in good condition, with a few scratches but no breaks – unlike virtually all of the material from the dig.

So assuming this is indeed the “china pin box,” does its story hold up?

First, who was Lillie Green? Federal Census records for 1900 and 1910 list her as a dressmaker born in 1882, living at 93 Elvans Road SE with her father, brothers, and sisters. She is listed with the same address and occupation in the 1913, 1916, and 1918 Washington, DC city directories. Better yet, this corresponds to President Woodrow Wilson’s time in office, making its story plausible: that the box was given to Ms. Green by one of President Wilson’s wives.

Lillie and Lula Green appear in the 1913 Washington, D.C. City Directory

Ms. Green died prematurely on August 21, 1917, as recorded the next day in the Washington Evening Star. What happened to her china pin box? It appears to have been passed down in the family, a treasured heirloom with a remarkable story. Federal census records and newspapers – as well as ancestry.com – identify Ms. Rosa Jones as the daughter of Lula Green, Lillie Green’s younger sister. It was Rosa who, six decades later, donated her aunt’s box – along with its exceptional story – to our museum.

We cannot corroborate beyond a doubt that this pretty porcelain pin box was a gift from the President’s wife. However, all the pieces available to us coincide to support Rosa Jones’ statements at the time she donated the box to our museum. Significantly, Mrs. Jones’ gift attests that Washington residents, like others around the country, have long treasured objects with a presidential connection.

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