The Easy Chair

Jan 1, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The City of Rock Island might well have become the chair capitol of the world, had it not been for an actress named Lilian Lewis.

A Swiss Canadian, C. C. Knell, moved to Rock Island in 1876 and opened a furniture store on the ground floor of the new three-story Harper's Opera House on second avenue and sixteenth street.

In 1883, Knell changed the world of chairs forever. At that time, America was a land of uncomfortable, straight backed, hard-seated kitchen and dining room chairs. Women had the rocking chair—invented by Benjamin Franklin—for their babies and their knitting, but a man coming home from twelve hours of hard work could hardly relax in his home's Puritan chairs.

C. C. Knell changed all that by inventing Knell's Reclining Chair, a well-padded, adjustable-backed chair with a footrest in which a man could really lie back and stretch out.

Knell sold the world's first "easy chair" for ten dollars. Orders poured in from around the world, Australia, England—so many orders each day that Knell could not keep up with the demand. He planned a great factory in Rock Island to make chairs.

Then, alas, C. C. Knell fell in love with Lillian Lewis, an actress performing at the Harper Opera House. He became her manager and left on a tour with her. When they returned to Rock Island, Knell moved from his house at 1411 4th avenue into an apartment in the Opera House. He died there on July 4th, 1887, of typhoid fever contracted, said the doctor's report, from "breathing the poisonous air left by theater audiences." He was forty-one.

Another Rock Islander bought the rights to Knell's chair, but the patent rights expired, and the idea for an easy chair went elsewhere. A few years later, the famous English printer, painter, and poet, William Morris, designed a chair much like Knell's, which proved to be so popular that all subsequent chairs took his name—the Morris Chair, while the City of Rock Island went on to develop other reputations.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.