Some mission children seemed to have a sharper understanding of economics than either their missionary parents or the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM.)
Seventeen-year old James Chamberlain (1835-1911,) who worked in the mission depository for Samuel Castle and Amos Cooke, ridiculed the Board for sending out “a great many rocking chairs sent out all set up, while if they had been packed in boxes ten times the amount of freight would have been saved.” (Schulz)
Over the course of a little over 40-years (1820-1863 – the ‘Missionary Period,’) about 180-men and women in twelve Companies served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the ABCFM in the Hawaiian Islands.
On October 23, 1819, the Pioneer Company of American Protestant missionaries from the northeast US set sail on the Thaddeus for the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawai‘i.)
There were seven American couples sent by the ABCFM to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity in this first company. Among them were Hiram and Sybil Bingham (he was the leader of the mission.)
The early missionaries had not brought much furniture (if any) with them, so boxes in which goods had been packed served as tables and chairs. There were no furniture stores and no lumber yards in Honolulu then.
Bingham, like most Yankees at that time, was handy with tools and with a piece of driftwood from the northwest, a stick of sandalwood given him, some Koa and seal skin for the seat, he managed to make a rocking chair. (Restarick; Forward in Sybil Bingham’s Diary)
“On our arrival at the Sandwich Islands … most of the missionaries, & Mrs B & myself in particular were destitute of chairs, as the Islands were so universally.”
“There were none in the market. Though tools and timber were scarce, & I had never made a chair, & enough else demanded my time & labor I undertook and constructed for Mrs B a rocking chair”. (Bingham letter to H Hill, March 12, 1850)
“To-day I have been presented with what I may call an elegant chair, the labor of the same kind hands. A rocking-chair too. You smile. But with all my fondness for one, how do you think I have done without, with all my hard work?”
“A box or trunk has been our only seat. My husband, I believe, was never a chair-maker before, but happy for me and the Mission family, that he is every thing.”
“I think no workman would have made a seat more firm and comfortable, while the sandal-wood and young seal skin, with neat workmanship, render it elegant.”
“Our friend, Mr Green, is now looking at it – rates it at twelve dollars, comparing it with one for which he gave ten. I suspect you would not be purchasers if I should put my price upon it.” (Sybil Bingham, June 22, 1820)
On Sundays the rocker was taken to the old grass Kawaiahaʻo church as a seat for the pastor’s wife. (Restarick; Forward in Sybil Bingham’s Diary)
The rocking chair had its admirers, including Queen Kaʻahumanu.
“On seeing and trying Mrs B’s chair, the first, probably, ever made at those islands, Ka‘ahumanu, then in her haughty heathen state, wished me to make her one in every respect like it, for she said it exactly fit her.”
“Feeling no ambition to become chair maker to her Majesty, & having little or no time to devote to such purposes except as matters of necessity, I gave her little or no encouragement.”
“For a period of nine or ten years, she occasionally named the subject to me, but my time was demanded by what I thought more important work for the nation though I felt desirous to oblige her.” (Bingham letter to H Hill, March 12, 1850)
Later, “I thought I might as healthful exercise & recreation, perform a good service for our cause by making the queen a rocking chair, in accordance with her continued wishes. But the difficulty which I felt originally, the want of tools & timber &c, I felt here in the wilderness.” (The Binghams were stationed in Waimea on the Island of Hawa‘ii at the time.)
“I easily constructed a rude lathe, the iron work of which consisted of a broken auger which I employed a native to cut in two with a small file, & with the parts inserted in head blocks, made the center points, on which I turned the parts of the chair which required turning, & that without a wheel.”
“They were made to revolve by a thong some yards in length from the hide of a wild bullock (taken in that region,) presented me by the friendly Mauae”.
“The dimensions, fashion and balance of the chair were made to correspond well with the one made for Mrs B in 1820. The hind posts are Koaia a Cloth Mallet wood which was hard to work. The ivory ferrules on the front posts are from the wild herds of those mountains.”
“The cloth was furnished by the queen; the brass nails and varnish were sent me by Mr Goodrich from Hilo about 100 miles distant. The side pieces arms and front posts are Koa a valuable wood, commonly selected for canoes, formerly, now used for various other purposes, as well as canoes.”
“When I closed my missionary sojourn at Waimea at the end of the year 1830, I traversed the wilderness with my family about 60 miles, having the chair carried with us, to the head of Kealakekua Bay, where I presented it to our Christian Queen near the spot where Cook fell 50 years before.”
“She highly prized it, and had it conveyed to her residence on O‘ahu, where she often used it with pleasure in her subsequent life.” (Bingham letter to H Hill, March 12, 1850)
The Ka‘ahumanu rocking chair, modeled after Sybil’s, is one of the earliest known pieces of koa furniture in Hawai‘i. At Kaahumanu’s death, the heirs returned it to Bingham and he gave it to the mission. (A reproduction of Ka‘ahumanu’s rocking chair is on display at the Hawaiian Mission Houses.)
Sybil’s rocking chair, “which a thousand times rested her weary frame & gave her much comfort … proved to be remarkably easy as to its form & balance, light, strong and durable having now been in use about 30 years”. (Bingham letter to H Hill, March 12, 1850)
In 1840, the Binghams left Honolulu for the United States, Sybil’s rocking chair was taken with them, and when they reached Boston Sybil refused to part with it for a fine piece of upholstered furniture.
Sybil’s wish was that when the last summons came she might be found in that chair … and her wish was granted when she died in her rocking chair on February 27, 1848 in New Haven Connecticut. (Restarick; Forward in Sybil Bingham’s Diary)