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How a Rattan Chair From Bilibid Became the World's Seat of Power

The rattan peacock chair is a powerful icon used throughout the decades.
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In 1914, the El Paso Herald, a newspaper in the United States, published a photo of a woman with her child sitting in a rattan peacock chair.

"A Jail Bird in a Peacock Chair," Bilibid Prison (1914)

Photo by El Paso Herald (1914).

The identity of the woman in the photo is unknown. The photo was captioned “Jail Bird In A Peacock Chair” with an accompanying write-up:

“Birds of the same feather flock together,” runneth ye hoary adage. In the above picture, however, a Philippine jailbird, in the striped feathers that clothe a convict, is seen enthroned in a majestic peacock chair. The chair takes its name from its beautiful back. It is made of bamboo, a light, plant wood which the artful Filipinos use with great dexterity in the manufacture of furniture. The woman shown in the picture, with her baby that was born in the prison, is serving a life term for the murder of her husband.”

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At the time the photo was published, the Bilibid Prison in Manila was more than just a prison. It was a factory of sorts. Inmates at the prison would manufacture rattan and bamboo furniture, including the peacock chair seen in the photo.

The inmates were renowned for their craftsmanship that American tourists in the Philippines bought their wares and shipped them to America, where the design became popular. It soon became the literal seat of the people in power. Photographed were presidents Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover, and Calvin Coolidge sitting on the rattan throne.

Woodrow Wilson

 

Harry Truman

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Herbert Hoover

Calvin Coolidge

John F. Kennedy

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Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill

Celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe were also photographed in the chair.

 

Elizabeth Taylor

Marilyn Monroe

Katharine Hepburn

 

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By the ’60s, the peacock rattan chair became a cultural icon when it was used for a poster of the Black Panther Party featuring its co-founder Huey Newton.

Black Panther Party's Poster Featuring Huey Newton

Photo by Black Panther Party.

The posters were widely distributed among black African American households, while the chair became a symbol of the revolution, and was displayed at rallies to represent the party’s leaders when they couldn’t attend.

The peacock chair took on another role when it became a staple for album covers in the ’70s. Dolly Parton and Cher were among the dozens of artists who sat on a peacock throne for their album jackets.

Dolly Parton

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Cher

 

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It was also in the same decade when the chairs became known as Miss Universe thrones. The chairs were used well into the ’90s, particularly in 1994 when the Philippines hosted the pageant. The beauty queens stayed at the Manila Hotel and used peacock chairs for their photoshoots. The chairs seen at the hotel’s ante-lobby are the same ones used by the beauty queens.

In 2017, Drake released the album “More Life. Its cover features his father sitting in the iconic peacock chair.  Beyonce also used the chair as a symbol of power and her heritage.

Beyonce 

 

It is easy to understand why the peacock chair became such a powerful icon throughout the decades. It is simple yet elegant and has the ability to elevate anyone’s appearance just by sitting in it. 

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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