The balloon back is the archetypical Victorian chair. It has a back that is formed like a balloon-shaped oval held in an inverted U, which narrows towards the seat.
 
They can be very simple or highly decorated and elaborate. Some have heart-shaped balloons, rather than ovals, and many are bowed for comfort.

When the chair began in the 1830s, however, the front legs were straight, although the back ones curved out (below). No stretchers were felt to be necessary. Typical of the Regency style, the turnings of the front legs often incorporated an octagonal section with a bulbous knob at the top.
 Balloon Back Chair
 
The seats would have been upholstered if the chairs were intended for dining or sitting room use, or made of simple cane in Beachwood frames if they were intended for bedrooms. Seats were upholstered in horsehair and might use a few buttons, but the number of buttons increased in numbers as the Victorian style developed.

The term balloon refers to the rounded shoulders of the back with its nipped-in waist and curved crosspiece. In Loudon’s design, the crest or upper rail is characteristic of the first stage due to its dipped effect. In the second stage in the 1840s the balloon shape became more obvious due to the fully rounded crest rail. The increasing importance of curvature is seen on the carved middle rail. The seat shape was also curved in out line and was now heavily buttoned.
 
Balloon Back 05
 
By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 during the third stage, the curves have taken over (below). In 1850, American A.J. Downing described this type in his Architecture of Country Houses: "Modern French furniture… in the style of Louis Quatorze.” He says that “its union of lightness, elegance, and grace renders it especially the favourite of ladies….The style of Louis XIV is known by its abundance of light, ornamental scroll- work, and foliage . . . and greater intricacy of detail.”
 
Balloon Back 07The Victorians waxed enthusiastically, if inaccurately, about the past. In fact Downing meant the style of Louis XV or Rococo (c1730 - c1760), which featured the cabriole leg. The ‘intricacy of detail’ can be seen in the scrolled and naturalistic carvings on the chair (below left, 1851) with the upholstered panel back, a variant on the balloon-back theme. Its curved seat-apron features the rococo shell in the centre.
 
 
 
 
Caning in chairs seats became increasingly more popular (right, 1851).

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
After the 1860´s deep upper rails became a more popular feature. Also, after this time, the balloons themselves were sometimes elaborated.
 
Balloon Back 09Balloon Back 08
 
 
 
 
 
 
Also varying from the usual balloon-back is the chair with the heavy scrolls, an influence of the Empire style (right). Another variant is the chair with the Gothic Revival (left) elements of cusps and foils on the back.

These chairs are just as sought after today by Victorian antique collectors, as they were when Downing said, ‘‘at the present moment, there is a rage for very light, and fancifully carved chairs for drawing- rooms.”