On August 7 2023, a meme about purported folding chair inventor Nathaniel Alexander circulated virally across social media platforms:
Text on the meme appeared with images of what appeared to be a patent, a black-and-white photograph of a man (presumably Nathaniel Alexander), and a folding chair; it said:
He invented the folding chair.
Broadly, the meme was part of a much larger and more widely discussed incident loosely known as “the Alabama riverfront brawl,” or the “Alabama riverboat brawl.”
The Alabama Riverfront Brawl
As of August 7 2023, the “Alabama riverfront brawl” was prominent in the news cycle, generating articles about specific elements of the fracas.
Online meme encyclopedia KnowYourMeme.com created an entry summarizing the Alabama riverfront brawl. It provided a concise summary of the incident and its social media popularity:
Montgomery Riverboat Fight refers to an incident at Montgomery’s Riverfront Park in Alabama in which a large group of people was captured fighting after a pontoon boat was blocking dock space needed to park a riverboat. The brawl occurred in early August 2023 and several videos of the events went viral on social media, inspiring various memes related to people watching the fight from their phones. A folding chair was also used during the brawl, which became a prominent meme subject online related to the event.
The incident took place on August 5 2023, a Saturday. The Guardian recapped the basic elements and mentioned the presence of a folding chair:
A dramatic brawl on the Montgomery, Alabama, riverfront pitted people standing up for a Black riverboat worker against a group of white people who began beating him for telling them to move their illegally parked pontoon.
The conflict escalated when a group of about six Black men from the riverboat confronted the white party. Cheered on by bystanders, they beat three white men and two women, at least one of whom could be seen first striking others by running up and throwing her body into them from behind.
At least two of the women jumped or were pushed into the river. A third was beaten over the head with a folding chair, video showed.
One thing that keeps hitting me like a chair about the brawl on the Riverfront in Montgomery is there were no gunshots. And look at the difference in the reactions. Yes, there’s anger and some people went to jail after taking proper tail whippins, but here we are making jokes and memes.
Some folks will have some explaining to do to their Black friends, but everyone will live to see another day. There’s an opportunity for redemption and forgiveness and reconciliation. An opportunity we probably wouldn’t have had someone, or several someones, pulled out firearms.
I wish this could be a lesson that sticks. What a different, and better, state and country it would be.
KnowYourMeme.com’s entry included a section labeled “Folding Chair,” which said:
A folding chair was also used during the brawl, and as such, it became a trending topic and meme inspiration on social media. For instance, on August 6th, 2023, Twitter user @MixCultureFlow posted a still image of the moment the folding chair is used in the fight and a history detail explaining the object was invented by the black man Nathaniel Alexander[.]
A separate “folding chair” tweet was embedded as part of the section:
Nathaniel Alexander’s Photograph
In particular, the image below about Nathaniel Alexander circulated widely with respect to Alabama riverfront brawl memes:
In the center, a black and white image of a Black man appeared. Reverse image search indicated the image depicted a Black inventor named Lewis Howard Latimer (not Nathaniel Alexander), and a biography on the Edison Awards website summarized Latimer’s achievements and accomplishments:
Lewis Howard Latimer (1848–1928) was a Black inventor and patent draftsman who improved Thomas Edison’s original invention by patenting the use of a carbon filament which made possible the widespread use of electric light in public and at home.
Like Thomas Edison, Lewis Latimer had little formal childhood schooling. His parents had escaped slavery prior to the Civil War and were not financially stable. Latimer began working to support his family as a young boy. Largely self-taught, he eventually became a chief draftsman, patent expert, and inventor through his analytical mind and exceptional powers of observation.
Despite a lack of science education, Latimer pursued technology and innovation to help advance the opportunities of Black Americans in the post-Civil War era. His inventions all related to improving the quality of life, a core intention of Edison, as well. After securing a position at a patent law firm, Latimer taught himself drafting and mechanical drawing by observing the work of the draftsmen.
During the scientific and engineering boom of the late 1800’s, Latimer worked directly with Alexander Graham Bell to draft the patent for Bell’s design of the telephone prior to being hired by the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City in 1884. As Edison marketed his light bulb design and defended it from ongoing lawsuits, Latimer’s expertise in both drafting and patents made him an indispensable partner to Edison. In 1890, Latimer published a book entitled Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.
A man of many talents, Latimer was also a painter, a musician and an author of poetry.
However, it didn’t seem as though the meme’s creator had just randomly selected Latimer for the Nathaniel Alexander/folding chair meme. A February 3 2011 Flickr.com post featured the picture and miscaptioned it as follows:
Nathaniel Alexander was the first to patent the folding chair. His invention was designed to be used in schools, churches and at large social gatherings.
Nathaniel Alexander, Folding Chairs, and the ‘Inventor’ Meme
More broadly, the meme’s assertion — that Nathaniel Alexander invented the folding chair in 1911 — was separate from the question of who was shown in the photograph.
Folding chairs were largely represented in search results in terms of shopping, not their origins or inventor. One of the top results was a Wikipedia entry (“Folding chair.”)
That entry included a “History” section, indicating that chairs that folded had been used by humans for thousands of years. Alexander’s name was not mentioned in any part of the page, despite more recent information regarding patent holders:
Folding chairs or stools were used as seating in the Mediterranean area in the 15th-13th century BC. The chairs were also used as grave goods in the richest graves. A folding chair of ebony and ivory with gold fittings was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt.
Folding chairs were already used in the Nordic Bronze Age, Ancient Egypt, Minoan Greece and Ancient Rome. The frame was mostly made of wood, and seldom made of metal. The wood was inlaid with artistic carvings, gilded, and decorated with ivory. In Northern Europe, the remains of more than 18 folding chairs are known dating back to the Nordic Bronze Age such as the Daensen folding chair and the Guldhøj chair, found near Vamdrup, Denmark.
The folding chair became especially widespread during the Middle Ages. It was treasured as a liturgical furniture piece. Since the 15th and 16th centuries the folding chair has mostly had arm and head rests. Of course, newer chairs which are often found at functions and events are also called folding chairs. They are portable and easy to use.
In the United States, an early patent for a folding chair was by Jordan Cram in 1855. In 1947, Fredric Arnold created the first aluminum folding chair with fabric strapping for the seat and back. By 1957, the Fredric Arnold Company of Brooklyn, New York, was manufacturing more than 14,000 chairs per day. Today, the folding chair is mostly made of hard plastic or metal or wood. Folding chairs can be divided into different categories.
At the top of the entry, the “Talk” section for “Folding chair” appeared. On August 7 2023, only one contribution (from the same day) appeared in it:
Nathaniel Alexander’s patent in 1911 predates the one mentioned in the article by decades and perhaps should be mentioned in the article?
Whereas the link references as the source for the listed patents appears to be a dead link. 2600:4040:7A91:7500:0:0:0:1000 (talk) 15:09, 7 August 2023 (UTC)
That user linked to Google Patents, entry US997108A. A small illustration matched the first image in the meme, indicating Alexander had indeed patented the device in question in 1911.
At the bottom of the page, Alexander’s application was excerpted. Alexander identified the patent application as for a “folding chair”:
Be it known that I, NATHANIEL ALEXANDER, a citizen of the United States of America, residing at Lynchburg, in the county of Campbell and State of Virginia, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Chairs, of which the following is a specification, reference being had therein to the accompanying drawing.
This invention relates to chairs particularly designed for churches, Sunday schools, auditoriums and places where considerable singing is done, the chairs being advantageously used by choirs and singing societies.
The purpose of my invention is to furnish a chair with a book rest or support that will be immediately placed in position when the seat of the chair is lowered, the rest or support otherwise being compactly held upon the back of the chair whereby it will not interfere with persons passing back and forth between the chairs.
Another purpose of the invention is to provide a folding chair with a book holder and rest that are simple in construction, durable, neat in appearance and inexpensive to manufacture.
On July 7, 1911 Nathaniel Alexander of Lynchburg, Virginia patented a folding chair. According to his patent, Nathaniel Alexander designed his chair to be used in schools, churches, and other auditoriums. His design included a book rest that was usable for the person sitting in the seat behind and was ideal for church or choir use. Below you can view the patent drawing of Nathaniel Alexander’s folding chair.
A February 2020 blog post by a party supply rental company (“Who Invented The Folding Chair? The History Of Party Chairs”) mentioned Nathaniel Alexander. It suggested that Alexander’s invention included a book rest, which appeared to be reflected in his patent:
Fast forward to 1855, and an American inventor in Boston named John Cram patented what was arguably the first folding chair to resemble the modern ones we use today. In Cram’s patent filing, he mentions an earlier patent by one J. Middleton, though we couldn’t find any patent predating 1855 from an inventor by that name, or any patent related to folding chairs.
In the wake of Cram’s patent, countless other folding chair patents have been filed, with a wide variety of alterations and features, most of which contributed big or small to our modern party chairs.
John Dann patented a camping folding chair in 1862. Nathaniel Alexander patented a folding chair in 1911 featuring a book rest. And Tobias Miller patented a model with pivoting legs in 1918, prompting his great nephew to write what is in my opinion the single greatest article about folding chairs ever penned (and yes, I realize that’s a weird distinction to give another writer).
Philip E.G. Harrison patented the first truly modern folding chair in 1931. His chair featured a metal frame with a fabric seat and back; we’d recognize his invention today as a party chair. But his design was fairly complex, making mass production difficult. Fredric Arnold filed a patent in 1956 for a simple, easily-mass produced folding chair more in line with the ones we know today.
It was at the very least accurate to say that Nathaniel Alexander had invented a folding chair in 1911, but it was also accurate to say folding chairs dated back thousands of years.
Video of an August 5 2023 incident known as the Alabama riverboat brawl (or Alabama riverfront brawl) spread across platforms, with the use of folding chairs during the incident being a primary sub-meme of the larger brawl meme. A specific viral meme identified Nathaniel Alexander as the folding chair’s inventor — but the meme included a photograph of Lewis Howard Latimer, a different black inventor.
Nathaniel Alexander patented a folding chair in 1911 and Alexander’s patent remained accessible through Google Patents. The meme was not wholly inaccurate, and therefore we have rated the claim Decontextualized.