The privilege of a chair
You are probably sitting in a chair as you read this – an armchair or perhaps a dining chair, hopefully with some kind of upholstery to make it comfortable. Can you imagine not having chairs in your home? Unless you are royalty, it is unlikely that your pre-1600s ancestors would have sat on chairs. Most would have perched their bottoms on stools or benches, or even the floor. That is because a chair was a status symbol, reserved for the most important person in the room.
By Tudor times, a woodworking technique had developed, whereby narrower and lighter lengths of wood could be ‘jointed’ instead of nailed. This gave a strong but light frame and allowed for the development of more graceful styles of chair, including the X-frame, a revival of an ancient design.
These frames, often with velvet coverings or highly carved, were most definitely still reserved for those of the highest status.
Chairs have existed for centuries. The Ancients added backs and arms to simple stools to make sitting more comfortable for the occupant. This resulted in the shape of a chair as we know it. These chairs were often delicate, sometimes cleverly engineered to fold up, but still only for those of the highest status. This tradition continued in the Europe of the Middle Ages, when chairs were chunky and cumbersome, made from planks or carved from a single block of wood to create an imposing piece of furniture.
There were few chairs, as they were heavy and expensive to make. The chair could also be on a dais, or raised platform, in order to increase its impact and authority.
Although we would recognise the chairs in a Tudor house, most of us would not have been allowed to sit on them. This is the origin of the use of ‘Chair’, first recorded in 1644 (Britannica) to mean the person in charge of a meeting – ie, the one sitting on the chair, with everyone else on benches.
After the English Civil War, egalitarian ideas meant that chairs were used by more than just the master of the house, and so more of them were produced. These Cromwellian chairs were covered in leather or carpet. They were known as ‘backstools’ because they had no arms. The wealthy continued to enjoy sumptuous seats, but more modest families could now enjoy simple, sometimes homemade, chairs. This continued until Victorian times, when industrialisation meant that chairs could be mass produced in factories, such as Thonet’s ‘Chair 14’ in 1859, bringing the latest styles to the masses.
Over the centuries, the chair has undergone a symbolic transformation. Once the preserve of authority, it is now an essential comfort. It has also developed physically with improvements to its construction and the addition of upholstery. Nowadays, the chair is the enemy of our health and fitness. We are even encouraged to work at standing desks to keep those muscles engaged. Perhaps sitting on a chair will become a privilege once more– not for those in charge, but for those who have completed their steps for the day.