The Evolution of a Chair: A Very (VERY) Brief History.
This week we’re taking it back...waaay back.
A question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately is, since not all people sit in chairs, why do we? Different cultures assume completely different postures and never adapted to the chair. So why did the West adapt the chair? What is the history behind it?
It seems to me that the reason why we sit the way we do may never be answered, but that doesn’t mean historians don’t know a lot about the history of the chair in the West.
One thing is certain: our chair habit was created, modified and nurtured, reformed and democratized in response to social- not genetic, anatomical or physiological forces.
The purposes of designed objects changed over time, just as the use of words do. Etymology always offers insight into contemporary usage, just as history helps us understand why things are the way they are today. The word “Chair” comes from the Greek language, a contraction of cathedra -- a compound of kata meaning “down” and hedra meaning “to sit”. A chair is a piece of furniture with a back and usually four legs on which one person sits.
Great- we understand the meaning of the word. Check.
But the thing is- chairs didn’t originate in classical Greece! They are way, way older!
Chair sitting was already a widespread practice in ancient Egypt. We’re talking 2850 BC! The oldest physical chair was found in the tomb of King Tut who died in 1352 BC. There are paintings and hieroglyphics on temples that show chairs were used by many people not just royalty.
Like many things it’s likely the Greek’s adopted the sitting culture from the Egyptians, closely followed behind the Romans.
As social conditions changed, chairs changed. By the 1600’s decoration had become part of the design of ordinary chairs. Throughout this century furniture became more stylish. There was a big change in England during the Restoration period when carving and inlaid decoration began to appear on chairs.
The term ‘arm chair” was first adopted during the seventeenth century to distinguish chairs with arms from back stools. It was during this period that chairs became more common as life became more sociable. Padded armchairs with high backs and decorative knobs at the tops of the uprights began to appear in rich homes.
The eighteenth century is widely viewed as an apex in chair history because of the new attention paid to comfort and artistic unity. Whether or not chairs succeeded in uniting the two, they continued to play a part in social differentiation. Not surprisingly, the American social history of the chair roughly recapitulates that of Europe- status over comfort, baby!
By the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution made a great deal of difference to how much time American and Europeans spent sitting. Industrial work was more likely to be seated than agricultural work. Historians really downplayed the significance of people sitting for longer periods of time, but some have at least been alert to the contract between the conservatism of chair design and the rapidity of social change during the nineteenth century.
It’s obvious during this time that style rather than technology dominated furniture design… annnnnd it hasn’t really changed since. We’ve become more dependent on chairs as work became more and more office based and sedentary, and our lives became more social. Chairs have become second nature to us and therefore invisible to us.
It’s time we open our eyes and see them. It’s time we see the impact they make on our lives, our health, our well being.
It’s time we sit more mindfully.