Saturday, September 11, 2010

Getting Comfortable: A Brief History of Sitting at Clermont

I will never forget it. The first and only time I have ever had the chance to sit in a magnificent, federal-era sofa. You see, in spite of being constantly surrounded by all this fabulous old furniture and material culture, we museum folk don't get to use it. It's an irony of the job.

But just one time I was helping to clean a very old home for a fund raiser. The house was filled with family antiques that were regularly used, and I just couldn't help myself. When left to dust a suit of red velvet-upholstered furniture from Chancellor Livingston's era, I took a deep breath, looked around, and sank gently onto it.

And then my heart sank. This may have been the most uncomfortable sofa I have ever sat on. The back was stiff. The arms were too high, and the stiff velvet prickled at the backs of my legs. I was severely dissapointed.

Why was it so uncomfortable? Amongst the 18th and 19th century American elite, sitting itself was regulated by some very specific rules of body control and decorum. Although it was important to look comfortable, actually getting comfortable--or at least what I consider comfortable--was a mark of "bad breeding."

Whilst in polite company slouching, tilting, crossing your legs, and even leaning too much against the back of your chair were all marks of the ill bred. For instance, check out Margaret Beekman Livingston here. Even at 69, her ramrod-straight posture appears to make no contact with the back of her chair. Despite looking at ease, her posture (probably aided by a good strong pair of stays or 18th century corset) still conveys dignity and a commanding pressence.

Painted in 1791, the Angus Nickelson family at right are no "slouches" either. In spite of owning a lovely set of uphostered furniture, not a single woman deigns to lean back in it. Even the daughter farthest to the right exhibits her excellent 18th century posture: back straight, with shoulders yanked backwards as far as possible. Only the patriarch in the family has enough clout to be allowed the slightest lean to left. By appearing to be the most at-ease, he takes some comtrol of the scene in this painting.

Furniture makers during these centuries were thus freed from the necessity of making their goods comfortable, and instead they could focus on the elements of style that made it fashionable. For many wealthy 18th century American families, a matched set of side chairs (like this one at Clermont) made up the seating arrangements in the drawing room or parlor. Resembling modern dining chairs, they were often stored with the rest of the furniture lined up along the wall and pulled into the center of the room when their use was required. Arranged in a neat half-circle, friends visited, chatted, and took tea together in chairs like this.

I don't know if you've ever had a reason to sit in a dining chair while trying to socialize, but it's not the sort of posture most of us are used to. But this straight-backed posture was just right for your visiting friends in 1775. In some households, this practice of using side chairs as the primary seating arrangement considered well into the nineteenth century, as you can see from this family at right (pictured around 1800).

But thank goodness, some measure of comfort was starting to make an appearance. Often linked with the old or infirm, a fully-upholstered easy chair was a mark of wealth and status. The high back and deep wings could help to catch the heat of the fire when pulled up tot he glowing hearth. Nevertheless, the comfortable aspects of this chair relegated it to informal spaces (bedrooms and studies) for many years.

But other upholstered furnishings were starting to show up in American parlors (the paragons of style and formality) as the 19th century progressed. The furniture of the Empire era was still stiff and the uphostery scratchy--horsehair was a favorite--but who careed since most of the time you were still expected to have good posture, and without shorts, your legs shouldn't have been coming into contact with the upholstery anyway.

The sofa above is from Clermont's drawing room, and it is a great example of this period. Its curved arms were suggestive of relaxation and leaning, something now occassionally showing in portraiture as women draped themselves artfully about, immitating Greek and Roman luxury like the Jaques-Louis David portrait at left.

So the drawing room at Clermont was beginning to look more comfortable, though, as I learned from my experiement, it was only feeling marginally better. Plus, the dignified Livingstons may have bought the furniture and relaxed their posture a bit (the ladies' stays had also gotten a lot less stiff), but as you can see from Angelica Livingston's portrait at right, they still weren't lounging about in the public eye.

But then we get deeper into the nineteenth century. Lounging begins to have its place--still not in the drawing room, mind you. But time for leaning, tilting, and reclining was on the horizon. The richly-carved Swedish chair, now found in Clermont's informal library, is just such an innovation. This late-ninteenth century chair bears big, squishy cushions on the seat and back (none of those stiff springs or stuffing of its drawing room counterparts), and the back reclines so far it almost looks like beach chair! Finally, an appropriate place to lean back and relax. And don't miss the footstool down there either; you won't have seen that in our earlier discussions.

Still other nineteenth century furniture gradually moved away from the stiff, straight backs of its predecessors. Belter style furniture curved gracefully around the body, seeming to mold itself around the body, and it was considered formal enough to make its appearance in more formal spaces, like Clermont's drawing room (at right, circa 1945).

It was the twentieth century that really relaxed however. While Alice Livingston kept Clermont's drawing room stiff and formal in the 1920s and 30s, she began permitting more comfortable arrangements in less formal spaces. At some point she purchased a Morris chair and squirreled it away in her bedroom. This early recliner was a bastion of comfort for many Americans.

More notably, this large sofa, located in the library, is the ultimate in early twentieth century comfort. Not only is the whole thing heavily cushioned, with rolled arms that will support relaxing bodies, but an arrangement of throw pillows was strewn across it.

Now we've just gotten a little comfort crazy, right? Gradually showing up on furniture (in the appropriate places of course--not your formal parlor) throughout the nineteenth century, throw pillows allow you to adjust a piece of furniture to support your every individual curve and bump. What an idea! Be gone stiff 18th century side chair! I'm getting comfortable.
As you can see, comfort was of gradually increasing importance in the construction of furniture construction over the past 300 years. As little innovations came in they worked their way into formal spaces as the American public relaxed the bodily restraints and postures that they had once used to distinguish themselves from the unrefined rabble.

While the easy chair of the 18th century was once bannished to secretive locations where leaning was acceptable, the cushioned sofa of the twentieth century eventually found its way into our living rooms, offering comfort not just to the secretive relaxer, but even to our guests.

For a great discussion of the historical importance of sitting and comfort, check out Katherine Grier's book "Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-Class Identity, 1850-1930."

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