Character-Building With Uncomfortable Chairs

uncomfortable chairs
Have a seat. A selection of "typewriter chairs."

Are you reading this at a standing desk or an ergonomic kneeling chair? Or do you think the panic over unhealthy sitting habits is overblown and that using gym equipment as desk furniture is kind of tacky?

Sitting was a subject of much debate as far back as the nineteenth century, pitting health and technology against propriety and aesthetics, as Jennifer Pynt and Joy Higgs explain. Between 1850 and 1890, Pynt and Higgs write, craftsmen invented all sorts of mechanized seating designed to support the natural curves of the spine. The U.S. government granted patents to a whole range of chairs with clever mechanisms for adjusting the seats and backrests. One lounge chair claimed it could be set to 70 different positions and promised to relieve back pain caused by too much sitting. The names of a number of patented seats—the Sewing Machine Chair, the Writer’s Chair, the Typewriter’s Chair—reflected the nineteenth-century customer’s need to remain seated to do a particular task for long stretches of time.

For Victorians, “[a]n erect posture reflected a high moral attitude.”

And yet, this high-tech furniture found only a limited market. For much of the century, reclined seating was understood to be appropriate only for people who were ill or elderly. Victorian tastemakers in both the U.S. and Europe encouraged the public to furnish their homes with both sophistication and comfort in mind. In practice, though, the parlor furniture they promoted was anything but comfortable—overstuffed, hard, and lacking support.

“The highly developed sense of Victorian morality underpinned the advice of the taste brokers,”Pynt and Higgs write. “An erect posture reflected a high moral attitude.”

This attitude was particularly prevalent among the class-conscious English, who generally rejected even the popular American rocking chair.

In 1851, the international Great Exhibition showcased modern American patent furniture, which some commentators celebrated for its “spirit of comfort and fitness for purpose.” For the most part, though, observers were more taken by gorgeously decorative French designs. By the end of the century, broad swaths of the public in Europe and America were sitting on neo-classical furniture.

The less affluent, who were influenced in fashions by the wealthy, felt their good taste was assured if they emulated the established canons of good taste … The Americans, who had embraced patent furniture far more readily than the Europeans, felt a need to emulate the taste of wealthy Europeans.

The fall of patent furniture clearly showed that, when it comes to people’s behavior, there are forces more powerful than either comfort or health.

JSTOR Citations

Nineteenth-Century Patent Seating: Too Comfortable to Be Moral?

By: Jennifer Pynt and Joy Higgs

Journal of Design History, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 2008), pp. 277-288

Oxford University Press on behalf of Design History Society

Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance writer in Nashua, New Hampshire. Her writing has appeared in publications including Salon, Aeon Magazine and the Good Men Project. Contact her on Twitter @liviagershon.

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