Origin Stories: The History of the Chair

Have you ever been sifting through your furniture storage and thought to yourself, “Now what is the history of the chair?” Oh, just us? It can’t be! If this is your first time thinking about the development of the chair and how it’s impacted our personal lives and our societies, then sit back - in your office chair, gaming chair, rocking chair, or whatever other kind of chair you might be sitting on - and let’s take a look. And if you’re in the unique position of having too many chairs, you might think about putting them in furniture storage with Spacer. But, we’ll get to that later! 

In the meantime, we’re going to be exploring the unique history of the chair, complete with major developments and even cultural impacts. We expect a full sitting ovation by the end.

Where in the world can you find the first chair?

Today, we have pretty advanced chairs. There are recliner chairs with their comfort-driven technology. There are chaise lounges for style and elegance. Massage chairs have a whole world of machinery inside. Chairs in high power offices can even be subliminal symbols of power with the right design features. So, how did we get here?

Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know just how old chairs really are. But considering that humans have been sitting and squatting for the entirety of their existence, it’s likely that no one batted an eye when someone decided to sit on a chair-like structure versus a rock. As humans developed tools, somewhere around 2.6 million years ago, it probably made sense to also start making crude stools and tables to make life easier. However, it’s all conjecture. It’s also entirely possible that our early ancestors were much too busy running away from dangerous animals and trying to find their next meal to be thinking about something as trivial as making a more comfortable seat.

Now, if we’re talking about the first recorded chairs, that’s where we can turn to hard facts. And they are fascinating. The oldest portrayal that we have of a chair in any society is The Marble Seated Harp Player. This stone sculpture dates back to between 2800 and 2700BCE and was found in the Cyclades, a cluster of beautiful islands between mainland Greece and Turkey. And it wasn’t just the Cycladic peoples who were taking a load off in constructed chairs. Ancient Egyptian rulers loved their ornate thrones, and Maya and Aztec leaders were known to relax in intricately carved stone benches (no backs here, though.)

And so the world was split

At this point, the invention of the chair was about to take off in the Western world. Indeed, in the next section, we’ll talk about just how far European, and then later American and Australian, chair designers would take this original four-legged wonder. But what about the societies that chose not to follow the chair frenzy?

In many parts of the world, chairs just didn’t really take off. It’s not that people in these societies didn’t know how to make chairs or hadn’t heard the latest news out of Rome, it’s simply that they didn’t feel the need to transition from their way of life. Communities in Japan, China, South Korea, India and others already had an entire culture surrounding floor sitting, and they weren’t interested in giving it up.

In fact, in South Korea, a traditional floor heating system called Ondol makes sitting in a chair impractical. Why would you distance yourself from the cozy warmth of your heated floor when you get right down to the warmest level of the house? 

And consider how integral connection with the floor is for communities that have practiced yoga and meditation for thousands of years. For these practitioners, sitting on the floor wasn’t just convenient, it was healthier and more beneficial for the spirit-mind-body-earth connection.

Today, much of the world has adopted chairs in some form or another. You can see offices around the floor-sitting world outfitted with office chairs. Many family homes in traditionally floor-seated communities have chairs. And it goes the other way too. More and more people who have roots in chair-making cultures turn to yoga and meditation for the myriad of health benefits. 

If you’re one of the people looking for a more on-your-feet lifestyle, you might look for cheap chair storage in Sydney, Brisbane, or wherever you live!

All of this is to say that sitting has a rich history, and there’s no value judgement to be made about the societies that had chairs and the ones that chose to forego them. 

But if you’re thinking, “I came here to learn about the history of the chair,” don’t stress. Let’s circle back to the invention at hand: the chair.

The history of the chair

Over the next 5,000 or so years after the marble harp player, we see the chair diverge in two different directions. On the one hand, you had the unchanging chair. This is the chair that you probably could find in any mass-production furniture storage warehouse, today. It’s a simple four-legged straight backed chair, similar to the one our historic marble harp player sat in. This chair has lasted through the ages with some very minor upgrades. You can find this model with a wicker seat and back, for instance. It can be made in wood or plastic. You might even sew a cushion on top and on the back to make it slightly more comfortable.

This is the timeless chair that we’ll likely never say goodbye to. But what about the other path that the chair took through history? We’re talking about the major historical developments that eventually would give us the rocking chair, the spinning office chair, the massage chair, the recliner, and more.

Here are a few key points in chair history that uncover the ingenuity of chair design over time:

Curule chair - Ancient Rome to the 18th century

The Roman curule chair was a cushioned stool with scissored legs that was used by powerful government members, which explains its nickname of The Seat of Power. Later on, the French would revisit this design in the 18th century, and it would make a comeback again during the Regency Era in the United Kingdom.

Loveseat - 17th century

The history of the loveseat is intertwined with women’s fashion of the 17th century. Women needed a comfortable place to settle down with their oversized hoop dresses. When they were first designed, loveseats were intended to accommodate just one fashionably dressed woman. But as women’s fashion said goodbye to a few fabric layers, the loveseat became the perfect place to sit with a romantic interest.

This is a great chair to include in any home design scheme, especially if you’re looking to introduce some of the latest top interior design trends.

Windsor Chair -  late 17th century, early 18th century

This was a chair frequently found in the town of Windsor around the beginning of the 18th century. There’s a story that King George II stopped in Windsor to wait out a storm when he spotted the spindled chair. He was impressed, and shared the design with his personal furniture maker, skyrocketing this chair into popularity. It would later be taken across oceans to British colonies in North America and Australia.

(Chair transport side note: the British may have had to store their chairs aboard their ships, but today, you can save money on your furniture and chair transport by hiring a removalist. Check out our article on the Best Moving Companies in Australia to learn more!)

Rocking Chair - 18th century

The natural next step for the Windsor chair was to put it on rockers! When you see traditional Windsor Chairs and Rocking Chairs side-by-side, you automatically notice the resemblance. This style of chair has remained popular over the years, with one additional upgrade: the glider. The gliding chair became the most well-loved rocking chair for nursing mothers during Victorian times, as the smooth forward-to-back swing soothed the little ones. Gliding chairs today are some of the best furniture pieces to include if you’re planning on welcoming a new baby.

And if you’ve ever used a gliding chair to curl up with a good book, you’ll know that these chairs are great for the general public, as well. Many parents choose to hold onto their gliders instead of placing them in furniture storage even after they no longer need it for the baby.

Swivel Chair - 18th century (Thomas Jefferson)

You may know Thomas Jefferson as one of the founders of the United States, but he’s also the father of the Swivel Chair. It’s believed that Jefferson may have even been sitting in his custom chair when he signed the Declaration of Independence. So how did he do it? He used our old friend the Windsor Chair as a starting point, and then placed it on a central leg that splayed out in different directions on the bottom. There were a couple of other complicated design tricks - involving casters for chair height and rope-hung windows - but we’ll keep it simple here. Jefferson’s Swivel Chair didn’t have wheels, but it was quite an improvement at the time.

Rolling Office Chair - 19th century (Charles Darwin)

Another well-known name on the list, we can thank Charles Darwin for the next chair upgrade (Really, when did these men find the time to design chairs anyway?) While you may be thinking that Darwin completed the transition from Jefferson’s Swivel Chair to the modern Office Chair, don’t get ahead of yourself. Instead, Darwin simply added casters - the types of furniture wheels that swivel - to his favourite armchair. That way, he could zoom around his office faster - perhaps helping him to meet his publishing deadlines for his famous books on evolution.

Reclining Chair - 1928

As we move into the 20th century, we’re able to pinpoint big chair changes with more accuracy. And the first ground-breaking shift was in 1928. This is the year that two furniture designers in the United States got a patent for their new reclining chair. This comfortable cushioned chair would become so popular that it allowed the inventors to start a company, La-Z-Boy, that is worth $2.2 billion today.

Massage Chair - 1968

Now that comfort-driven chairs were becoming ridiculously popular with the recliner, one massage therapist saw his chance. David Palmer started to put together his idea for a massaging chair around the 1950s, and it was first released in Japan with much success. Today, it’s reported that about 10% of Japanese households have massage chairs.

Gamer Chair - 1998

The aesthetic of the gamer chair is part professional racing seat, part futuristic spaceship chair. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a more comfortable design. These chairs are built for hours of sustained sitting that even Darwin or Jefferson couldn’t imagine. With the gaming chair, your muscles can be happy for hours on end. We don’t recommend it though, everyone. Please. Stand up every once in a while.

Which brings us to our next big shift in the history of the chair...

Are chairs doomed to live in furniture storage in the future?

After so much progress and advancement, there’s one big threat to the future of the chair: science and the rise of the standing desk.

If there’s one thing that we’re beginning to learn, it’s that sitting for too long isn’t good for us. The experts say that prolonged sitting can increase health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar.

The early chair designers created an object that was convenient and stylish, but they simply didn’t know the dangers. Or, perhaps they didn’t imagine a world in which we would all be such chronic sitters.

Either way, people are trying to sit less and move more. Sorry, Darwin, your rolling chair just might end up in someone’s furniture storage so that everyone in the office can get their regular standing and walking break in. It’s simply better for our health.

Summing up the history of the chair: early designs, furniture storage, and the future

Chairs are one of those marvels of human ingenuity that we shouldn’t overlook. The next time you come across a dusty old chair in furniture storage, take a moment and give it a nod of gratitude. These humble devices have seen us through some of history’s greatest and most troubling moments. From the Roman statesmen chair to the rocking chair to the technological wonder of the massage chair, these sitting instruments have done a lot for us. They’ve given us a place to work, read, enjoy time with family, fall asleep in front of the television.

We owe a lot to chairs. It’s about time we gave them some recognition.

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