No thanks, I'd rather stand
August 28, 2020 6:02 AM   Subscribe

Why was old-timey furniture so uncomfortable?*

Like I have a crummy sofa that is plenty long and has lots of cushioning which should have been easily technically possible to create hundreds of years ago. But all the old furniture I see is weirdly sized and shaped and appears to be inadequately cushioned. Why?

*my only personal experience with this is my grandmother's antiques, and less personally like seeing old pointy looking museum pieces, so if old furniture was actually comfortable I'd be glad to hear about it.
posted by Literaryhero to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Not a historian here, but I suspect materials have a lot to do with it. Before there were latex and poly foams (with good squish and bounceback) the available padding materials (like wool, horsehair, down, feathers, and so on) were and still are higher maintenance. Down pillows don't stay lofty without fluffing up and shaking. Fibers get compacted. It's easy to drag a featherbed outside and wash/dry/fluff it, but not so much for a nailed-on piece of upholstery. You'd have to err on the side of compacted and firm from the start or you'd get a lot of deflated furniture later.
posted by fountainofdoubt at 6:20 AM on August 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

Either the upholstery is worn out, or it has been redone poorly with subpar materials.
posted by nickggully at 6:20 AM on August 28, 2020

On average, we're bigger and taller than our ancestors, so the measurements of these older pieces don't fit us very well.
posted by zadcat at 6:23 AM on August 28, 2020 [16 favorites]

Best answer: there is a bias built into the furniture that survives that you are familiar with - stuff that is solid wood will survive a couple decades or more properly cared for, but stuff that is upholstered will not. all natural fiber and upholstery fillings available prior to the invention of synthetics will have rotted, you just haven't ever seen one that was new enough to still be comfortable.
posted by slow graffiti at 6:23 AM on August 28, 2020 [35 favorites]

Not a historian either, but I'd wonder about the history of expectations of comfort, clothing, and posture. A woman wearing a corset isn't going to just plunk down and throw herself back in a chair. (And corsets weren't eliminated all that long ago - when I was in high school, my grandmother asked me if I could use some of her old corsets - one of the regrets of my life is that I said no.) I remember reading somewhere that people were generally expected to sit up straight and not lean back on furniture.
I also once saw an antique chair with a very deep seat and was told that it was made for a woman wearing a bustle.
posted by FencingGal at 6:49 AM on August 28, 2020 [15 favorites]

I have several antique settees and I much prefer the comfort of them to the couches I've tried. I think a lot of it comes down to personal preference - I love the look of some modern couches and chairs but they're weird sizes or too deep or too soft.

My great dane is also always sneaking on to them while I'm out - and she is very picky.
posted by Marinara at 6:56 AM on August 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

The squishiness of upholstery tells you little about how comfortable it is to sit on for a long period. Modern foam will squish down to nothing while horsehair has hardly any give at all (but is still surprisingly comfortable).
In other words, if you were to measure the thickness when someone is actually sitting on it, there isn't much difference between old and new furniture.
posted by Lanark at 6:57 AM on August 28, 2020

Could it be a case of survivor bias? The real comfortable stuff got used a lot and wore out. The uncomfortable stuff didn't get sat upon and survived.
posted by bondcliff at 7:14 AM on August 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Here's an interesting article on the history of chair design that might help.
posted by goatdog at 7:19 AM on August 28, 2020

There's survivor bias but also the flip side: furniture was much more expensive, and people were consciously designing and buying furniture to last a few lifetimes, not the 5-10 years you'd get out of a low-end cushy couch today. In a hundred years you might see more furniture surviving from 1900 than 2000.

Also Nth-ing both personal preference and cultural norms shifting; many people prefer firm support over being lost in amorphous squish.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:20 AM on August 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

all the old furniture I see is weirdly sized and shaped and appears to be inadequately cushioned

All the new sofas I see seem weirdly sized and shaped (way too big for my admittedly smaller-than-average body) and excessively cushioned. You don't need huge thick cushions to be comfortable. Think about office chairs, where people sit for hours and really need to be comfortable. The sofas I've sat on that were most comfortable to me have tended to be old ones. They tend to be lower to the ground, less deep and less thickly cushioned, all things that make them more comfortable for a smaller person. Maybe the person above who commented that we're bigger and taller than our ancestors is on the right track.
posted by Redstart at 7:30 AM on August 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

It's not what I typically think of when I think of old furniture but it looks like Adirondack chairs were invented over 100 years ago and they're fairly comfortable.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:34 AM on August 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What struck me first was the making and delivery of furniture 100+ years ago. My guess is that furniture was made locally or regionally. Getting a big ass couch across the country was not as easy as calling La-Z-Boy and them having a local fleet of white box trucks to deliver. A sturdy wood piece would stand the rigors of delivery better than a Bob's discount furniture piece.

Mass production and the means to transport changed the way many items were made.
posted by AugustWest at 7:58 AM on August 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think part of it is that there's just a lot more furniture now. A lot of contemporary furniture is quite uncomfortable, too.

Another part is that old furniture, for the most part, hasn't been selected for comfort, but rather for craftsmanship. The pieces that are sold in antique stores and valued by collectors are really more like art than furniture; you're appreciating how well the furniture maker's technique rather than the actual product. Until recently, there wasn't much interest in everyday life in the distant past, so pieces that were comfortable but utilitarian were discarded. The contemporary parallel is design media: If you've ever read a design blog or looked through a glossy design magazine, you generally don't see recliners or Pottery Barn overstuffed couches. You see pretty austere-looking stuff that's "artistic" but that you wouldn't want to sit on. That's the stuff that'll still be around 150 years from now, and people in the 22nd century will be wondering why we all sat on Eames side chairs instead of bean bags. We didn't, of course, but the Eames side chair is in a museum, so it's more significant than a regular old bean bag.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:19 AM on August 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The article goatdog linked is very helpful on this topic-- argues that lavishly padded modern furniture is really bad for your body and ultimately more uncomfortable than firmer materials, for instance.

Part of the problem may also be approaching older furniture with modern expectations about furniture use. People today wear stretchy, form-fitting clothing (that shows every bump in our figures and gives us body self-loathing), sprawl out limply over the furniture, have terrible core body strength from our sedentary lifetyle, and expect to sit/ lie perfectly still on our couches for hours at a time while staring at screens. The comfiness of a couch for a 2020 person in 2020 use-cases is going to be very different from its utility for someone 75 years ago who's sitting upright, in more-structured clothing, during a 30-minute social call or interval of reading/handwork between other types of physical activity.
posted by Bardolph at 8:21 AM on August 28, 2020 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Partly because we don't just sit on our furniture; we interact with it. So designers don't just have to build for one position, but many. And to get that right requires a high level of knowledge of kinesiology and materials that took time to evolve.

Plus, it's just not an easy problem. Balancing the forces of gravity on the pelvis, buttocks, and thighs without causing slumping, constriction of the lungs or neck tension is a tall order. When combined with material and aesthetic restrictions as people above have mentioned, it's no wonder it took so long to find comfy chairs.

"Sitting Up: A brief history of chairs"
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:24 AM on August 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

Another factor is that there were separate cushions! If you're looking at museum pieces, you might find a chair in the decorative arts section and a cushion in the fiber arts display, when in reality they were used together.
posted by yarntheory at 8:33 AM on August 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

In the tradition of having a morning room or parlor in which to entertain guests, I suspect furniture for those room was chosen for looks and apparent expensiveness.

Old rocking chairs are still comfortable.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:10 AM on August 28, 2020

I will never fail to provide dog tax of the good and perfect girl named Luna.
posted by Marinara at 9:31 AM on August 28, 2020 [10 favorites]

Depending on how far back you mean by "antique", furniture was also built to accommodate the fashion of the time. As you can see in this set of his and hers chairs, the woman's chair does not have arm rests, to make room for her hoop skirt or bustles.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:35 AM on August 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

when I went to the Lincoln house in Springfield il I was shocked to learn that there was no furniture built to accommodate his height.
posted by brujita at 9:38 AM on August 28, 2020

Hi, part time antique dealer here!

Our ancestors tended to be shorter and skinnier, so a lot of stuff is made for different proportions. What also happens is casters get lost, or the bottom of the legs get worn and damaged, and the furniture ends up lower than intended. Another factor is that furniture was expensive, even the "cheap" stuff, so you keep the chair even if it turns out to be uncomfortable (whereas nowadays it goes in the skip) so they're still kicking around.

Soft, cushion-y upholstery would have been very, very expensive; hand tied springs, horse hair, then wool and feathers for the padding. This can be very, very soft and comfy but does need fluffing maintenance and also tends to wear out when used a lot. Furniture that gets reupholstered may switch to foam cushions etc unless it's a real museum piece or the owner cares about historical padding. The cheaper, less comfy, more durable stuff tends to wear better and you're more likely to see it in its "antique" state rather than freshly reupholstered. I agree that just horsehair is barely padding, it's hard and not comfortable, but it does tend to hold up for a hundred years; it's the webbing that gives.

Modern cushioning is all built around foam, which just... Wasn't available. Not even anything similar. Padding upholstery was actually an expensive and tricky process.

For what it's worth I've sat in some very comfy antique sofas and armchairs. But only when it has the expensive springs and feather cushioning, in good condition, or else has been reupholstered.
posted by stillnocturnal at 9:39 AM on August 28, 2020 [20 favorites]

Witold Rybczynski writes about this in Home: A Short History of an Idea. I think he relates the absence of comfortable places to sit to concepts of privacy, though it's been a long time since I've read this really wonderful book.
posted by Francolin at 10:20 AM on August 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Comfort is a modern invention.
posted by mani at 11:47 AM on August 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Rich people for the last 200 years have had daybeds and divans and duchesse chairs, all of which are lounging-comfortable even by today’s standards. With, as yarntheory says, many separate cushions!
posted by clew at 8:56 PM on August 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

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