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The Rise of the Recliner as a Male Social Space

The gendering of spaces changed the way people could relax in their homes.

Scientific American

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Chairs were truly a privilege well up until the nineteenth century. Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images

The hallmark of the American TV dad is his recliner. Sheriff Andy Taylor, Jack Arnold, Carl Winslow, Jim Walsh, Frank Constanza, and Red Forman were perhaps made more “dad-like” thanks to a recliner. It’s dad’s chair and the established tropes would have you believe that they are connected physically: the chair molds itself to his body and he knows immediately if someone else sits in it. And as life sometimes imitates art, the recliner is a seat of power in our living rooms. It’s an island of comfort in an otherwise shared seating context. How did the recliner specifically earn this honor? After all, there is nothing inherently masculine—or special—about it, and yet, it’s touted as a mark of prestige to own one.

We have chairs in all manner of spaces now and we take seating options for granted, but chairs were truly a privilege well up until the nineteenth century—and recliners were even more so. Owning a chair signified power and position in the seventeenth-century. And while it was understood that reclining (i.e., allowing the body to rest in an inclined position) was a desirable position for comfort, this type of relaxation and comfort was mainly an experience for the wealthier classes or held for those who were ill or disabled (which included pregnant women).

By and large, the earliest owners of reclining chairs were royals. For example, one of the first references to reclining furniture is a “stool” that belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. It included a large pillow covered with gold fabric and silk tassels that was meant to support the Queen’s back. It could be adjusted using a spring mechanism to permit multiple positions. The Spanish king Philip II used a special reclining-back easy chair in the 1590s. A ratchet arrangement made it adjustable to a number of positions and made it the predecessor to many other types of recliners. Charles I of England also owned a “sleeping chair” with an adjustable back.

But the seventeenth-century was also a turning point for chairs. Prior to this period, chairs were for sitting on. You perched on chairs. You did not sit in them and let them encapsulate you because the idea of bodily comfort was not widely developed and chairs were not designed to facilitate your comfort. By the latter part of the seventeenth-century, chairs with a variety of reclining functions were coming to market, highlighting a growing interest in comfort—and the time and money to spend on this pursuit. For example, during the English Restoration caned-seat chairs were mass produced for middle class consumption. These chairs had a strap that was fitted to the back and threaded through the arms to be secured to the footrest. A sitter could push or press one or the other and the chair back and footrest would operate together to create the desired reclining angle.

With these types of developments in the seventeenth-century, the process of developing seating and ways of sitting also began to unfold. As people gained more wealth and sedentary lifestyles became more common, the demand for furniture also grew. With this demand came a shift in designing for comfort. The chair moved from and experience of formal dignity and uprightness toward more relaxed positions. People were pursuing comfort for the sake of comfort, and not just because they were ill or had an impairment that necessitated relaxation. In the subsequent centuries, chairs would be designed for fashion, comfort, health, or some combination of those three for personal use, but they would no longer be available as freely to men and woman.

Couches, chaise lounges, and daybeds were widely used by men and women alike in the eighteenth-century until the specialization of rooms began to occur. For example, the dining room became popular following the British royal family’s use of a designated eating space during this time. In the same way smoking parlors also arose as a specific room in the house that men could retire to after dinner to smoke cigars and relax. The furniture in these rooms were designed to make this a comfortable experience: velvet curtains were hung to absorb the smoke from cigars and the ceilings were recommended to be constructed from enamel so that the smoke residue could be wiped off easily. Of course if money permitted, the addition of a pool table or billiard room, a toilet, and maybe a gun or trophy room, a men’s-only suite could easily be created that was viewed as the equivalent of a boudoir. In these spaces, men could have conversations that were not suitable for women and socialize freely.

With this definition of space comes a social division between men and women. Social codes attached to behavior and conduct had permitted men to behave freely at their discretion in public spaces. Women had been given authority within the home. However, with the creation of male-only social (i.e., public) spaces in the home, women were further pushed inward. This matched the assignment of women as guardians and executors of morals and manners, which were administered and taught behind the scenes.

What this means for recliners and relaxation is that, for women at least, it became more of a private activity. The chaise lounger or recliner was moved into her boudoir or morning parlor where she had access to it, while he would have access to those chairs in the more public rooms of the home.

This idea of access spread readily enough. By the nineteenth-century, it was widely accepted that hard-working husbands were entitled to come home and sit unbothered in a chair that was all theirs and put their feet up. This idea flourished with a number of innovations that led to the mass production of recliners. Paine Furniture Company in Chicago produced a variety of chairs with different degrees of ornamentation. From a single base design of a chair with bars on its seat back where cushions would provide support, you could get a basic Mission-like design to something with clawed feet. A recliner was within reach of almost every budget and taste.

When the TV dad arrived on the scene in the 1950s, the recliner had already been established as not only a male accessory, but one that both Hal Wilkerson and Philip Banks could own. There is an element of success in owning a recliner. (The absence of a recliner in Homer Simpson’s living room is actually really telling about the family’s finances.) This visual representation of ownership created a social code around the recliner that has been maintained in media and in living rooms ever since. This social story is so strong that it persists even as our homes become less specialized.

Krystal D’Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook.

Referenced: Edwards, Clive (1999). Reclining Chairs Surveyed: Health, Comfort, and Fashion in Evolving Markets. Studies in Decorative Arts 6(1): 32-67.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post originally appeared on Scientific American and was published September 6, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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