The History of Chairs and How to Sit in Them

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By Bill Primavera

Bill Primavera
Bill Primavera

One of my first apartments was in a four-story walk-up in Brooklyn Heights owned by a cranky landlady named Diana who owned an antiques shop on the first floor. In her heyday, she had been a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, or so she claimed, and every Saturday when I would visit her shop to seek out furniture and accessories for my apartment, I would sit with her, sometimes for hours, as she regaled me with tales of the Great White Way.

But I had to be sure to sit in the chair properly, especially if it were a straight-backed side chair.

“Sit all the way back,” Diana would order, “not on the front edge!”

It seems that placing my weight on the front would damage the chair. She always gave me incredible deals on whatever I bought, and I was always sure to sit properly in her chairs.

I bought many of my antique chairs from her, most of which I still have. And, speaking of chairs, fixated as I am on the history of things, I wondered how long people have been sitting on them. When sharing that apple, Adam and Eve must have sat on a rock or fallen log, but that would assume that trees fell to the ground in paradise.

Or if you’re more evolution-minded, you might consider that our ancestor, the ape, had no rump at all for comfort and probably just squatted. But once man stood upright and developed an ample derriere, there surely was a need once in a while to take a load off his feet by sitting.

My earliest memory of a reference to sitting in a chair was when I was five years old. I giggled uncontrollably over a comedic line from either Milton Berle or an old Marx brothers movie where a Margaret Dumont-type character was told to sit in order to take a load off the floor.

I also remember my mother once telling my older siblings and me that we must always sit in a chair when eating so that the food would not travel down and give us fat ankles! My brother, always a bigger wiseacre than I, responded, “But if we sit in a chair when we eat, won’t we get fat rear ends?”

While it isn’t certain when the first person crafted a seat with a back and sat in it, archeological evidence at Neolithic sites indicates bench-like seating areas. The earliest physical evidence we have of chairs is from the Egyptian tombs from about 2800 BC, but such comforts were normally reserved to denote higher elevation in society.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance in Europe that the chair came into more general use. Since that time, the style of chairs has reflected the times in which they were crafted as much as fashion for clothing. But it was the industrial revolution when chairs could be machine-made that placed them in every household.

Almost from the beginning, chairs of plain utilitarian design sat alongside those of great style and beauty. Chair design came into its own in our culture when nurtured by our original settlers who brought style along with function from their native lands.

Today we have works of art realized in chair design, created with both ergonomic and functional considerations. But then, chairs were always functional. The original intention for wing-backed chairs, for instance, was to shield its occupants from drafts in the room, but the design has survived to this day.

Until recently I have been a traditionalist. Living in antique homes and collecting antique furnishings, I have focused on chairs ranging from early Queen Ann and later Hepplewhite to a prized barrel back chair from the 1930s that I am told was Mayor LaGuardia’s favorite in his City Hall office. If I ever want to run for political office, my plan will be to have myself photographed in that chair for good luck.

But since I have moved to an ultra-modern apartment, I have purchased a dining room set with very modern, commodious chairs and a sofa that I can get lost in. These modern additions for sitting make my antique chairs stand out in a special way. But whether old or new, I can never sit in a chair on the front edge, but push myself all the way back, just as Diana demanded.

Funny, but when I went from bachelor to a married man, she stopped giving me good deals.

Bill Primavera, while a writer and publicist, is also a realtor known as The Home Guru, associated with William Raveis Real Estate. To have him market your home for sale or to help you find the home of your dreams, contact him at or call him directly at 914-522-2076.


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