A BRIEF HISTORY OF FURNITURE
By Tim Lambert
When people learned to farm and lived in permanent settlements they began to make furniture. In Europe some of the earliest known furniture comes from a stone age a village at Sara Brae in the Orkney Islands in Scotland about 2,000 BCE. The stone age farmers lived in stone huts with roofs of whalebone and turf. Inside they made stone furniture such as cupboards and beds.
Ancient Egyptian Furniture
Meanwhile in Egypt rich Egyptians lived in large, comfortable houses with many rooms. Walls were painted and the floors had colored tiles. Inside their homes, rich Egyptians had wooden furniture such as beds, chairs, tables, and chests for storage. However, instead of pillows, they used wooden headrests.
Ordinary people lived in simpler homes made of mud. People may have slept on the flat roof when it was hot and they did most of their work outside because of the heat. For the poor furniture was very basic. Ordinary Egyptians sat on brick benches around the walls. They used reed chests or wooden pegs on walls to store things.
Ancient Greek Furniture
In Ancient Greece even in a rich home furniture was basic. The Greeks stored things in wooden chests or hung them from wooden pegs on the walls. A rich home would also have a dresser to display expensive cups. People reclined on couches (which could also act as beds). The couches were simply wooden frames with rope webbing and mats or rugs laid on top.
In Rome rich people enjoyed luxuries such as mosaics and (in colder parts of the empire) panes of glass in windows and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. Wealthy Romans also had wall paintings called murals in their houses.
The wealthy owned very comfortable furniture. It was upholstered and finely carved. People ate while reclining on couches. Oil lamps were used for light. Of course for the poor Roman furniture was very basic and sparse.
Life even for rich Saxons was hard and rough and furniture was very simple. Usually in a Saxon hall there was only one room shared by everybody. The thanes (upper class Saxons) and their followers slept on beds with straw mattresses and pillows but the poorest people slept on the floor.
Very little is known about Saxon furniture but it must have been basic and heavy such as wooden benches and tables although upper-class Saxons liked having tapestries on their walls. There were no panes of glass in windows, even in a Thane's hall.
Furniture in the Middle Ages
In Saxon times a rich man and his entire household lived together in one great hall. In the Middle Ages, the great hall was still the center of a castle but the lord had his own room above it. This room was called the solar. In it, the lord slept in a bed, which was surrounded by curtains, both for privacy and to keep out drafts. The other members of the lord's household, such as his servants, slept on the floor of the great hall. At one or both ends of the great hall, there was a fireplace and chimney. However, in the Middle Ages chimneys were a luxury.
About 1180 for the first time since the Romans rich people began to have panes of glass in the windows.
Medieval furniture was very basic. Even in a rich household chairs were rare. Most people sat on stools or benches. Rich people also had tables and large chests, which doubled up as beds. Rich people's homes were hung with wool tapestries or painted linen. They were not just for decoration. They also helped keep out drafts. In the Middle Ages furniture (for the rich) was usually made of oak.
16th Century Furniture
In the 16th century life became more comfortable for the wealthy. Furniture was more plentiful than in the Middle Ages but it was still basic. In a wealthy home, it was usually made of oak and was heavy and massive. 16th-century furniture was expected to last for generations. You expected to pass it on to your children and even your grandchildren. Comfortable beds became more and more common in the 16th century and increasing numbers of middle-class people slept on feather mattresses rather than straw ones.
In the 16th century chairs were more common than in the Middle Ages but they were still expensive. Even in upper-class homes children and servants sat on stools. The poor had to make do with stools and benches.
During the 16th century glass windows became much more common. However the poor still had to make do with strips of linen soaked in linseed oil.
Chimneys were also a luxury in the 16th century, although they became more common. Poor people simply had a hole in the roof to let out the smoke.
In wealthy Tudor houses the walls of rooms were lined with oak paneling to keep out drafts. People slept in four-poster beds hung with curtains to reduce drafts. In the 16th century, some people had wallpaper but it was very expensive. Other wealthy people hanged tapestries or painted cloth on their walls.
None of the improvements in 16th century furniture applied to the poor. They continued to live in simple huts with one or two rooms (occasionally three). Smoke escaped through a hole in the thatched roof. Floors were of hard earth and furniture was very basic, benches, stools, a table, and wooden chests. They slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or thistledown. The mattresses lay on ropes strung across a wooden frame.
17th Century Furniture
In the late 17th century furniture for the wealthy became more comfortable and much more finely decorated. In the early 17th century furniture was plain and heavy. It was usually made of oak. In the late 17th-century furniture for the rich was often made of walnut or (from the 1680s) mahogany. It was decorated in new ways. One was veneering. (Thin pieces of expensive wood were laid over cheaper wood). Some furniture was also inlaid. Wood was carved out and the hollow was filled in with mother of pearl. At this time lacquering arrived in England. Pieces of furniture were coated with lacquer in bright colors.
Furthermore new types of furniture were introduced in Stuart times. In the mid 17th century chests of drawers became common. Grandfather clocks also became popular. Later in the century, the bookcase was introduced.
Chairs also became far more comfortable. Upholstered (padded and covered) chairs became common in wealthy people's homes. In the 1680s the first real armchairs appeared.
However all the improvements in Stuart furniture did not apply to the poor. Their furniture, such as it was remained very plain and basic.
18th Century Furniture
In the 18th century the wealthy owned comfortable upholstered furniture. They owned beautiful furniture, some of it veneered or inlaid. In the 18th century, much fine furniture was made by Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779). In 1754 he published a catalogue The Gentlemen and Cabinet Makers Director. Another furniture maker was George Hepplewhite (?-1786). In 1788 his widow published a book of his designs The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, which had a big influence on Regency furniture. Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) was a cabinet maker. In 1791-93 he published his designs in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book. The famous clockmaker James Cox (1723-1800) made exquisite clocks for the rich.
In America the first great cabinet makers were Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854), John Goddard (1724-1785) and Samuel McIntire (1757-1811).
As usual furniture for the poor remained basic and sparse.
19th Century Furniture
Well off Victorians lived in very comfortable houses. (Although their servants lived in cramped quarters, often in the attic). For the first time, furniture was mass-produced. That meant it was cheaper but unfortunately this led to a fall in design standards. To us, middle-class Victorian homes would seem overcrowded with furniture, ornaments and knick-knacks. However, only a small minority could afford this comfortable lifestyle.
In the early 19th century the poorest people slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds.
In the early 19th century skilled workers usually lived houses with two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The downstairs front room was kept for the best. The family kept their best furniture and ornaments in this room. They spent most of their time in the downstairs back room, which served as a kitchen and living room. As the 19th century passed more and more working-class people could afford this lifestyle.
20th Century Furniture
At the start of the 20th century working class homes had two rooms downstairs. The front room and the back room. The front room was kept for best and children were not allowed to play there. In the front room the family kept their best furniture and ornaments. The back room was the kitchen and it was where the family spent most of their time. Most families cooked on a coal-fired stove called a range, which also heated the room.
This lifestyle changed in the early 20th century as gas cookers became common. They did not heat the room so people began to spend most of their time in the front room or living room, by the fire. Rising living standards meant it was possible to furnish all rooms properly not just one. During the 20th century, ordinary people's furniture greatly improved in quality and design.
In the 1920s and 1930s a new style of furniture and architecture was introduced. It was called Art Deco and it used geometric shapes instead of the flowing lines of the earlier Art Nouveau. The name Art Deco came from an exhibition held in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs.
In the late 20th century Britain became an affluent society and standards of furniture for ordinary people continued to rise.
Two famous furniture designers of the 20th century are Ron Arad (1951-) and John Makepeace (1939-).
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Last revised 2021