The humble sofa is a ubiquitous piece of furniture. Chances are the average person has sat or reclined on a sofa at some point in his/her life, and it’s difficult to imagine a home without one. Presumably at some point in the distant past a protohuman looked around, despondent at an empty living room and wondered why he had nothing for his guests to sit on, but surely that moment is lost to ancient history, right?
Where did the sofa come from? Who was the genius who first installed a soft upholstered bench in his home for the relaxation of his family and guests? We can start with the word “sofa.” It comes to us via Turkish from the Arabic word “suffa.”
These early sofa ancestors were primarily used by the wealthy as a tool of leisure, and were even adopted by the Romans who preferred something more akin to what we now know as a chaise. Poorer Romans would use stone benches, while wealthier Romans might have Cushions or blankets to cover their sofas.
In both cultures, this furniture was intended to create sitting areas in the home for resting or for entertaining. The Sofa’s cousin, “couch,” gets its name from Middle English via Old French, where the word “couche” is used to mean “to lie down.” At a glance, this difference would seem to imply that sofa is intended to refer to a piece of furniture for guests to sit while visiting, while the couch was originally intended to be furniture that pulled double duty as a place to sit and a place to nap.
Sofas were a luxury.
The average person couldn’t afford the space to keep a sofa, let alone the time to lie around a spare room in the house relaxing. However, while the Cushioned sofa was for those of means, the ever humble bench was not unheard of. The bench would find a place in the common areas of houses in the Middle Ages and could be used for resting, sitting, eating, or conducting business within the home.
Most proto-sofas had to wear multiple hats as well. These benches could be placed around a hearth or table and used for a variety of functions. Comfort became less of a priority with the growing power of the Catholic Church, as the body was seen as a driving force of sin, and thus to be comfortable was to give in to bodily temptation.
Like church pews, sofas of this era were designed by intention to keep you awake, alert, and pure of thought. It wasn’t until the height of the Renaissance that sofas returned to their slightly more extravagant roots. No longer rigidly confined to the teachings of the Church, furniture makers were more open to experimenting with comfort and aesthetic.
Furniture makers in England and France began experimenting with this exciting new field of craft, producing early prototypes recognizable to the modern viewer as “sofas” in the late 1600s. The new field of upholstery was coming into fashion, with craftsmen making pillows and cushions stuffed with materials such as horse hair, moss, feathers, and hay.
While still considered luxuries, the goal of the sofa transitioned from function to form. Sofa producers began using ornate materials and expensive and intricate designs to turn the sofa into a true work of art. The image of the sofa was one of the uber rich.
Ladies in pale makeup and expensive frilly dresses could be seen in paintings draping themselves delicately along their expensive new furniture, free from social conventions that demand they sit up properly and keep good posture. However, the sofa’s day as the relaxing furniture for the everyman and the center of the modern home didn’t really dawn until the Industrial Revolution.
As manufacturing power began to grow across the developing world, access to manufactured goods became less and less expensive. Cheaper steel meant that expensive cushioning materials could be replaced with springs, which were more comfortable and much more affordable. Industrial grade sewing machines made upholstery easier to mass-produce as well. The sofa was becoming affordable enough to offer comfort to the everyman. Where once a sofa might announce that you were a person of extravagant wealth who could afford to spend money on trivia such as a place to sit, the sofa now was an invitation to take a load off at the end of a hard factory day.
One major holdup, however, was the lack of anything compelling to do while on a couch. In a time of limited higher education, reading was not a common pastime. Meals would be eaten around the more convenient table, which could also host games or social gatherings.