Saturday, July 2, 2022

History of the Sofa - A Cultural Revolution

Amber Schamel Lemus Christian Author
Blogger: Amber Schamel Lemus

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash
One of the most common items in our Western World is the sofa or couch in every living room. It's one of the staple pieces that every newlywed must acquire before their home is truly "put together". But it wasn't always this way. In fact, this now-common piece of furniture was once a player in a cultural revolution.

The couch is an early piece of furniture, dating all the way back to Ancient Egypt and Rome. However, at this time, couches were only for the affluent members of society. Also, these couches were not padded, or have the plushy comfort we associate with sofas today.

The word "sofa" is believed to have originated from the Arabic word "suffah" which means "long bench".

In Egypt, archeologists found a number of royal couches in the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun. Historians believe that couches in ancient Egypt were also considered beds, so the placing of these in the tomb were most certainly to indicate the king being "at rest" during the afterlife. 

Gilded Wooden Couch (Reign of Tutankhamun 1336-1326 B.C.E.)
©Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo, Italy

In ancient Rome, couches were intended for more than just lounging. We're all familiar with the reclined dining positions we've so often seen in movies and paintings. This meant that around the table were benches or couches that allowed the guests to recline during the meal. Padding on these couches was merely a drape or some sort of tapestry.

Roberto Bompiani, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The time period of 1500-1650 is considered the "Oak Era" in furniture history. Houses of common folk consisted of very little furniture, and even the rich had very rigid pieces, most commonly made from oak wood. This rigid nature of their furniture was a natural reflection of their social rules and expectations. Etiquette and propriety were very strict. People were expected to remain erect, with good posture, and presentable poses throughout the day, relaxing only at night, or sometimes, when alone. Therefore, all the furniture lended itself to this image and purpose. Chairs were not meant to provide a plush resting place like our "lazy boys" of today. They were simply meant as a place to perch and provide a respite for your feet.

I never once thought that the architecture of houses had an influence on the development of furniture, but it did. When houses were drafty and damp, the solution was to put up tapestries and carpets on the walls to help insulate and absorb the moisture. When these became obsolete, people looked for other uses for these tapestries, and that's when chairs and sofas began to have upholstery on their seats and backs. People took the tapestries that used to be on the walls and started using them to adorn their furniture.

Antique double armchair, c1680
Photo Credit:

Around 1620, sofas started to rise in popularity and become more commonplace. However, the comfort of our modern sofas we owe to the French. They were the first to invent the "double chair" which was the first true fore-runner to the modern sofa.

The French were leaders in fashion and comfort when it came to furniture. During this era, the philosophers began exploring the "art of living" and the discovery of casual living exploded. The same decade that the cushioned sofa debuted, people began to read for pleasure, casual dress became a fad, and cotton textile fabrics suddenly became widely available. It was a revolution of comfort and casual private life.

Some, however, looked at this comfort revolution as society coming apart at the seams. In her book, "The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual -- and the Modern Home Began" author Joan DeJean discusses how members of the court began slouching on seats, draping their arms over chair-backs, and *gasp* curling their legs while sitting. DeJean also mentions that the king's sister-in-law, in a letter to her cousins, railed against the new casual attitude decrying that etiquette and protocol were completely done-away with. That was about four years after the sofa made its big entrance.

Despite the unraveling of societal protocols, the comfortable sofa spread throughout Europe and the world. Different models were designed, such as the Chesterfield or the Davenport styles. Many of the first sofa specimens were covered in what was known as "Turkey work" which was basically an imitation of a Turkish carpet. The Germans were the first to use horsehair as a padding for furniture and make it popular.

Victorian era sofas are my favorite, aesthetically speaking, however you simply can't beat the comfort of our modern sofas. I'm so glad that culture finally developed them.

What is your favorite style of sofa?


Two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction, Amber Schamel writes riveting stories that bring HIStory to life. She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".

She lives near the Ozarks in her "casita" with her prince charming. Between enjoying life as a boy mom, and spinning stories out of soap bubbles, Amber loves to connect with readers and hang out on Goodreads with other bookish peoples.

Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!


  1. Thanks for posting today! I'm SO glad the French began this trend, and that it continued! I'm a casual girl all the way. My favorite style of couch isn't a style as much as a "feel"...cushy without feeling like you need a hoist to get up from it. I don't need throw pillows, though, they just get in the way!!

  2. My favorite kind, and one that I have, is one that is extra long and has lots of cushion. Great post!