Hail America's Multicultural Recliner

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The New York Times antiques section features a publication on Louisiana furniture and especially a reclining sling chair popular in the 19th century. A diverse group, the New Orleans artisans "included slaves, free men of color and immigrants from Germany and the Caribbean," the paper notes. "But they developed a signature Louisiana style."

They inlaid blond swags and customers' initials on cypress armoires and modeled sling-back mahogany porch chairs after thrones that Spanish conquistadors had brought to Mexico.

The magazine Antiques has a good article on the Campeche chair here. As one member of Thomas Jefferson's extended family wrote to a sister, Jefferson "misses you sadly every evening when he takes his seat in one of the campeachy chairs, & he looks so solitary & the empty chair on the opposite side of the door is such a melancholy sight to us all."

A similar model features in Princeton University history; I've described it here.

Americans did not invent the first reclining furniture, but no nation has taken it further, probably because 19th century Americans were famous or notorious for refusing to follow European ideas of dignified upright posture. The entrepreneurs Elbert Hubbard and Gustave Stickley in the late century made the originally English Morris Chair an American icon. La-Z-Boy was introduced in Michigan just before the Depression. The postwar Barcalounger was based on a 1930s convalescent chair co-invented by the Hungarian-born designer Anton Lorenz. His engineering collaborator (and now a friend) Peter Fletcher, is of Scots background, son of a noted British diplomat who among other things helped select the site of the United Nations.The Chicago upholsterer Morris Futorian, another immigrant (from Russia) licensed a similar design from Lorenz to create the Stratolounger, becoming the Henry Ford of the Northern Mississippi furniture industry, transforming Elvis's birthplace and bringing recliners to the masses. (Barcalounger was originally marketed as an elite product in the New Yorker and sold mainly through leading department and specialty stores.)

The recliner thus is Spanish, French, African American, Anglo-American, Central European, and South Asian (in the form of the verandah or deck chair, one of the most ergonomically correct designs ever). The rocker is also an American specialty, and of course the U.S. recliner industry lost no time combining the two designs. The Campeche chair featured in the new study was the beginning of one of America's most characteristic and diverse industries.

(For a brilliant account of posture in 19th century American life, and the slouching attitude that drove European visitors up the wall, or at least made them sit up straight, see Kenneth Ames, Death in the Drawing Room.)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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