Cushions in the Regency

Ubiquitous furnishings in nearly every Regency home, to be sure. There were also many cushions to be found in the majority of churches across Britain at this time. Nevertheless, a cushion, whether of a humble or an elegant design, used for secular or sacred purposes, might be just the thing to serve the plot of a Regency romance. A simple, everyday domestic object which offers so many options for a storyteller.

A brief survey of cushions in Britain to the Regency . . .

In order to understand the objects under discussion here, it will first be necessary to understand the meaning and use of the word "cushion" in Regency England. Linguistic scholars trace the origin of the word from Old French through Middle English. Its basic meaning is that of a sack or case of cloth that is stuffed with a pliable and resilient material which provides support or comfort to all or just some part of a human body. Furnishing cushions could range in size from a mattress which would completely cover a bed to a small pillow. However, throughout most of England, by the Regency, the term "cushion" was most often used to refer to objects which many of us today might call throw pillows, typically small and decorative.

In England, the history of cushions can be traced back to at least the late Middle Ages. At that time, everything was hand-made, including all home furnishings. In that period, many upper-class ladies found small cushions an ideal object on which to lavish their needlework skills, and to then display their finished handiwork. From Tudor times, small beautifully embroidered cushions were often given as gifts to close friends and family. These cushions might have been intended for a number of uses, from a soft support for the back of a chair to the secure support of a valuable book while reading. In most cases, only the front of the cushion was worked in embroidery, the back of the pillow was usually a complimentary plain or decorative fabric which was left unadorned.

Pews were introduced into most Protestant churches after the Reformation, when the sermon became the central feature of the church service. In the Anglican churches of England, the prominent families in each parish purchased pews in their church to help defray the costs of building the church. In many parishes, when a prominent family died out, ownership of their pew typically reverted to the church. It might then be sold, or rented, to another affluent family in the parish, for the funds needed to maintain the church. The benches of these pews were constructed of wood, as were the kneeler boards, if they were present. It became common for the ladies of the family to make cushions which would provide some ease for the knees of their loved ones during services. These kneeler cushions might be made of a plain sturdy fabric, such as velvet, or they might be embroidered with religious images, or, more often, the family crest or coat of arms.

Initially, most embroidered cushions were worked in colored wools on even-weave linen. By the Regency, ladies who wished to embroider cushions had many more options when it came to their choice of materials. Regular colored wool threads were certainly still popular, but by then, though more expensive, the soft, fleecy threads made from merino wool were to be had, usually imported from the United States or Canada. However, wool was no longer the only fiber available for use in embroidery. Silk had become very popular for embroidery in the eighteenth century and by the early nineteenth century, the colors and weights of silk embroidery thread on offer were expanding. Sturdy, even-weave linen was still being produced in several weights for use in embroidery. But even before the close of the eighteenth century, cotton was becoming more readily available and was a much better ground for delicate silk embroidery.

There were, and still are, two basic types of cushion construction, regardless of whether they are square, round or any other shape. Plain or knife-edge cushions are made by sewing the back and front together directly. Variations on knife-edge cushions would include the insertion of piping, fringe, or other thin ornament into the seam when the cushion is stitched together. The other basic cushion type is the boxed, or walled cushion. These cushions are assembled by stitching a strip of cloth between the front and the back of the cushion so that the finished cushion looks a bit like a stuffed box.

Not all furnishing cushions were made at home as the nineteenth century opened. If a woman felt she did not have the skill or did not care to spend her time embroidering cushions for her home, there were professional embroiders who could be commissioned to do the work. In the case of a full set of embroideries for a room, such as bed hangings and/or curtains, few ladies would take on the task of doing the work at home and to ensure the embroidered set matched, any cushions would have been included in the commission. However, Regency needlewomen did work thousands of cushions, for a wide range of purposes. A young lady might embroider an elegant and delicate design in silk threads on fine cotton as a gift for her mother or grandmother. A respectable married lady might employ sturdy linen and wool threads to stitch cushions for her family’s pew in their parish church. Any number of cushions were embroidered by young ladies, frequently at the instigation of a match-making mama, to show off their needlework skills in a format which could be easily displayed in the drawing room when suitors came to call.

Dear Regency Authors, how might you make use of an embroidered cushion in an upcoming Regency romance? Perhaps the heroine, a governess, spends her spare time embroidering an elegant floral design in silk thread on a cotton ground as a gift for her beloved godmother. Will her spoiled charge, jealous of her skills, claim the work is actually hers? How will the hero, the spoiled girl’s older brother, handle this domestic tempest? Or, might a young couple in love, but forbidden to communicate with one another, make use of a pew cushion as a letter box? While helping her mother to make kneeler cushions for the family pew, did the young heroine stitch in a hidden pocket in the side of the box cushion she will use when in church? Her sweetheart can leave notes there for her when the church is empty, which she can retrieve surreptitiously while kneeling during the service, unbeknownst to her family. Mayhap, rather than a secret letter box for a pair of young lovers, might a secret pocket in a church kneeler cushion serve a more nefarious purpose, when a traitor uses such a cushion to leave messages for a French spy? Then again, a heroine who must hide something small and valuable, might make a cushion and secrete her precious object inside it. On the other hand, could it be that some family treasure was hidden inside a cushion made generations ago? How will it be revealed during the Regency, just in time to save the family fortunes? Are there other ways in which a cushion might help advance a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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13 Responses to Cushions in the Regency

  1. I hid a tiara in one of the cylindrical bolster-like cushions you see in paintings of day beds and recamiers etc in ‘Jane and the Hidden Hoard’. [I ain’t saying where the rest of the jools were.] It took a bit of tracking down to check that those sorts of cushions were in use, and a visit to the local museum as well to see the size and weight of them.
    Cushions, in my experience, are also used for those with a guilty conscience to hide things behind. How will the heroine react when the boring and worthy suitor firmly sits on a cushion that her young brother has swiftly tucked a fish behind, since he is not supposed to bring the fruits of his sport into the parlour at all? and will all the neighbourhood cats follow him because he now smells of trout? will the cushion ever be the same again?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      OMG!!! That is just too funny!!! I can just see the poor fellow, leading a parade of cats through the village!

      My guess is the cushion is done for. Even today, I know of nothing that will completely remove the smell of fish.

      =^..^=

      • A combination of baking soda followed by lemon juice minimises it, but… no, fish is one of those tenacious and rather affectionate smells that won’t stop hanging around

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          My grandmother used to use that combination, then spread the article out on the grass in the sunshine. It got rid of most of the smell, but there was always a lingering whiff. 😦 However, that combination does a very good job of removing most stains from either linen or cotton.

          =^..^=

  2. helenajust says:

    We still call these cushions today, in the UK (as opposed to throw pillows). Am I right in thinking that furniture in the Regency was generally less soft and upholstered than it is today? If so, cushions must have been very welcome!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I wondered if cushion was still used in that same way today in the UK. It has been many years since I was in the UK. Thanks for the verification!

      Furniture was the primary focus of my graduate studies, and I can tell you that there was a wide variation in the types of upholstery and padding used during the eighteenth century right into the nineteenth. Most side chairs were padded with horsehair and/or wool batting.They weren’t as hard as plain wood, but they were not very soft. The backs and seats of armchairs, love-seats and sofas were also padded with horsehair and wool batting. The lesser quality upholstered furniture would have only wool batting or horsehair padding. The cheapest tended to have only horsehair padding. The better quality of these furniture types usually had cushions, some for just the seat, others for both the seat and the backs. Such cushions might be filled with anything from wool flock to goose feathers.

      By the Regency, furniture styles tended to be more stream-lined, with leaner lines, and fewer cushions. So, strange as it may seem, extra cushions were probably appreciated, particularly by people who owned very “modern” furniture.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • helenajust says:

        Thank you for this lovely detail! I can just imagine those beautifully curved sofas in the Egyptian style with extra cushions for comfort.

      • My great aunt had a horsehair padded day bed and my! was it hard… funnily enough it was quite comfortable with the horsehair stuffed bolster cushion, because it was well shaped and fitted the body better than the ergonomically designed bits of torture. But you got a bit numb after being on it a while…. yes, I, too, confirm cushions, I wouldn’t know what a throw pillow was if it was thrown at me, and I’d call it a cushion.
        I also use white vinegar warmed for stains on silk or brocade…

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          My grandmother had a love-seat which was padded with horsehair and the best I can say about it was that it was very firm. One’s bottom did tend to go to sleep if one had to sit on it for any length of time.

          I am glad to know that “throw pillow” is still mostly a crass American term. When I was little, I thought throw pillows were for throwing around the room. “Cushion” is a much more civilized term.

          Thanks for the tip about white vinegar and silk.

          Regards,

          Kat

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