In actual fact, this unique form of chair, which originated in England in the early eighteenth century, had any number of names, usually suggesting a possible use, for nearly a century before the Regency began. Though they had mostly fallen out of fashion by the Regency, so many corner chairs had been made during the height of their popularity, in the second half of the eighteenth century, that there were still many of them extant and in use during our favorite period. Knowing something about these curious chairs might enable a Regency author to find a special place for one in an upcoming romance.
Truth, myth and conjecture concerning the curious corner chair . . .
Most furniture historians believe that the corner chair as a seating form made its debut at the turn of the eighteenth century. There may have been some corner chairs produced prior to 1700, but there are none extant which can be dated earlier than that with any certainty. Further evidence for the early development of a corner chair in England is the fact that there are no patterns or illustrations of corner chairs included in any of the main English furniture pattern books published during the later eighteenth century, including those by Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton. Historians interpret this lack of published information on corner chairs to the fact that these chairs were by then so well-known to most cabinet-makers that there was no need to include illustrations of them. The chair designs that were published in those pattern books could be easily adapted by most craftsmen to the corner chair form.
The traditional design of most corner chairs had a seat which was set on the diagonal, and the back extended across two adjoining sides. The design of the back allows the occupant of the chair to adopt a relaxed and slightly reclined posture which maintains the natural curve of the lumbar spine. Most corner chairs had four legs, with one in the front, one in the back and one at each side. The specific purpose for the development of this chair form has never been definitely determined. However, over the decades of the eighteenth century, these chairs had a number of functions, though curiously, nearly all of those uses were in some way related to the masculine lifestyle. One feature of these chairs which has been consistently demonstrated over the years is that they are very comfortable, even when the occupant is seated for long periods of time.
The earliest corner chairs seem to have been made for use in private spaces, most often in a gentleman’s bedchamber and/or dressing room. Quite a number of corner chairs had a removable or "slip" seat which was set into very deep seat rails. The deep frame of the seat rails concealed a built-in chamber pot, to which access was gained by lifting away the slip seat. Corner chairs with such fittings were often known as commode chairs, or barber’s chairs, as it is believed a gentleman’s valet may have shaved his master, and/or powdered and styled his hair while the gentleman was seated in such a chair. Corner chairs were more complex and thus more costly to make than a standard side or armchair. They were, therefore, most often to be found in the homes of the affluent.
Apparently, many gentlemen found their corner chairs particularly comfortable, which may well be the reason the chairs gradually emerged from the bedchamber and dressing room to find a place in the more public rooms of a house. Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, corner chairs were often found listed in household inventories, usually in proximity to a gentleman’s desk and book cases, suggesting that they were regularly included as part of a suite of furniture for a book room or library. Of course, the corner chairs intended for use in these more public rooms were not made with a slip seat or deep seat rails, nor were they fitted with a chamber pot. Corner chairs situated in these more public rooms were often called desk, writing or reading chairs. Corner chairs were very convenient when used at a desk, allowing the sitter to easily turn from the writing surface as needed to engage with others in the room, without having to move the chair. Because corner chairs were so comfortable, they made ideal seating for someone who enjoyed reading for long periods. They were particularly popular in the heat of the summer. In the winter, many people preferred to read while ensconced in a wing chair before a fire, since the wings which partially enclosed the back of the chair helped to trap the heat of the fire close to their body and shielded them from drafts. But in the warm summer months, the open framework of a corner chair allowed more air to circulate around the occupant. Occasionally, some corner chairs intended for reading had a brass swivel arm which held an easel to support a book.
At about the same time the corner chair was emerging from the private rooms of a home, they were also making an appearance in the local public house and tavern. These versions of the corner chair were not as sophisticated in decoration or design and construction as the corner chairs found in the homes of the upper classes, but they were just as comfortable. Many tavern-keepers had a few corner chairs available in their establishments, intended for the use of their most favored customers. In particular, many men who came to a pub to smoke a pipe or two preferred to do so in a corner chair. Therefore, over time, corner chairs in taverns and public houses came to be known as smoking chairs.
A number of references on furniture history suggest the name "corner" chair originated with the idea that such chairs were made to be placed in the corner of a room to save space. However, either a standard armchair or a side chair would actually take up less space. It seems more likely that the name originated in the fact that the front edge of the seat in these chairs formed a corner. Corner chairs also became popular in America in the eighteenth century. However, these chairs were more often known as roundabout chairs in the Colonies, though that name does not appear to have been commonly used in Britain. In fact, during the Victorian period in England, a roundabout was a seating unit in which three seats were placed in a circle, radiating from a central point. Such seating pieces were not known during the Regency. In early nineteenth century Britain, corner chairs were still known as commode chairs, barber’s chairs, desk, writing or reading chairs, as well as smoking chairs.
Another name for these chairs appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but it was almost certainly invented by those who saw the chair, but had no idea how it was originally used. This name may have been influenced by the fact that these chairs were most often used by men. By the turn of the twentieth century, many of these chairs were called "sword" chairs, the claim being made that they were comfortable seating for men wearing swords. The primary problem with that idea is that no self-respecting gentleman would have worn a sword indoors, even during the early eighteenth century, when many men did wear a small sword when they went out. Another nail in the coffin of the sword chair myth is that the design of a corner chair actually leaves little clearance for the sword and scabbard when worn at a gentleman’s side. A side chair would actually better accommodate a man wearing a sword than would a corner chair.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, fine corner chairs were made of walnut, mahogany, cherry or maple. Such corner chairs were intended for affluent customers and were decorated with rich carving and intricate back splats in the fashionable styles of the time. Typically, only the seat was upholstered, while the rest of the chair was usually polished wood. In the later decades of the eighteenth century, simpler forms of the corner chair were made of less expensive woods, and less detailed carvings. Instead of an upholstered seat, many had a rush seat or one of plain wood. The simpler versions of the corner chair were to be seen in many public houses and taverns, and had even become popular in many commercial offices where long periods of sitting were required, particularly for managers and other upper-level employees. By the end of the eighteenth century, simple corner chairs were even to be seen in the homes of the middle classes. What is interesting is that there are no two corner chairs that are exactly alike. All corner chairs were bespoke and each cabinet-maker seems to have given each of the chairs they made a unique design and decoration. A selection of antique corner chairs can be seen on this Google Images search results page.
By the Regency, the corner chair had mostly fallen out of fashion, though there were still a few being produced. Those early nineteenth-century corner chairs were usually made following the fashionable furniture designs of that period, but even so, they would have been considered rather old-fashioned and were seldom made for the best homes. However, there were a great many older corner chairs still in use in many homes during the Regency period. And these chairs were still most often used by men. This was largely due to the design of the chair, which made it nearly impossible for the occupant to sit decorously in it with legs and feet kept closely together, as would be expected of a proper young lady of the time while she was in company. Such proper posture was not expected of gentlemen, even in company, so they were free to sit in a corner chair in any way they pleased, whether in private or in public.
During the Regency, corner chairs were considered a bit old-fashioned, but were fairly common. They could be found in the homes of the upper and middle classes, in many commerical offices and in a host of taverns and public houses. But as had been the case when they were first made, they were most often used by men, even in the Regency. Dear Regency Authors, might a corner chair have a place in one of your romances? Might an old, unused commode chair in the master’s dressing room serve as a hiding place for some treasure or other item of importance to the story? Perhaps the heroine, the governess, likes to spend her free time in the book room, reading while comfortably, if rather indecorously settled in the corner chair which sits at the desk in that room. What will happen when the hero unexpectedly comes upon her there? There are any number of uses for a corner chair in a Regency tale, under any number of names, commode chair, barber’s chair, desk, writing or reading chair, or even smoking chair. Just be sure not to refer to this type of chair as a sword chair, since such chairs were never used for such a purpose.