After Furniture Escaped the Walls

It was the English who first liberated furniture from the walls of their rooms. However, by the time the Prince of Wales became Regent, most people in other countries, both on the Continent and in America, had done the same. Nevertheless, there were at least a few people who lived in Britain during our favorite period who preferred the old way of furniture arrangement. In fact, one of Jane Austen’s most memorable, if least likable, characters held to the old way of furniture arrangement in her home, much to the discomfiture of the majority of her guests. An author of a romance set in the Regency may wish to employ this old-fashioned custom in a scene or two between a few of their characters.

When furniture moved into the middle of the room . . .

The single piece of furniture most affected by this practice was the chair. Though we take this piece of seating furniture for granted today, when it originated, it was one of the most important symbols of power known to man. Chairs, that is, seating furniture with legs and a back, were known and used since Ancient Egypt. But they were essentially the thrones of their day, only those in power were allowed to enjoy the relative comfort of a chair. Most other people had to make do with simple stools, if they had any seating furniture at all. The situation remained much the same through the Middle Ages in Europe. Only the wealthy and the powerful could afford, or had the right to take a seat in, a chair. Therefore, it can come as no surprise that this piece of furniture was viewed with a certain amount of deference for many centuries. Until well into the sixteenth century, most ordinary people who wanted to sit down in a room had to be satisfied with a stool, a bench, or maybe, the closed top of a low chest.

As had been the custom since the Middle Ages, very few rooms in most houses had a specific purpose, until the last few decades of the eighteenth century. Prior to that time, people used any room in their house for whatever purpose was needed at the moment. Furniture was expensive and most people only had a few pieces, so each piece was very valuable to them. They tended to store their furniture in the room of their home in which they used it most often, but its use was not limited to that room. Well into the eighteenth century, most people’s homes were fairly small, with few rooms, because most lived in small cottages in rural areas, or in rooming houses and flats in the cities and towns. For that reason, the rooms they had available in their living space must serve all of their needs, as did all of their available furniture.

In most cases, people pushed their furniture against the nearest wall in the room in which it was stored until it was needed. There were a number of reasons for this type of furniture arrangement. It was convenient to keep all of the furniture against the wall, leaving the center of the room open for whichever pieces were needed there at any given time. In addition, in the days when the primary form of artificial light, beyond the fireplace, was the candle, keeping all the furniture against the walls at night made it much easier, and safer, to move through an unlit room after dark. The high cost of candles meant that only the room in use in most homes was lit by candlelight, the others were left in darkness. Another factor was that, in the majority of houses though much of the seventeenth century, people did not cover their floors with carpeting or other textiles. Instead, they covered most of their floors with straw or dried rushes. At that time, it was very common to cover the floor of the kitchen, or at least the area around the hearth with sand. Since the straw or sand was usually swept up and replaced periodically, it was much more convenient to keep the center of the floor, where the floor covering of choice would be strewn, open and clear of furniture. Of course, for people with small rooms, keeping all their furniture against the walls also had the effect of making their rooms look larger and more spacious.

Chairs had become more common and less costly in Britain by the seventeenth century, and many more people could afford to have them in their homes. But these chairs, along with the rest of their furniture, were still usually pushed against the walls of the rooms in which they were kept when they were not in use. A table and the requisite number of chairs would be pulled into the center of the room when a meal was served, or if the family wished to play a game. In some homes, if a bedstead was too costly to own, one or more mattresses might be rolled and shoved against the walls during the day and pulled out for use during the night. Chests, benches and other furniture pieces were also all pushed against the walls in most houses during the nighttime hours. These larger pieces were heavier, so they were often left against the walls and were not moved as regularly as would be chairs, benches and tables.

This practice of furniture arrangement also had some influence on the wall treatment in a number of rooms, as well as the fabrication of several different pieces of furniture. Because most of the furniture was pushed against the walls, the dado or chair rail was introduced, to protect the plaster and/or any special wall treatments. Typically, the chair rail was a wooden molding which projected from the surface of the wall about an inch or so, at a height of about two feet from the floor. The chair rail would take the brunt of any damage which might be caused when furniture, especially chairs, were pushed up against the wall. Since it was expected that all furniture would stand against a wall most of the time, furniture and cabinet-makers did not put much effort into the finishing of the back of any piece of furniture. Even when it finally became fashionable to move furniture away from the walls near the end of the eighteenth century, most chairs which were intended to be placed around a dining table were only given a cursory finish on the back, since, at least in the more affluent houses, only the servants would see the backs of those chairs, while they were serving the meal. Therefore, the front of the chairs would be given the most detailed finish, since that was the side which would be seen most by the guests.

Until the last few of decades of the eighteenth century, even the largest and most affluent homes typically kept their furniture against the walls when the pieces were not needed. Such houses tended to have more and larger rooms, and they also generally had many more pieces of furniture in those rooms. This was not just for the comfort of the family who lived in the home, but because these more prosperous families were more likely to invite extended family and/or friends to be guests in their homes. For many decades, the common practice after dinner, or in the afternoon, when a family had guests, was to bring all the chairs needed to seat all of the guests, in to a single room. The chairs were then all placed next to one another in circle in the center of that room. It was considered impolite to ignore any guest, therefore, all of the guests would be included in a conversation circle, so that everyone could be heard and could hear what others were saying. As sofas and couches became more readily available and less costly, they might also be added to a conversation circle when guests were being entertained. Of course, this practice made it nearly impossible for any of the guests to have even a few moments alone with anyone else, since they were all expected to participate in this grand circle of conversation.

Sometime in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, at least one Englishman, or perhaps an English woman, found the strict, stilted conversational circle too constrained and austere for their taste. The colder climes of Britain, the Englishman’s considerable fondness for his fireplace, or simply his natural sense of independence, may have had some influence on this drastic change in the arrangement of furniture. Though it is not known who began the trend, this new style of room arrangement gradually caught on in Britain. People began to move their furniture, particularly their seating furniture, away from the walls of their rooms. Another impetus for this change may have been the elegant and stylish paper-hangings with which many people were covering the walls of their best rooms. These fine and costly wall-coverings were much more visible if they were not covered by rows of furniture pushed up against them.

The fashion of moving furniture into the center of the room became popular with the upper classes first, since they were not only more likely to follow such fashions, but they also tended to have larger rooms, and more furniture, which were more easily adapted to these changes. Over time, this new fashion for furniture arrangement was also adopted in many middle-class homes as well. By the Regency, most houses of any size tended to have larger rooms, even those of the middle classes, making it possible for them to create the same kind of room arrangements that were popular with the upper classes. However, this type of room arrangement was generally much more difficult for the lower classes. They tended to have smaller rooms and less furniture, and most of them continued to follow the practice of keeping whatever furniture they had pushed against the walls unless they were actually using a particular piece.

In most homes, couches and sofas, which had become increasingly popular, were often purchased in pairs, and their preferred placement was facing each other, and perpendicular to the fireplace. Small tables were also increasing in popularity and it became the style to arrange furniture in small groups around a room. Two or three chairs might be clustered with a small table which held a candelabra or lamp. In bedchambers, though the bedstead was still usually pushed against a wall, a storage chest might be placed at the foot of the bed, rather than against the wall. A dressing table would still be set against a wall, but it became increasingly common to keep a chair in front of it and not against the wall. In her private sitting room, a lady might have a few chairs clustered around her work table, none of which would have been placed against the walls, so she could comfortably chat with her friends, should they visit her of an afternoon, perhaps on her at-home day.

This new format for furniture arrangement encouraged people at a large social gathering to break up into small groups in the drawing room after dinner, or at an elegant evening soiree. It was no longer considered de rigueur that everyone attending any social event all sit together in a circle and share a single conversation with everyone else in the circle. This new option for circulating at social gatherings was welcomed by most people, as they could more easily avoid those people they did not care to meet. Those same people would also have the opportunity for some private conversation with someone without having to share it with all in attendance. Though they might be seen talking together, these small clusters of furniture, if properly placed, made it unlikely they would be overheard.

The general rule for these new room arrangements was that the seating furniture should be placed in such a way that it would not be necessary for anyone to speak above a normal tone of voice when conversing. In fact, in England, even before the Regency began, it was considered very bad manners to shout across the room to anyone at a social gathering. Such behavior would have been considered thoroughly rude and boorish. Therefore, it was incumbent upon all good hosts and hostesses, or their interior designers, to furnish their rooms, particularly those in which they intended to entertain guests, with carefully placed clusters of furniture. If a drawing room had a pair of sofas, they should be placed close enough together that anyone sitting on either of them would be able to speak to each other quietly. The same should be done with small clusters of tables and chairs around the room. Similar arrangements were often made with the furniture in a lady’s sitting room or a gentleman’s book room, particularly if guests were to be entertained there.

Of course, there were a few very stubborn people who refused to embrace this new fashion in furniture arrangement or social conversation. They continued to keep their furniture against the walls of their rooms, and when they had guests, they pulled all the chairs, and/or other seating furniture, into a circle in the center of the room. For those of you who have seen the 1995 film version of Pride and Prejudice, you have seen a good example of this practice, when Elizabeth Bennett was visiting Rosings. Lady Catherine de Bourgh had her drawing room furniture arranged in such a way that everyone in attendance had to sit in a circle, thereby enabling her to hear everyone’s conversations. Remember how annoyed she was when Mr. Darcy went over to converse with Elizabeth Bennett while she was playing the piano? It was because Lady Catherine could not hear what was being said and therefore reprimanded them, "I must have my share in the conversation!" With this scene, Jane Austen was able to show up Lady Catherine as an old-fashioned and nosy busy-body without actually having to state that fact. Austen’s readers would have immediately understood the author’s message with regard to this character.

Dear Regency Authors, might you place furniture against the walls in the home of one of your more old-fashioned characters? Will that same character also require guests in their home to be seated in conversation circle rather than allowing those guests to break up into small groups after dinner? Or, could it be that one or more of your older characters might comment upon how things were done in their day, when everyone sat together after dinner? Will those remarks be disparaging of the new fashion, or will they support it, preferring the new style to the old? Mayhap an elderly, curmudgeonly character complains about banging their shins against the furniture while walking through the house at night, because the furniture is out in the middle of the room, they are used to having it against the walls and they are too miserly to carry a candle. Are there other ways in which these old-fashioned furniture arrangement practices might help to serve the plot of a Regency romance?

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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4 Responses to After Furniture Escaped the Walls

  1. Brilliant, I never knew what dado rails were for! I am sure I can use this.

  2. Amanda Purdon says:

    Sorry, not buying this. I lived in a fifteenth century house in Sussex for a few years. It had a large room and a large fireplace. The furniture would not have been shoved back against the walls, too far from the fire.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It is a pity you did not actually read my article before you posted your comment. If you had done, you would have learned that the fifteenth century was not discussed in this article and, more importantly, furniture was kept against the walls of rooms in later periods only when it was not in use.

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