Our Modern Habit of Being Comfortable Makes the Exclusive
Use of Old Furniture In Our Houses an Impossibility
Manners, speech, the habits of daily life change con-
tinually from age to age. The history of taste is a
history of incessant and generally quite unreasonable
fluctuation. The world has never thought or acted in a consis-
tent way for fifty years together. To our ancestors, the life of
the present generation seems immoral and looking back at our ances-
tors, we can cordially reciprocate the opinion.
One of the most complete and radical changes in the stan-
dards of everyday life that has taken place during the last two
or three centuries is the change in the standard of comfort. The
well-sprung armchair, the sofa, the chaise lounge
and the noble army of cushions have become, in this century
of ours, an indispensable part of our daily life. The family room is a reclining room, a sprawling room,
where comfort reigns supreme. Comfort is creeping in even–
where, into public places as well as the home. The seats in our
places of entertainment steadily widen and soften.
Looking at the furniture in a typical furniture shop, you
would imagine that the contemporary American spends at least
half of his sitting or reclining. And you would not be so very far wrong.
How different this is from the order of things which pre-
vailed only a few generations ago. Our ancestors, unless
they were persons of considerable wealth and eminence, ate
their dinner sitting on stools or benches. Their nearest approach
to the easy chair was the high-backed wooden armchair. The
sofa did not exist; it remained for the 17th Century to invent its
ancestor, the day-bed.
Most of our social life today is passed in chairs and on
sofas; our ancestors spent most of theirs standing. The ideal Elizabethan
drawing room was not stuffed with enormous chairs and sofas
like the great rooms of today. It was a long gallery, unob-
structed by furniture, where one could walk up and down, like
a sea captain on his quarter deck, in silent meditation or in
converse with one’s friends.
With the passing of the 17th and 18th centuries, comfort
gradually increased. The sofa made its appearance and
the padded chair opened its inviting arms. But the armchairs of
the 18th Century, comfortable as they are, were still demure,
respectable pieces of furniture. One had to sit in them with a
certain rigid propriety. Good manners did not allow one to
sprawl, and the chairs were the guardians of good manners.
The modern easy chair, in which repose takes on so abandoned
a posture, dates from very recent times. It represents a final step
in the direction of the ideal of comfort, which only became
possible with the relaxation of etiquette and a change in the
standard of good manners.
To us, comfort is now a necessity; we have contracted the
habit of it and cannot give it up. We can judge how unpleasant
it would be to revert to the standards of the past by visiting a
country like Italy, where the standard of comfort is still very
much what it was in the 18th Century. Sit on the wooden
benches of an Italian garden; go to an Italian party, where every one stands for hours together: you will
realize then how profoundly our habits and standards have
changed in the last century or so. Inured from their tenderest
years, the Italians positively enjoy standing and when
they want a rest they really like sitting on marble benches
at the wayside. It is all a matter of habit. We who have
contracted the habit of comfort cannot now return to ancient
It is this fact which renders so absurd any attempt to recon-
struct an ancient period in the furniture of a modern house.
A purely 18th Century drawing room is a possibility. Though
you may resent the absence of deep easy chairs in which you can
sprawl, you will be able to accommodate yourself well enough in the round armchairs and on the sofas of
Louis XV and XVI. The trouble begins when one turns the
clock back another hundred years or so. No American will feel really comfortable in a room furnished com-
pletely in the Jacobean or Elizabethan style. A room in which
there is no sofa, but only a few carved wooden chairs, would
strike him as insufferably austere. In such surroundings you
would find yourself thinking with what an aching nostalgia
of the leather monsters in the club smoking room, of those huge
elephantine chairs in which it is miraculously possible to com-
bine the most restful slumbers with the most earnest perusal of a
magazine. A room fitted up with Gothic furniture would merely
be one worse than the Elizabethan.
No, given our habits of today, a strictly period room is an
absurdity. We are not Elizabethans, we are not contemporaries
of Chaucer, we are not early Italians or even modern Italians
and it is silly to pretend that we are. A really accurate period
reconstruction looks like a museum and is impossible to live in
with reasonable comfort.
The way to use antique furniture is frankly to combine it with
modern pieces. A contemporary living room must have
armchairs and a sofa, or even a chaise lounge; it must also have
upright chairs, and there is no reason why these should not be
old English or old Italian, old French or old Spanish.
To harmonize old pieces of different periods and countries
with one another and with modern furniture requires a certain
tact and judgment, a sensitive taste. But when that taste has
been duly exercised, the result will be infinitely preferable to a
dully correct period room. It will also be possible for people
with modern standards of comfort to live in such a room. This
fact is important. Furniture was made for man, not man for
furniture; let us think of ourselves before our antiques.