I’m learning so much from Joan Dejean’s The Age of Comfort I’m losing sleep. Take, for example, the sofa.

Marquise de Montespan: revolutionary

Much of it began with the woman we all love to hate: Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan, the Sun King’s mistress. She was one of the first to consider comfort  a necessity. She designed a flowing (maternity) gown ? ironically called “The Innocent.”

Clagny, her chateau near Versailles, was one of the first designed with personal comfort in mind. In this painting (“Portrait of Madame de Montespan Reclining in Front of Gallery of the Chateau de Clagny” by Henri Gascard), one sees the requisite grand hall — the show of status — but note how a cozy area has been sectioned off, and note, especially, how La Madame reclines comfortably, if seductively, on a cushioned daybed, supported by pillows.

This was the beginning of a revolution.

The comfortable upholstered armchair came into being in France around 1680. Before then, everything was hard wood, softened ? perhaps, by the morally weak ? with a pillow. Before you knew it, men ? and women ? were lounging, feet up, arms thrown casually over armrests.

It was a short leap from the armchair to an elongated version that could sit two, side-by-side. Voilá! 

The beginning of the end

Clearly, it was the beginning of the end. The English knew the sofa was dangerous. In 1745 (over 60 years after its introduction in France) Hoarace Walpole joked about the dangers of people lolling about on a sofa in péché-mortel ? mortal sin. There was very little cushioned seating and a host of other life comforts in England before the 19th century!

Have a tasty cushion?

By the way, as you pass the holiday canapés, consider the word’s origin. A canapé was one of the earliest sofa designs (see the etching above). When someone first put a tasty something on a bit of bread, it was thought to look like a sofa cushion.

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