Know Your Sofas, By Ron Jordan – A sofa is a word adapted into English from Arabic, by way of Aramaic. These days it refers to any couch, though originally it referred only to the luxuriously cushioned seats of esteemed guests in the royal palaces of Arabia. Sofas are always upholstered and designed for reclining and relaxation. A love seat or loveseat is a small, compact couch that seats two. Small couches have existed at least as long as large ones, but the love seat, as we know it, was designed in the 1700’s to seat one woman wearing a wide bustle. As time passed, the little couches became known as intimate rendezvous spots for lovers (these were the days of Casanova, remember). Scandalous! Responding to this, furniture designers crafted love seats as two connected chairs in an S-shape, with the two sitters facing in opposite directions. This separated the couple’s bodies, though they were still able to steal kisses if they wished.
The S-shaped love seat remains a stylishly old-school choice, though its use has diminished due to its large space requirements. The small couch-style love seat is more common, though, and is now a standard feature in modern living room sets. Casanova would be proud.
A davenport originally referred only to a series of sofas produced by the A.H. Davenport Company of Boston in the mid-1800’s. Due to that company’s success in America, the term has become synonymous with sofas in a large part of the modern United States, especially in the Midwest. Original Davenport Company sofas are only found at antique auctions, but if you call any couch by that name, it’s okay.
A settee has recently come to mean any kind of couch, but the name originally applied only to double-seater benches with wooden backs and arms, such as those you might find on a porch or in a hallway. On settees, upholstery can vary; most modern settees are as cushioned as any couch, but unlike a couch, some styles of settees feature minimal or absent upholstery.
The word settee is thought to be a variation on settle, though they are two different things. A settle is a large, heavy wooden-backed bench of a style used in European castle halls since medieval times. A settle is typically made entirely of wood, devoid of upholstery, and thick and heavy thanks to its development history (they were originally made from wooden chests). Ah, the luxurious castle life.
A chaise lounge is an upholstered couch designed like a very long-seated chair which you can stretch your legs on. It comes from the phrase ‘chaise longue’, which simply means ‘long couch’ in French. This style of sofa has a long history in Europe and was a standard feature in the manor houses of the aristocracy. A chaise lounge is typically thought of as a ritzy Rococo-style design, but these days they are available in a huge variety of styles, from historical to ultra-modern.
In Victorian England, a chaise lounge was often called a fainting couch. These items were installed in wealthy houses for aristocratic women to collapse on, thanks to the stress put on their bodies by the too-tight corsets of the time. No kidding.
This bizarre trend has not survived into modern times, thank goodness, but the name lives on. Originally, fainting couches were simply chaise lounges, though some featured a non-upholstered foot section which made them more similar to daybeds. As time has passed, the phrase ‘fainting couch’ has expanded to encompass a variety of chaise lounges and beds with raised headspace. It’s more a colloquial term now, since not many chaise lounge manufacturers include “great for collapsing unconscious upon” in their ad copy.
There are many more furniture terms out there that we haven’t covered — look for a Know Your Sofas, Part 2 soon. In the meantime, for more information and a great variety of sofas, davenports, settees and lounges, check out Every Sofa.Com, a proud part of the Cymax Stores Inc. network of online furniture retailers.
Ron Jordan is a marketing associate for Cymax Stores Inc, a premiere online furniture distribution company.
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