|By Galen Cranz, AM’69, PhD’71
|Illustrations by David Johnson
In 1852, an
English colonialist working in India voiced his complaints about
the local workmen. He was particularly irritated and offended that
blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons squatted to work, complaining
indignantly, "All work with their knees nearly on a level with
their chin: The left handwhen not used as the kangaroo uses
his tail to form a tripodgrasps the left knee and binds the
trunk to the doubled limbs."
This man was
not the first or last to liken people who sit on floors to animals.
He was more explicit than many about why he found the posture inferior:
It suggested "indolence and inefficiency...especially irritating
to an Englishman," but even more so to one who hires and pays
tried to force these men to work his way, but they ignored him;
so he ordered the anvils on which they worked to be bolted to surfaces
at table height. The next day, he was pleased to see them working
off the floor. But not for long. He returned the following day to
find the men squatting on top of stools in order to reach the anvils.
He gave up, reasoning that he could not get workmen to stand while
working because of "a deficiency of muscular power in the lower
limbs," which he attributed to their not using chairs.
sociologist speculated that chairs or raised seats were "one
of the natural steps toward a higher civilization." He was
wrong about that, but right in observing that we are apt to overlook
the function of such artifacts until we imagine or experience life
without them. Chairs have become second nature to us, virtually
indivisible from usand therefore invisible to us.
In the past
century we have come to appreciate, rather than condemn, the way
people in other cultures do things. The attitude of a 19th-century
English colonialist toward Indian workers now strikes us as stuffy
and disrespectful. Nevertheless, our lingering ideas about "progress"
still tempt us to look down on or misunderstand the habits of others,
including how they sit.
In the United
States, an example of our confused feelings about cultural differences
is as near as your local Japanese restaurant. Such restaurants may
have tatami mats where diners sit on the floor, but this touch of
authenticity can only go so far. Westerners do not generally sit
cross-legged or kneeling, so many of these floors have hidden wells
under the tables for diners to sit in the classic right-angled posture
we are used to. But do we accept this as a cultural difference,
created by lifetimes of sitting one way versus another? No, we kid
ourselves otherwise, with vague references to some imagined anatomical
We still need
anthropologists to remind us that almost everythingincluding
how we hold our bodiesshould be understood in its cultural
context. The American anthropologist Gordon Hewes has done that
for posture. He documented the tremendous variety of recognized
posturesover 1,000 steady posturesthat human beings
assume all over the world. The right-angle seated posture is just
one example, utilized by only a third to a half of the people in
the world. But, you might ask, how can a person rest, eat, or write
a letter without a chair? A Chinese man might squat to wait for
the bus; a Japanese woman might kneel to eat; and an Arab might
sit cross-legged to write a letter. Are they forced to sit without
chairs simply because they are too poor to own one? People who can
afford chairs throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Polynesia
do not necessarily buy them; a common posture in Africa and Australia
is what anthropologists call the "Neolithic" stance: The
person stands on one leg and plants the sole of the other foot near
the knee of the standing leg.
that postural variations are culturally, not anatomically, determined.
Sitting, like other positions, is regulated all around the world
according to gender, age, and social status. Sitting on the floor
with both legs straight out in front is generally a woman's posture,
wherever it is found. The cowboy squatthe one used by Indian
workmen to the annoyance of British colonistsis mostly a man's,
with one knee up.
common alternative posture is sitting Turkish-style, what Westerners
call cross-legged, or sometimes tailor-fashion. In Turkish homes,
traditional "divans," from which we get one of our names
for couches, are deep, wide, and firm enough to permit sitting in
this way. The divans are low wooden platforms with pads and bolsters,
built into a room called a "sofa" for receiving visitors
and enjoying oneself with family.
Turks sit and kneel on richly carpeted floors. Carpets are butted
one against the other, even overlappingbut never displayed
in a sea of gleaming hardwood. Muslim religious practices are refreshingly
sensitive to bodily experience. Carpets do more than protect the
knees: All who enter a mosque (or home) take off their shoes, ostensibly
so that no dirt is brought onto the carpets where people will put
their hands and faces. But going barefoot stimulates the nerves
of the soles, in turn refreshing the whole body. The bending and
stretching ritually required five times a day is also good for the
spine, a useful counterpoint to constant upright posture. The ritual
use of water inside the mosque to cleanse the nose, neck, forearms,
and ankles was initially practical in dry, sandy climates, but refreshes
the skin in any climate.
In India today,
especially rural India, many of the activities Westerners would
pursue in chairs, from sewing to university physics seminars, Indians
perform while seated on the floor. Ergonomics researchers have attempted
to measure the physiological effects of performing tasks this way;
for example, the impact on the heart rate of making chapatis while
squatting on the floor. Surprisingly, the effect is aerobic.
Since not all
people sit in chairs, why do we? The answer to that question may
never be known, but historians do know a fair amount about the early
history of chair use in the West. One thing is certain: Our chair
habit was created, modified and nurtured, reformed and democratized
in response to socialnot genetic, anatomical, or even physiologicalforces.
of designed objects change over time, just as the meanings of words
do. Etymology always offers insight into contemporary usage, just
as history helps us understand why things are the way they are today.
The word "chair" comes from the Greek language, a contraction
of cathedrain turn a compound of kata, meaning "down,"
and hedra, from "to sit." A chair is a piece of furniture
with a back, and usually four legs, on which one person sits. But
so is a throne.
word "throne" has a different origin. It comes from the
Indo-European base dher, meaning "to hold or support."
The throne supports, while the chair is a place to sit down. A throne
suggests the palanquins on which a potentate might be carried, while
the underlying meaning of a chair is quite different. Physically,
almost anyone can sit down, whereas only a very privileged few can
be carried. Thus, a chair is more common and ordinary than a throne.
From the beginning of recorded history, two types of chairs developed:
the upright throne, and the more relaxed clismos, a chair with a
modestly inclined back. Today, we mock the lowliest chair of all,
the toilet, by giving it the term of greater privilege, "the
chairthe seat with a back for a single personis a powerful
symbol, potent enough to be appropriated by the most influential
group or groups in a society as a way to communicate their significance.
Yet, what was it about the chair that gave its sitter status? Or,
put another way, what was it about the floor, a stump, stool, or
bed that made those things inadequate for the purposes served by
an improvement over what came before themif Henry Petroski,
the historian of engineering design at Duke University, is right
that form follows failure. Being off the ground makes chair sitting
different from floor sitting but not different from stools or benches.
The chair generally holds only one person at a time, so it acknowledges
the individual, unlike raised benches, sofas, beds, or platforms,
which can accommodate two or more. Finally, chairs differ from stools
because the chairback can display decoration and, if large enough,
frame the sitter from the front view as a throne does. Thus, most
chairs have directionality, while most stools do not.
the differences between stools and chairs, early experiments with
communication in small groups come to mind. An American sociologist
named Alex Bavelas examined what happened to information when it
was passed directly from one group member to another versus when
it first had to be passed to a group leader. He set up boards between
individuals to block communication by sight or sound to anyone but
the leader in the center, and this experimental apparatus was named
after him. One can imagine chairs as stools with Bavelas boards
attached. From this perspective, chairbacks are like the individual
windowpanes in jalousie windows, which allow us to direct incoming
breezes; we can direct people's attention by turning chairs in one
direction or another. Stools, without directing backs, promote a
star or network pattern of communication, whereas chairs promote
a centralized or pyramidal pattern of communication. Obviously,
stools lend themselves to more democratic, egalitarian social life
and chairs to more hierarchical social structures.
the world, the chair and chair sitting has become a symboland
sometimes direct evidenceof Westernization. By and large Westerners,
scientists and humanists alike, have generated few alternatives
to the chair-and-table culture. We are, in a sense, locked into
it. After all, even our architecture is shaped by chairs. The height
of window openings, for example, is determined by our sitting about
18 inches off the floor. Furthermore, chair imagery pervades our
symbolic life. University professors hold "chairs." Departments
everywhere have "chairmen," "chairwomen," or
better yet, "chairpersons." When a person has to choose
between between two jobssay, acting and dancingwe sometimes
say he cannot sit between two chairs. County seats, district seats,
embassy seats, a private seat, seats on the stock exchange are all
metaphors for position, social role, and power, but the concrete
object from which the metaphors have evolved is a chair. A hot seat
is never a sofa, might possibly be a stool, but is most likely a
was famous for his couch; but today the reflection and conversation
of therapy is more closely associated with chairs. In Christian
religious communities, an empty chair represents Christ, who may
be understood to be present in the person of an unexpected guest;
this convention has dual purposes, one symbolic and the other practical,
if an unexpected guest arrives.
We spend much
of our waking lives in a chair. In our sedentary culture, we each
have a choice of over two dozen seats throughout the routine of
a dayin our dining rooms and kitchens; living rooms and bedrooms;
studies and sewing rooms; patios and decks; cars, subways, and buses;
offices and schools; waiting rooms, movies, and restaurants. We
touch chairs not just with our hands but with our whole bodies.
Yet despite their intimate place in our lives, we know little about
them and their effects on us, physically and mentally.
their effects are profound. What is true of the chair is true of
all the artifacts we create. We design them; but once built, they
shape us. As sitting in chairs spread to the common person over
the centuries, it left its mark on the human body and human consciousness.
The chair offers a glimpse into our collective ideas about status
and honor, comfort and order, beauty and efficiency, discipline
and relaxation. As our ideas change, so do our chairs.