Table of Contents
Send a Letter
Magazine Staff
Back Issues:
Editors's Notes
Course Work
Class News
Books by Alumni
For the Record
Center Stage
Alumni Gateway
UofC Homepage
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 hand—when not used as the kangaroo uses his tail to form a tripod—grasps 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 such workmen.

The colonialist 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.

Our amateur 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 us—and 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 difference.

We still need anthropologists to remind us that almost everything—including how we hold our bodies—should be understood in its cultural context. The American anthropologist Gordon Hewes has done that for posture. He documented the tremendous variety of recognized postures—over 1,000 steady postures—that 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.

Hewes emphasized 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 squat—the one used by Indian workmen to the annoyance of British colonists—is mostly a man's, with one knee up.

A particularly 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.

In mosques, Turks sit and kneel on richly carpeted floors. Carpets are butted one against the other, even overlapping—but 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 social—not genetic, anatomical, or even physiological—forces.

The purposes 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 cathedra—in 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.

However, the 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 throne."

Still, the chair—the seat with a back for a single person—is 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 chairs?

Chairs are an improvement over what came before them—if 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.

Thinking about 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.

All around the world, the chair and chair sitting has become a symbol—and sometimes direct evidence—of 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 jobs—say, acting and dancing—we 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 chair.

Sigmund Freud 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 day—in 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.

Without doubt, 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.
Table of Contents | Send a Letter | Staff | Editor's Notes | Letters | Investigations | Journal | Class News | Books | Deaths