Porter's Chairs: The Surprising Origins of a Glamorous Chair

Porter's Chairs: The Surprising Origins of a Glamorous Chair

Anna Hoffman
Mar 25, 2010

Canopied chairs carry a sense of drama and ceremony fit for a monarch. Kelly Wearstler, glam queen, loves to use them in restaurants, to add a touch of romance (images 1 & 2). So it surprised me to discover that historically, they were used as chairs for hall porters to sit in while they kept watch at the doors of grand homes and palaces — like very well-appointed bouncers!

Porter's chairs originated in 16th-century France, where they were often made of cane or wicker, and were known as "guérites" (French for "sentry") with high backs and sides. These chairs were commonly used for invalids and the elderly to protect them from draughts (images 3 & 4), though the association of the form with the word for "sentry" suggests that their true original purpose was for hall porters.

An essential position in the homes of the well-to-do, the hall porter was the gatekeeper, admitting or refusing callers based on his memory for faces and names of his employer's acquaintances, his knowledge of the acceptable members of high society, and even on his learned understanding of class attributes and distinctions. In an 1857 book, The Household Manager, Charles Pierce writes of the hall porter:

"If his master be a rich man, and a charitable one, that master is being for ever applied to by the distressed, the needy, and the impostor … Hence is called into exercise the necessity for the porter's searching and discriminative eye, and his scrupulous pause before receiving a letter or answering an inquiry."

Entrusted with such a crucial role in the security and well-being of the people he served, the hall porter was expected to maintain his post at all times, even sleeping in his chair after dark, and occasionally taking meals there, as well. Some porter's chairs were equipped with drawers under the seat where supplies could be kept, or where hot coals could be placed keep them warm (they were often stationed in chilly, damp