A 17th-18th century porter's chair from Aston Hall, in Birmingham, England
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 entrance halls). The chairs occasionally had a hinged shelf that could be propped up at night to hold a lantern (you might be able to make one out on the right side of the chair in image 5).
Many porter's chairs were hooded, or at least were ample, with high sides, in order to protect him from draughts (images 5-9). The hooded chairs were also thought to be acoustically helpful, so as to help the porter be as vigilant as possible.
Hall porter's chairs were already considered old-fashioned by the mid-19th century, and they became obsolete in the early 20th century, thanks mostly to the rise of the latch key as the preferred security measure of countless homeowners. Presumably, advances in interior climate control and of course the dwindling number of households full of servants contributed to the chair's demise, as well.
Hooded wicker chairs were also an appropriate form of sun and wind protection out of doors. Scheveningen Beach, outside the Hague, was famous for its canopied beach chairs (image 10) until the 1970s. Apparently, some German beaches still feature chairs like these (image 11) — a cozy option on a windy day.
You can find more traditional porter's chairs at antique sales, or buy them new from places like Restoration Hardware (image 12) and Jayson Home & Garden (image 13), or even updated in a sleek, modern idiom by Hayon Studio (image 14).
Source: Charles Pierce, The Household Manager. London: Routledge & Co., 1857. Via Google Books.
Images: 1 & 2 Images from the Kelly Wearstler-designed BG restaurant at Bergdorf Goodman, featuring updated porter's chairs, via Kelly Wearstler; 3 Jacob Jordaens, The Satyr and the Peasant, Flemish, ca. 1620-21, via Wikipedia; 4 Jacob Jordaens, As the Old Sang, so the Young Pipe, Flemish, ca. 1638-40, via Wikipedia; 5 Antique porter's chair from Aston Hall, a 17th-century mansion in England; 6 Pair of vintage caned porter's chairs sold at Pieces, an Atlanta furniture store, via Have Degree Will Travel; 7 An English Regency (early 19th c.) hall porter's chair sold by Christie's in 1999 for $5737; 8 A hall porter's chair from the early 20th century, sold by Christie's in 2009 for $4362; 9 Pair of 20th-century wicker hall porter's chairs from the Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island, via Meghan Mary Morrow; 10 1906 image from Scheveningen Beach, near the Hague, via Happy Hotelier; 11 Contemporary wicker beach chair, via Chair Blog; 12 Porter's chair at Restoration Hardware; 13 Porter's chair from Jayson Home & Garden; 14 Updated porter's chair form by Hayon Studio.