Easing into the Past: A Brief History of Being Comfortable

Easing into the Past: A Brief History of Being Comfortable

Carolyn Purnell
Feb 7, 2013

We all want to be comfortable, and it seems like a fair assumption that people in the past wanted the same thing. But some recent cultural historians paint a different picture, arguing that there's nothing natural about it.

Humans have certain biological needs, and dwellings have long been built and arranged according to those needs. But according to a number of historians, the eighteenth century marked a definitive turning point in the history of comfort, when, in the words of historian Daniel Roche, "an increasingly large section of the population began to give greater weight to comfort," and "elementary needs became means to refinement." In the words of John Crowley, "Physical comfort—self-conscious satisfaction with the relationship between one's body and its immediate physical environment—was an innovative aspect of Anglo-American culture, one that had to be taught and learned."

So how did this change occur? The basic narrative goes something like this: because of the expansion of investment, industry, and trade in the eighteenth century, a new middle class was created in Europe. Previously, one's social status had been determined by birth—one was noble by blood or by exemplary service to the king—but things started to change in the eighteenth century, and wealth became much more of a social determinant. Now there was a group of people with more money at their disposal, and commercial culture, which was in its infancy, blossomed. New products cropped up, vying for the attentions of these new consumers, and they were confronted with a new world of choice. Where one style of chair may have been available to them before, they were now confronted with twenty styles, and where they might had previously had access primarily to local products, improved transportation and enlarged colonial connections made a variety of products newly available.

As this new consumer class was born, philosophers and social commentators vented their frustrations at luxury, claiming it to be an agent of moral corruption. "Soft commerce" (doux commerce), as it was called, softened the men who partook of it, making them weak, effeminate, and more like an increasingly futile aristocracy. "Necessity," on the other hand, was the realm of poverty and paupers, of peasants who lived on black bread and had little access to niceties. "Comfort," a term that previously meant "aid" or "consolation" (as when one comforts one's friend), now came into vogue as a term that inhabited a middle ground between luxury and necessity, connoting a form of consumption that increased the ease of one's life without casting one into the moral danger posed by its more luxurious counterparts.

The effects of this change were widespread. According to historian Joan DeJean, the rise of comfort helped create a new concept of privacy (marked by the creation of individual, purpose-specific rooms like the bedroom and bathroom), fostered a new sense of individuality (consumers faced with a number of choices now had the option to choose products suited to their individual tastes), and helped develop a sense of bodily ease that translated into new forms of behavior and emotions (more comfortable furniture and fabrics led to a new respect for the informal and the sentimental). She even argues that a new form of love, driven more by affection and less by familial benefit, was reflected in this new vogue for comfort.

According to John Crowley, comfort played a key role in the development of human rights, forming part of the eighteenth-century reforms that called for an end to slavery and for reforms for the poor. Comfort, once the privilege of the few who could afford it, became naturalized as a new form of necessity. In Crowley's words, "By the last decades of the eighteenth century, the ideal of physical comfort had sufficient ideological force for humanitarians to incorporate it in their appeals for social justice toward the poor, the incarcerated, and the enslaved."

And recently, the beloved popular historian Bill Bryson has investigated the ways in which our concepts of comfort, which we take for granted as something private and individual, actually derive from a confluence of factors like colonialism, technology, and science.

Obviously, this is only the narrative for Western cultures, but I would be intrigued to see if there's a similar narrative for other parts of the world. For me, this literature offers an interesting insight into the types of values that we take for granted. When I purchase a sofa, I'm looking for something comfortable, and I rarely stop to think that that consideration itself is inflected by centuries of debate and innovation.

For more reading on the history of comfort, check out these titles:
The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual—and the Modern Home Began by Joan DeJean
The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America by John E. Crowley
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski
A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800 by Daniel Roche

(Image: Liana Walker for Apartment Therapy)

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