The Weird Story of How Recliners Became a Staple in American Living Rooms

The Weird Story of How Recliners Became a Staple in American Living Rooms

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Bridget Mallon
Jun 16, 2018
(Image credit: NBC/Getty Images)

Growing up, it never really felt like an official family party until my dad and uncle retired to the twin tan recliners in my grandparents' living room after dinner, while my grandpa settled into his own rusty orange recliner on the opposite side of the room. Within minutes of sitting down and kicking up their feet, all three would be sound asleep. How they could sleep through the sounds of six shrieking children pretending to be wolves, I'll never know. It must have been the chairs.

Walk into just about any family home in America and there's a good chance you'll be greeted by a well-worn reclining chair—or better yet, a matching set. You know the type: it's a little overstuffed, yes, but incomparably comfortable. It looks like it came straight out of a sitcom where the family patriarch spends the bulk of his time kicking back in his signature chair. It's an iconic piece of furniture.

And while you might assume recliners popped up when La-Z-Boy—perhaps the most iconic purveyor of these iconic chairs—was created in the '20s, recliners have actually existed in some form for more than 200 years. So sit back, relax (perhaps even recline) and read on to discover how reclining chairs went from the dentist to the sanitarium to train cars to innumerable living rooms.

Our fable begins in 1790, when an enterprising dentist named Josiah Flagg added a movable headrest to a Windsor writing chair to make appointments a little more comfortable for his patients. This paved the way for James Snell, who in 1832 created the first mechanical dental chair. In his version, patients could lean back in the adjustable chair to make the footrest automatically rise up. This reclining feature became common for dentist chairs moving forward, as seen in the vintage ad below.

(Image credit: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)

Beyond the wonderful world of dentistry, there are references to reclining chairs dating back as early as 1813. That year, Ackerman's Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics (say that three times fast) featured an illustrated image of a Fauteuil chair outfitted with "Messrs. Pocock's patent reclining principle, to incline the back to any position, with double reclining footstools, which slide from under the chair to extend it when the back is reclined to the length of a couch." Unfortunately no information is available about the small tiger-esque creatures flanking the chair, but they certainly add a dash of panache.

It's also said that one of the first versions of a reclining chair—similar to the Pocock example above, it could recline into a chaise or even a bed—was owned by Napoleon III around 1850.

Napoleon III
(Image credit: Photo Josse/Leemage/Getty Images)

But the real precursor to the recliners we know today came on the scene in the 1860s. That's when the design company of 19th century philosopher and designer (and creator of the Arts and Crafts movement) William Morris introduced the Morris Chair to the world. The original Morris Chair launched in Europe and featured a "back and seat made with bars across to put cushions on, moving on a hinge." And in 1880, just a few decades after the Morris Chair hit the market, people began referring to adjustable chairs as recliners.

After finding success in Europe, an updated version of the Morris Chair made its U.S. debut around 1901 when Gustav Stickley's design company introduced their take on the piece. Its ability to recline to multiple angles coupled with its comfortable cushions made the chair a popular choice for middle class Americans.

(Image credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

While the Morris Chair was gaining popularity in residential homes, reclining seats were also popping up in a variety of other locations around the world. In 1877, a Kansas City doctor named N.N. Horton designed an adjustable chair for trains in order to provide travelers a more comfortable way to sleep. And in the early 1900s, Josef Hoffman designed a reclining medical chair, known as the Sitzmaschine, for the Purkersdorf Sanatorium in Vienna, a building he designed, as well.

The Sitzmaschine
(Image credit: Imagno/Getty Images)

But travelers and medical patients weren't the only people in search of a more comfortable way to relax, and after the Morris Chair became a popular furniture choice, other reclining seats started popping up for at-home use. In the early 1900s, the Foot's Adjustable Rest-Chair hit the market with enough bells and whistles to make people take notice. It had the ability to recline, yes, but also featured attachments for tables, reading desks and even lights, making it the ultimate in relaxation. Its over-stuffed shape is a clear step toward the recliners we know today. The ad features a man enjoying a cigar, foreshadowing recliners' future in dad-approved comfort.

(Image credit: Print Collector/Getty Images)

But while these early prototypes paved the way for the chairs we know and love today, the real recliner heavyweights didn't hit the scene until 1928. That's when American cousins Edward Knabush and Edwin Shoemaker filed a patent application for a reclining wooden bench and started a little company you've probably heard of: La-Z-Boy.

"With the invention of the La-Z-Boy recliner 90 years ago, it changed the way Americans looked at furniture by putting comfort at the forefront," explained Eli Winkler, the Vice President of Marketing, Digital CX & Ecommerce for La-Z-Boy.

La-Z-Boy recliners quickly became the end-all be-all of reclining arm chairs—so much so that many people refer to recliners simply as La-Z-Boys—and found their way into a seemingly infinite number of American homes.

(Image credit: La-Z-Boy)

A little over a decade after La-Z-Boy hit the scene and took the chair world by storm, its most prominent competitor made its debut. In 1940, Edward Joel Barcolo acquired a license to produce "scientifically articulated" motion chairs that were patented by Dr. Anton Lorenz, and the Barcalounger was born.

With multiple brands marketing these upholstered, adjustable chairs as the ultimate way to relax at home, its no wonder recliners became a staple in our living rooms. By the time the '60s rolled around, reclining chairs were so popular that big name stars like Bing Crosby started popping up in ads.

(Image credit: La-Z-Boy)

This connection to pop culture continued in the decades to follow, as recliners started to appear in TV and movies, usually as the seat of choice for the production's crotchety dad or grandpa (when outdated expectations often said men were to relax as women took care of the home).

Who could forget Marty Crane's iconic weathered chair on Frasier? The fabric looked like the worst parts of '70s and '80s style got together and had a baby, and it did not fit into Frasier's sleek Eames-filled apartment at all, but it was the perfect place for Marty to rest his hip and continue being a lovable grump.

(Image credit: NBC/Getty Images)

Recliners became so popular that even TV bachelors had to get in on the game (TV dads can't have all the fun, after all). After Friends introduced Joey and Chandler's beloved Barcaloungers, the chairs practically became characters of their own, and honestly they do look insanely comfortable even if they're a bit too bulky for Monica's taste.

But now, 90 years after La-Z-Boy's creation and 228 years after the introduction of adjustable dental chairs, are recliners still in favor with the American public? According to interior designer Lauren Behfarin, the answer is yes, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. (Even being famous doesn't exempt you—remember Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell's adorably infamous recliner argument?)

"For better or worse, the recliner provides the ultimate comfort in living room seating and is here to stay," she said. "So I try to help clients find the most stylish way to incorporate them when they are requested."

"When we think of reclining chairs we think of the classic La-Z-Boy, kick your feet up, and watch some TV while eating dinner kind of moment," she continued. "But the recliner has come a long way since then, still providing comfort but looking a lot more sophisticated than those two chairs Chandler and Joey had in Friends."

The idea of adding more style to recliners is something La-Z-Boy has been focusing on as of late as well. The company recently introduced a new line, Duo, to mimic the look of stationary furniture but still provide the comfort that can only come from reclining.

"We've found that people still crave comfort, but don't want to sacrifice style," Eli Winkler from La-Z-Boy said. "Which is why we developed our new Duo line, which combines the modern look of stationary furniture with the comfort of a motion piece."

(Image credit: La-Z-Boy)

It's not just the look of recliners that's progressing either, Lauren Behfarin has also seen a shift in the way people are decorating with reclining chairs.

"I see them being requested more in nurseries, for the obvious comfort of nighttime feedings, and lounging with a sleeping baby on your chest," she explained.

(Image credit: Lauren Behfarin)

And while the tan armchairs from my grandparents' house have been replaced by two navy leather ones in my parents' home, and the children shrieking as they play pretend are now adults more likely to shriek with laughter while playing Telestrations, one thing's for sure: It's not a family party until my dad and uncle take their rightful places on the twin recliners and take a post-dinner nap.

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