Postures of Transport Sex, God, and Rocking Chairs

What if chairs had the ability to shift our state of consciousness, transporting the imagination into distant landscapes and ecstatic experiences, both religious and erotic? In an essay about the British and American fascination with rocking chairs and upholstery springs in the 19th century, Hunter Dukes discovers how simple furniture technologies allowed armchair travelers to explore worlds beyond their own.

February 3, 2021

dr syntax dreaming in a chairScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

The pastor Dr Syntax dreaming in “a well-stuff’d Morocco chair”. An illustration by Thomas Rowlandson from William Combe’s poetic trilogy, The Three Tours of Dr. Syntax (1809–1821) — Source.

The furniture of the nineteenth century is difficult to approach. Not for lack of material, which abounds at every turn. The difficulty lies rather in the psychological domain.
—Sigfried Giedion1
. . . and the piece of furniture [meuble]—oh, surprise, surprise—into an automobile.
—Michel Serres2

When is an armchair something more? When it becomes a mode of imaginary locomotion. Elbowed seats date back millennia, but the expression “armchair traveler” did not appear until the early 1800s. These bookish men and women (in their proto La-Z-Boys) followed Emerson’s advice: the wise stay at home.3 With enough literacy and time, you could walk the world from an easy chair or roam Constantinople on an ottoman. Discussions of armchair travel tend to focus on the travelogue. But what about the chair itself in the nineteenth century? Its changing styles and technologies — the advent of rockers, say, or upholstery springs? And how do techniques of the reading body, the physical regimens of leisure and reverie, feed what we might call the sedentary imagination?

I ask this last question with two tangled senses of imagination in mind: both the horizon of seated cognition (what kind of things it was possible to imagine at rest) and the representation of lounging bodies in literature and popular culture. While armchair traveler refers to gapers of stereographs or travel-lit enthusiasts, consumers of colonial memoirs and explorers’ journals, my sights are on a more obscure tradition: those who use furniture and other props to trick the mind into ambulation. Toward the century’s turn, readers piloted mahogany spaceships, upholstered time machines with tufted buttons: the seat base jounced and rocked its occupant into journeys of the mind: adventurous, erotic, or devout.

“If ‘a landscape is a state of mind’”, the artist Bowyer Nichols once declared, “so too is a paneled room, a chair, or a table. These things have an indwelling spirit, to those who care to question them confiding in response”.4 We should ask the question, try to understand the states of mind produced by variations in the spinal column: a presence or lack of lumbar support, the thoracic angle of repose. If chairs answer back, only part of their reply can be heard through history. The rest will come from an awareness of our own engagements, the curve of the cushioned seat that lets me make these words, or whatever takes the weight off as you proceed to read.

Edmund Adolphus Kirby’s adjusting couchScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Edmund Adolphus Kirby’s patent specification for an “adjusting couch”, to be used for medical, surgical, and general purposes (1852–1854) — Source.

Virtual Travel, or, How to Kill a Shark from the Chaise

“He travels and I too”, wrote William Cowper in his 1785 poem The Task, in reference to the experience of reading nautical travelogues. His speaker treads the decks of colliers and climbs their topmasts, muddying the moat between experience and recollection: “through his peering eyes / Discover countries, with a kindred heart”.5 John Keats uses the same sort of image in his 1816 “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, where opening an Elizabethan translation makes one party to colonial conquest. His speaker feels like “stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He stared at the Pacific”.6 In both poems, books become uplinks to eyes trained on the edges of empire.

In correspondence, Cowper kills the swashbuckling vibe, reveals the Kurtz in Keats’s Cortez. After reading John Hawkesworth’s edition of James Cook’s Voyages, gifted to him by John Newton (erstwhile slaver, born-again abolitionist, hymnist of “Amazing Grace”), Cowper wrote a thank-you note:

My imagination is so captivated upon these occasions, that I seem to partake with the navigators in all the dangers they encountered. I lose my anchor; my main-sail is rent into shreds; I kill a shark, and by signs converse with a Patagonian, and all this without moving from the fire-side. The principal fruits of these circuits that have been made round the globe seem likely to be the amusement of those that stayed at home.7

Beneath these mannered pleasantries, the proclaimed elation with bloodsports, Cowper chides Cook for the imperial casualties of adventure narratives. “Nations that live upon bread-fruit, and have no mines to make them worthy of our acquaintance, will be but little visited for the future. So much the better for them; their poverty is indeed their mercy.”8 (Note the doubled usage of “fruit” in this letter: on the one hand the breadfruit that feeds Cowper’s spared colonies, on the other, the fruits of explorers’ global circuits, the sellable stories of derring-do for those that stayed at home.)

While Cowper intimates something morally askew with the economic and cultural systems that allowed Captain Cook to capture the Georgian imagination, he also worries about the physical effects of armchair travel. “Assure yourself that easy chairs are no friends to cheerfulness, and that a long winter spent by the fireside is a prelude to an unhealthy spring.”9

A century or so later, Joris-Karl Huysmans was a novelist for whom Cowper’s sedentary malaise became a springboard toward new forms of imaginary transport. During a biographical work about the medieval Dutch mystic Lydwine of Schiedam, who suffered progressive paralysis, Huysmans describes how the housebound saint travelled “motionless on a bed”.10 Using this technique, and with an angelic guide, Lydwine is able to visit Rome’s seven pilgrimage churches and local convents in the Low Countries, commenting on their architecture in astounding detail. But mental travel had physical consequences: spraining her foot in a distant ravine, Lydwine returns from the ecstatic journey to find it dislocated upon the bed.

Saint LydwineScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A woodcut from Johannes Brugman’s incunable, Vita alme virginis Lijdwine (1498), which depicts the mystic’s travels — Source.

For those without angels, Huysmans offers a secular version of sedentary travel in À rebours (translated as Against the Grain or Against Nature), when its reclusive protagonist Jean des Esseintes fingers gauge nets and rolls of nautical sail; inhales lime, salt steam, and sulfate of soda; reads guidebooks describing the seashore’s splendor. The result? Something like virtual reality avant la lettre:

Thus, without stirring, he enjoyed the rapid motions of a long sea voyage . . . The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself . . . What is the use of moving, when one can travel on a chair so magnificently?11

This hallucinating homebody summons the image of a mystic fallen, an anchorite whose devotions have turned from the spirit toward sensation. A less-consecrated recipe for sailors of the settee appeared in Fun magazine a year later, signed by one Diogenes Tubb: an apt pseudonym for fantasies of immobile travel.

Get a packet of Tidman’s sea salt and put it in a pail of hot water beside you, then recline on a rocking-chair after having devoured hastily a fat ham-sandwich. Rock yourself violently and inhale the salt steam. It’s every bit as good as a steamboat journey, and a great deal cheaper.12

Invoking the cynic philosopher who lived in a pithos, Tubb apes Huysmans for a different reading class, trades his Michelin for a Baedeker. These adult games are a form of child’s play, as a poem published in The Youth’s Companion (1909) makes clear:

When I do not wish to stay
At my home I go away;
And my trusty rocking chair
Knows the road to everywhere.
Up and down the parlor floor.
Travelling twenty times or more . . .
Then I make believe that we
Are two thousand miles at sea;13

Huysmans and Tubb had a precursor in Xavier de Maistre, whose 1794 Voyage autour de ma chambre (A Journey Round My Room) was translated into English for the first time in 1871. A soldier in the Sardinian army, De Maistre was placed under forty-two days of house arrest for illegal dueling. During the isolation, he scabbards his épée and unsheaths a pen. The resulting “voyage” is Lilliputian, but that’s the point. Summaries make the author sound like Lil Jon in a cravat: chair to bed to window, wall, and back again. Yet how does one do it? With a vehicle, of course. “I had so placed myself in my arm-chair . . . I was able, by balancing myself from left to right, to make by degrees, and at last, almost without knowing it, to get close to the wall, for this is how I travel when not pressed for time”.14 Couchsurfing in its truest sense; just imagine if he had had a rocking chair.

Xavier de Maistre illustrationScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Xavier de Maistre in an armchair, displaying his “book of discoveries”. A miniature by Veyssier from Jean Tardieu’s “pretty little edition of the ‘Voyage’”, published in 1860 — Source.

De Maistre might be the most famous chair traveler, but he did not venture alone. As Bernd Stiegler recounts in his history of the “room-travel” genre, Xavier was joined by Léon Gautier’s Voyage d’un catholique autour sa chambre (1862); Emma Faucon’s Voyage d’une jeune fille autour sa chambre (1864); Edmond de Goncourt’s Voyage dans un grenier (1878); Marie O’Kennedy’s Inventaire de ma chambre (1884); and many more bedsit inventories and parlor peregrinations.15 My favorite chair traveler appears in Murphy (1938), Samuel Beckett’s first published novel. Murphy too finds chairs transporting, but in a different way. He chooses the ascetic over the exotic and tries to romp, not through foreign lands, but in the mind of God:

He sat naked in his rocking-chair of undressed teak, guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode, or creak at night. It was his own, it never left him . . . Seven scarves held him in position. Two fastened his shins to the rockers, one his thighs to the seat, two his breast and belly to the back, one his wrists to the strut behind . . . He sat in his chair in this way because it gave him pleasure! First it gave his body pleasure, it appeased his body. Then it set him free in his mind.16

There are many good theories for the explosion of armchair travel. Between 1815 and 1914, the British Empire colonized more than ten million square miles of territory, subjugating an additional 400 million people. With the decline of Grand Tour and “voyage” narratives that had fueled the genre, this era saw the demographics of travel writing widen. Tourist gained its contemporary pejorative associations; urban commuters became a thing, as did globe-trotters. By the 1880s, passengers could board a Parisian train and alight in Istanbul. Telegraphy and telephones linked the near with the farther, while panoramas, zoetropes, magic lanterns, and stereoscopy continued to lengthen the colonial gaze. In London, exhibitions like the Egyptian Hall and the British Museum’s acquisition of the Elgin Marbles brought treasures from “antique lands” into the metropole. By 1914, a narrator in James Joyce’s Dubliners could visit something like “Arabia” without leaving Dublin, an example of what Edward Said called Orientalism’s radical realism.17 Armchair travel is a parodic endpoint for the spring-like compression of geographic space. Why travel at all, if the world — that is, a specific representation of the world, which veils accuracy under the cloak of immediacy — comes home to you?

stereograph of a woman looking at a stereographScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A stereograph enthusiast using a stereoscope as “an educator”, seated next to a cabinet designed for storing additional stereographs (1901) — Source.

But let’s return to Tubb and Murphy, the way that chair travel can resemble Lydwine’s mystical practices, religious techniques for spiritual transit. While there are some tongues in the cheeks of those passages I quoted above, they depict secularized versions of ritual transportation. The salty vapor of a steaming bath might as well stream from thuribles in the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox mass. It’s no surprise that smudged frankincense has psychotropic properties. And rocking?

Nineteenth-century klismonauts, if you will, knew something that scientists did not demonstrate until 2011, when a paper for Current Biology claimed that rocking chairs are wavy: they approximate sea travel, but also compound the waves in our brains, boosting slow oscillations and spindle activity. While this research focuses on how rocking “facilitates the transition from waking to sleep”, what about those twilight states of hypnagogic consciousness?18 How much of chair travel’s imaginary motion comes from the somatic rhythms of rockers and upholstery springs?

An 1873 essay in the Edinburgh Review asked the same question about hypnosis and mesmerism. “As regards the simple effect in question, we believe we might as well speak of sermon sleep, of rocking-cradle sleep, of the sleep of an easy arm-chair, or of a dull book, as of Mesmeric sleep.”19 The author means to dismiss mesmerism, but there is nothing simple about this effect. If rockers produce profound changes in our brain’s electrical impulses, then cradles, easy chairs (which, by the 1870s, were often outfitted with upholstery springs), and even the cadences of a preacher are advanced neuropsychological technologies.

woman being mesmerised in a chairScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A practitioner of mesmerism using animal magnetism on a woman seated in an “easy” armchair. On the verso side, an advertisement for A. Brierre de Boismont’s 1845 Des hallucinations ou Histoire raisonnée des apparitions, des visions, des songes, de l’extase, du magnétisme et du somnambulisme (Hallucinations: or, the rational history of apparitions, visions, dreams, ecstasy, magnetism, and somnambulism) — Source.

What is the overlap between the halting physicality of certain shamanic practices and the physiological effects of rocking furniture? Take, for instance, Orthodox Jewish shuckling — swaying backward and forward in prayer, believed by some to boost the wireless connection with God. “For the mystics”, writes Ronald L. Eisenberg, “shuckling during prayer represented an erotic union with the Divine.”20 While I would rather feed myself to Cowper’s parlor shark than imply Alan Dershowitz a mystic, he too credits shuckling with . . . well, you can read for yourself:

I need to thank my local synagogue for helping me discover sex. I am convinced that some higher authority built the benches at precisely the right height to introduce sexual feelings at precisely the right time. When Orthodox Jews pray, they shake back and forth while standing. When I reached a certain height, the top of the bench in front of me, which had a curve, was exactly parallel to my genitals. It was while shuckling back and forth in the synagogue that I experienced my first arousal.21

What a suggestion: that a temple’s seating redirects the sexual impulses of adolescence back toward the Torah. A joke, I think (and a queasy one at that, in the autobiography of a man accused of raping a minor, who has advocated throughout his career for lowering the age of consent). Yet it serves, unfortunately, to introduce a different dimension of my argument. Like other entheogenic techniques (drugs, song, rhythm, light, sex), the ecstasy induced by rockers can lead upward, in the case of Beckett’s Murphy, or deeper into the sensual world.

The Motion of Moveables

While moral and spiritual comfort arrived in English through Anglo-Norman, our sense of comfortable as being physically content, relaxed and reclined, appears in the late eighteenth century. Soon after, a type of French easy chair, the confortable, became popular at home and abroad. What made it cozy? The systematic use of springs, hidden beneath inflated upholstery. In 1833, it was still possible for J.C. Loudon to claim that “the effect of spiral springs as stuffing has been long known to men of science; but so little to upholsterers, that a patent for using them in stuffing was taken out, some years ago, as a new invention.”22 Soon after, however, chairs gained ornate shapes, cushioned bases that had been impossible before the employment of springs. “It would appear that as the century drew to its close”, writes Dorothy Holley, “some of the furniture assumed proportions so great as though it would burst.”23 During a wild treatise on posture, Sigfried Giedion describes this period as the reign of the upholster. “Furniture became a means of filling the room; to inflate its bulk was the first step.”24 Whereas chairs were once classified under a set of possessions called moveables (meubles), now that motion had moved into the seat itself.25

diagrams of furniture springsScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Figures from the “Springing Up” chapter of John W. Stephenson’s Furniture Upholstering (1914) — Source.

The elasticity of springs created new caches in the Victorian imagination. Chairs were no longer skeletons — now their bones were buried inside vaulted seats and cushions, fabrics domed on animate springs in coiled and zig-zag form. With new spaces (however hidden) come new narrative possibilities. To wit: a story called “The Scissors Swallower” from Frederick Barnard and Charles H. Ross’s Behind the Brass Knocker: Some Grim Realities (1883). Mrs. Mite’s boarding house has a particular problem: the scissors always disappear. Not one pair, mind, “I mean everybody’s scissors—the scissors of the united household—and every lady member of it, and, indeed, a few of the gentlemen even, continually invest in pair after pair of scissors with quite reckless prodigality.”26 A rumor starts — hearsay spreads like bedbugs in the boardinghouse — that a certain “aged, shriveled, high-dried” woman is the culprit.27 The narrator first compares her to a voracious shark, then to a “cheerful nautical person” who participated in a fatal, object-eating wager.28 Upon dissection, his stomach is found to contain half-digested knives, “some of them with four blades”, among other kitchen items.29

Indexed under…

When the old woman dies, another kind of dissection takes place. Mrs. Mite inherits her armchair and reupholsters it, ripping off the worn leather to get at the stuffing below. “The stuffing below! What think you it was composed of? Horsehair, to be sure, and springs more or less damaged, and fifty-three pairs of scissors that had somehow slipped down through the crevices in the woodwork.”30 The Scissors Swallower of the title is not the late woman after all, but her lounger. The story trades on a resemblance between the spring cushion’s rhythmic compressions and a stomach’s accordion rhythms. The seat partakes in a mechanical form of deglutition and digestion.

upholstering a chair Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

An 18th-century engraving by Robert Bénard after Radel, which shows the stages of upholstering a chair before the popularization of springs — Source.

In the spatial imaginary, locked rooms are a default location for hidden psychic content. Yet in the examples to follow, repression is offset by a kind of evidential decompression. Moving furniture resists the compartmentalization of domestic space: worn-out springs hint at last night’s affairs, the rocker’s rasps amplify an activity taking place behind closed doors. If the basement of American homes served as a storehouse for the id in the twentieth century, the upwelling of libidinous energy exploited by Hitchcock and other contributors to horror, new furniture technologies played an analogous role in the nineteenth-century parlor. For the latter case, however, we find moving furniture explicitly coupled to fraught scenes of sexuality.

Dershowitz was not the first teen to get off on seatbacks. Consider, for instance, the trope of broken springs or rockers, evidence of hanky-pank conducted in the social, family rooms of Britain and America. Three years after “The Scissors Swallower”, the Birmingham Owl published a humorous “letter” titled “A Sweetheart’s Bill,” supposedly penned by a father named Hezekiah Blodgers, whose daughter, Maria, has given her suitor “the sack”.31 Note, below, the broken rocking chair and the damaged upholstery springs.

a sweetheart’s billScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Detail from “A Sweetheart’s Bill” in The Owl: A Journal of Wit and Wisdom (1886) — Source.

The letter ends with a threat. If the suitor comes around again, “I’ll whale the life out of you and make you glad to sit down on your stomach for the rest of the week”.32 In the former story, the old woman’s sexual illegibility — “aged, shriveled, high-dried” — precedes the broken springs beneath her seat. In this letter, presumed heavy petting, sexual energy discharged outside of normative social structures, breaks the springs and rocking chair. With strange symmetry, the corrective punishment (whaling) will force the beau to sit on his stomach, the way the accused Scissors Swallower sat on hers (shark).

We encounter the same sexual trope, sans springs or sea creatures, in a poem titled “A Parlour Secret” that circulated through various magazines and newspapers between the 1890s and mid 1910s (I found it in the Chicago Evening Post and Australia’s Mercury and Weekly Courier, to take just two examples):

Why does the family rocking chair
    That’s silent all the week
On Sunday nights in mad despair
    Proceed to mildly squeak?
Whenever father rocks it will
    In gentle swaying go,
It never seems to squeak until
    The daughter has a beau.
Ah! Who that knows the cause would dare
    To spoil the lovers’ fun?
“Two souls with but a single chair;
Two forms that rock as one.”33
a parlour secret postcardScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A couple sharing a rocking chair in a postcard by Bamforth & Co, a West Yorkshire film and illustration company known for their risqué, seaside content (1907) — Source.

Adopting a cliché from Friedrich Halm’s play Ingomar, The Barbarian, this poem reduces spiritual ecstasy to physical intimacy.34 I do not know enough about sex in the nineteenth century to wager on the act. Furtive lap sitting? A variation of the Kama Sutra’s love swing? Or is the rocking chair a sonic euphemism, providing a more palatable source for the squeaking? We lack a history of the bodily techniques associated with springs and rocking furniture: a creaking mattress in the in-laws’ guestroom; the childhood taboo against jumping on beds; or murderous recliners. But I do know that upholstery springs and rocking chairs furnished Victorian erotic writing. For example, this scene from The Romance of Lust, published in the 1870s:

There was a perfectly shaded walk in the east shrubbery leading from the greenhouse down to a most charming summer house overlooking the very finest prospect, and perfectly secure from all observation. It was furnished very appropriately for amorous purposes, the couches being low, broad, and with patent spring-cushions. In the sequel it was the scene of many a bout of lubricity.35

Or, let me proffer this creepy excerpt from the third volume of My Secret Life, an obsessive, million-word, highly pornographic “memoir” that began appearing in the late 1880s:

By the sofa was an American rocking-chair, the first I ever recollect having seen. Matilda began rocking herself in it, I rocked the chair violently for her and then as far as it would go, back and held it there, then rapidly I pushed one hand up her petticoats.36

Rocking chairs (and seats that rocked) carried an erotic charge in the nineteenth century, approximating, perhaps, a tumble dryer before its time.

For a certain type of Victorian mind, easy chairs made easy women. Polite society sat erect. Some American commentators found these English regimens laughable. “I am told that the English nation sit bolt upright, like mummies”, wrote the humorist Fanny Fern in “A Chapter on Chairs” for The London Reader (1864). “Poor creatures! No wonder they are so red in the face.”37

While rocking chairs had been around America since the early eighteenth century, they did not fully enter the European consciousness until the 1830s, when travelers to the United States began commenting on their ubiquity. “In America”, wrote James Frewin for The Architectural Magazine and Journal in 1838, “it is considered a compliment to give the stranger the rocking-chair as a seat; and when there is more than one kind in the house, the stranger is always presented with the best.” Not everyone appreciated the gesture.

That same year, in her Retrospect of Western Travel, the British social theorist Harriet Martineau stops off at a small inn between Stockbridge and Albany, New York. She describes “the disagreeable practice” of rocking in chairs and finds “ladies who are vibrating in different directions, and at various velocities, so as to try the head of a stranger almost as severely as the tobacco chewer his stomach.”38 A similar description later appeared in the Michigan Farmer and other magazines, echoing both the rocker’s nicotinic effects and asynchronicity; the author calls rocking chairs a woman’s “nervine, a narcotic, a stimulant”, and describes “a woman photographer [who] would sit in a rocker with a camera in her lap and placidly photograph a group of rocking women in rockers of various gaits”.39

two women on a rocking chairScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Two students sharing a rocking chair at Macalester College, Minnesota — Source.

Once Martineau gets going, she has trouble stopping. “How this lazy and ungraceful indulgence ever became general, I cannot imagine”, she laments, before painting America as the Land of the Rocker:

When American ladies come to live in Europe, they sometimes send home for a rocking-chair. A common wedding present is a rocking-chair. A beloved pastor has every room in his house furnished with a rocking-chair by his grateful and devoted people. It is well that the gentlemen can be satisfied to sit still, or the world might be treated with the spectacle of the sublime American Senate in a new position; its fifty-two senators see-sawing in full deliberation, like the wise birds of a rookery in a breeze.40

Charles Dickens made a parallel observation in his American Notes, finding a rocking chair aboard a steamship on the Connecticut river: “But even in this chamber there was a rocking-chair. It would be impossible to get on anywhere, in America, without a rocking-chair.”41 (Note the symmetry here: Dickens in a travelogue finds a rocker on a steamer; Tubb reads in his rocker to approximate the pitch and roll of steamboat journeys.) The novelist seems to appreciate his seesawing surroundings, but it is tough to tell what exactly gets Martineau’s goat. The fact that the parlor women are vibrating?

Lincoln’s rocking chair when he was assassinatedScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

The black walnut and red silk rocking chair in which Abraham Lincoln died from a gunshot wound at Ford Theatre on April 14, 1865. That morning, the President recalled dreaming of boarding “a singular and indescribable vessel that was moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore.” — Source

patent for a rocking chair with fanScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A patent drawing for C. Horst’s Combined Rocking Chair and Fan (1847) — Source.

While we often associate springs with energetic release (trampolines and Tigger’s tail, Pogo sticks and prank nut cans stuffed with a tubular snake) they can also dampen motion (shock absorbers) or cancel it altogether. In the mid-nineteenth century, upholstery springs were introduced into train seating to absorb the jolts of rail transit on passengers’ nervous systems: a public health concern, connected to both sexual and physical disturbances. “A compulsive link of this kind between railway-travel and sexuality is clearly derived from the pleasurable character of the sensations of movement”, wrote Sigmund Freud in his essay on infantile sexuality.42 Adults and adolescents “will react to rocking or swinging with a feeling of nausea, will be terribly exhausted by a railway journey, or will be subject to attacks of anxiety”. And, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch chronicled, The Lancet released a pamphlet on The Influence of Railway Travelling on Public Health in 1862, describing an ergonomic antidote to wobbling train cars . . . namely, more rocking:

The springs of railway carriages, the horse-hair seats (and the elastic floor of cork supplied to the new royal carriage), are recognitions of the principle, which the habitual traveler may wisely extend for himself by many expedients, if he keeps in view what he has to attain—elasticity.

The disagreement over the costs and benefits of spring seating extended into rocking chairs too. In 1896, the Christian Observer reported that the chair’s oscillations have “a wonderful effect in stimulating the gastro-intestinal peristalsis”.43 But a 1905 article in Health described a condition known as rocking-chair spine: “the rocking-chair is an unmixed evil . . . [which] begins its deadly mission very early in the lives of its victims . . . [it] perpetually changes the equilibrium of the body and agitates the circulation”, argued William S. Birge. “It injures the eyes, as it continually changes the focus of whatever one may be looking at. It so disturbs the brain that physicians have forbidden mothers and nurses to rock delicate babies.”44

An Uneasy Chair (Coda)

When did my obsession — with a chair I had never sat in, in a painting only seen online — begin? Sometime during quarantine, when I sought images of closed domestic worlds, lives lived unobserved, like ours had suddenly become. Vilhelm Hammershøi’s interiors fit the criteria. Mute and soft, they are washed in the raw light that I only know from Nordic winters. Like so many of his other works, Hammershøi painted Interior with Young Man Reading (1898) in his apartment: Strandgade 30, Copenhagen, where he lived with his wife, Ida Ilsted, for eleven years, beginning in 1898.

Vilhelm Hammershøi Interior with a Young Man ReadingScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with a Young Man Reading (1898) — Source.

But as with any good neurosis, perhaps its roots were always there — those stackable blue chairs of American schools, with their four steel bolts and slotted bodies . . . did that particular constellation of sensation and support, known to administrators as the Virco 9000, prime me to fixate, decades later, on the interface between human back and chair splat? No. At least, as far as I’m aware: we would need the comfort of an analyst’s couch to get at those depths.

It’s something in particular about this chair in Hammershøi’s painting, the way it demands attention. And the young man’s refusal to use the writing table, almost as if he is backing away. I see myself in him, typing from an armchair, avoiding the desk where I pay my bills. Sure, the light might be better for him by the window. Or perhaps he needs to lean into his novel with more movement and elasticity than those springless ribs allow. Watch how desk and chair (dark wood, pink cushion, white paint) mirror the gradient of his body (dark suit, pink face, white collar). And how the chair looks upon two anatomical drawings, as if trying to study their human form.

When I behold this painting, I do not know whether to focus on the boy’s face or his furniture. This reader is completely absorbed; but the chair, alert. Does it want to reciprocate my gaze? Do you feel that too? I think he made the right choice: not sitting. This same chair shows up in other paintings. And those who succumb seem to suffer. When Ida occupies it, she bends over an unseen task, and the deep focus and vertiginous vanishing point expand the apartment in a terrifying way, the indoor version of Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows”, as if gravity might pull her through the open door should she try to stand.

Vilhelm Hammershøi Interior with Ida in a White ChairScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Ida in a White Chair (1900) — Source.

I’ve gone so far as to try and trace its movements, how a chair like that (of British design) traveled to Denmark at the century’s turn. The form leads to George Hepplewhite’s 1789 The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, which contained furniture patterns to “unite elegance and utility, and blend the useful with the agreeable”.45 Its clean lines and shield back updated styles associated with Louis XVI and the Adam brothers, Hepplewhite’s precursors. Thomas Sheraton — whose own Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1791-93, revised 1802) reads like a geometry textbook, full of words such as cyma and mixtilinear — took a shot at this model: “if we compare some of the designs, particularly the chairs, with the newest taste, we shall find that this work has already caught the decline, and perhaps, in a little time, will suddenly die in the disorder”.46 Nothing like that happened, however, and the shield became a Hepplewhite classic. But Hammershøi’s paintings make me wonder if oblivion could have been a kinder fate.

As for Denmark, I cannot say if this style was common or unique (similar chairs show up in the work of Ida’s brother, Peter Ilsted, but there they are the joyous furniture of family life). I wrote a letter to the Danish Design Museum and a kind curator phoned the leading expert on Danish furniture from 1840-1920, Mirjam Gelfer-Jørgensen. She examined the chair and found no markings or signatures of the manufacturer. “Apparently no one knows who produced them”, ends the email. I also learned that English chairs were so desired by eighteenth-century Danes that the state banned importation. Workshops popped up soon after, imitating the designs of Thomas Chippendale. I imagine Hepplewhite proved popular too.

I tried to track the chair itself and had better luck. It now lives next to its painted form in Copenhagen’s Hirschsprung Collection. A curator told me that Hammershøi had left the chair to a janitor in Bredgade, from whom Emil Hannover, the Hirschsprung’s first director, purchased it in 1916. My guess is that the small sign on the seat base, seen in this photograph, says “no sitting” in Danish. But should the tourist do so anyway, what could she learn? To where would she be transported? Or is there no motion here?

Hunter Dukes is managing editor of The Public Domain Review and Cabinet.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.