For everything that’s legal and bad for you, there’s someone who wants to tell you it’s actually good. Wine can help prevent heart disease, and beer increases bone density. French fries give you a good dose of fiber. Women’s magazines now just consist of studies telling you that it’s okay to eat chocolate, illustrated by a photo of two of Jennifer Lawrence.
So it should come as little surprise that the most maligned piece of household furniture, the puffy living room brute/upholstered man-womb/promoter of extreme laziness known as the recliner, has a long history of being advertised as a health aid. In fact, some of the earliest consumer recliners were made by medical device companies — variations on the chairs they were making for doctors and dentists at the time. For example, take a look at this display from the Truax & Company physician’s supply catalog from 1890:
The previous page in the catalog advertises a similar-looking piece of furniture that was “the most complete Chair and Operating Table for the Gynecologist and Surgeon.” (As far as I can tell, this home version doesn’t come with the stirrups.)
But let’s back up for a moment to define what we mean by recliner. For our purposes, we’re talking about a chair meant for indoor use with moving parts — any old fainting couch or daybed for eating grapes won’t do. According to Witold Rybczynski, author of, Now I Sit Me Down, the sort of recliner we’re talking about first showed up around 1830 in the form of the Morris Chair, “a low wooden armchair with a hinged back whose angle could be altered by degrees.” Its reclining function was less about relaxing and more about making the chair comfortable for people of different shapes and sizes — previously, that was solved by simply making different-sized chairs for different-sized people.
Many of the recliners that followed soon after were either made by medical device companies, as in the example above, or created with health purposes in mind. The early 1900s “Sitzmaschine” was designed for sanatoriums, and the 1922 French Le Surrepos was “intended for convalescents,” according to Rybczynski. Although, to a non-French-speaker such as myself, the ads just look like they’re for the first chair designed specifically to handle French ennui:
But even in the early 1900s, there were those who recognized that relaxation could actually be enjoyed by those who were not invalid or actively dying. Thus, there were recliners like Foot’s Adjustable Chair-Couch, which had enough gee-gaws to look like a real-life version of the Roundhouse dad’s motorized chair. It featured attachments for tables, a reading desk, and electric lights, plus side panels that opened in case you needed to expel yourself out of the side of the chair, like if there was a snake in front of it or something.
And then, in 1928, there was “a momentous event in relaxation” created by two cousins who were “anything but lazy.” I am, of course, talking about the invention of La-Z-Boy’s first recliner, and quoting from the corporate history book The Legend of La-Z-Boy. (The author, Jeffrey L. Rodengen, has created “The Legend of…” books for at least 40 companies and products, including The Legend of Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers and The Legend of Discount Tire Co. (co-authored with Richard F. Hubbard]).
The crucial La-Z-Boy patent was for a reclining mechanism that didn’t need a button or a lever, but the chair didn’t take off until someone suggested that they take their wooden outdoor model and upholster it. Then, even La-Z-Boy got in on the health-related advertising:
Of course, it’s not bullshit — relaxation is healthy and necessary. And by the 1950s, relaxation was well-deserved and something Americans were ready to wholeheartedly embrace. The war was over, recliner prices fell, and prosperity was good. By 1958, La-Z-Boy advertisements moved from health claims to ads like this:
If you’re wondering about the bulk of The Legend of La-Z-Boy and how La-Z-Boy chairs changed over time, it’s basically a chair version of The Six-Million Dollar Man: “Gentlemen, we can make him plusher. Closer to the wall. For women.” (One of the section titles is, simply, “A Woman’s Chair.” It’s about how, in the 1980s, the company realized that women also like to stop standing at some point in the day.)
The Legend of La-Z-Boy is also the story of a small company turning into a major corporation as relaxation sweeps the marketplace: The beginning of the book is filled with tidbits like La-Z-Boy founders Knabusch and Shoemaker building a mouse circus to entertain children while their parents shopped for furniture. (“They enlisted the help of a neighbor, who caught a dozen mice in his corncrib.”) The back of the book, meanwhile, features folksy details like “The merger with Centurion stimulated the development of the recliner market in the United Kingdom and Ireland and worked to increase awareness and acceptance of motion furniture.”
Of course, there was another big shift that occurred in the ‘50s — the addition of the TV to many households. Suddenly, there was something keeping butts in a whole variety of seats — not just recliners — for long, lazy periods of time. La-Z-Boy embraced it:
But with its bloated upholstery and need to float away from the wall like a teenager that doesn’t want to be seen with its parents, the recliner serves as the poster child for our universal laziness in the television era; putting a sitcom dad in a recliner is the easiest way to demonstrate that man isn’t doing a goddamn thing for the next several hours (except complain! Am I right, ladies?). The Legend of La-Z-Boy even admits that the chair is highlighted in a book called The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste.
And it’s not just La-Z-Boy that’s been maligned for ugliness and promotion of inertia. The Barcalounger has gotten it bad too; a 1991 Washington Post article noted about the new crop of Barcaloungers: “The good news about these chairs is that they don’t look like Barcaloungers.”
It doesn’t really matter if the recliner doesn’t live up to the health claims of its early years or sticks out from your other living room furniture like an upholstered pimple, though. It doesn’t matter if it encourages us sliding into a TV-fueled stupor, collecting our chip crumbs and ice cream stains like a snacktime scrapbook. The recliner is the mistress of chairs — ignored or maligned in public, but loved deeply in the privacy of our homes for what it provides: a comfort that we all deserve.