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Why a chair?

January 25, 2005

A public radio commentary

In their movie The Coconuts, one of the Marx Brother's asks "Why a duck?" In the same spirit, I ask today "why a chair." Oddly, I think the Marx Brother's question might be easier to answer, but I'll give it a try.

It seems, of course, that a chair is a natural response to how we bend at our ankles, knees, and hips, but it isn't at all. One thing is for certain: Our use of the chair was nurtured by our response to social, not genetic or anatomical forces.

There is much evidence that people raised in a society that squats are perfectly comfortable and healthy. In fact, it's a natural thing for children to do it, until the chair conditions it right out of them. And there is much evidence that often its better not to sit. For example, recumbent bikes where the rider leans back are thought safer, speedier, and more efficient.

So, why a chair?

The chair has been around since ancient times, although never an essential part of a household. In Rome, for example, the bed was the all-purpose piece of furniture. Besides sleeping in it, a Roman would eat, read, and write on their beds. The chair made few steps forward for many centuries, even taking some steps backwards. In the 7th and 8th centuries, Arab conquerors, a desert people with no steady wood supply, replaced the chair-level ways of the pre-Islamic Middle East with floor-level seating.

It wasn't until the 19th century that the chair began to dominate among furniture. The Industrial Revolution propelled the chair into our homes. Partly because mass production made chairs cheaper, but also because work itself changed.

Industrial work was more likely to be seated than agricultural work. Work took place at assembly lines and in offices -work often done seated in chairs.

And it looks as if the chair is now unstoppable. Chairs are locked into our architecture: Windows are set in buildings such that we have to sit 18 inches off the ground. And the chair is firmly ingrained in our culture. University professors hold chairs, and we have chairmen, chairwomen, and chairpeople, and as an outgrowth county seats, district seats, and seats on the stock exchange.

In fact, the chair has become so potent a symbol of Westernization that Ghandi, and more recently the Ayatollah Khomeini, were always photographed sitting on the floor rather than in a chair.

Even in Japan the chair is taking over. Many households have both rooms with the traditional mats, and Western rooms with chairs. But now younger people are finding it difficult to sit on the ground, so the mat rooms are disappearing.

By now we are shaping the chair less and less, and the chair is shaping us more and more. Certainly we sit too much since some thirty percent of Americans are now obese.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises