Article “Chairs, sofas, settees: the body in the nineteenth century domestic environment”, by Erica de Oliveira

Article “Chairs, sofas, settees: the body in the nineteenth century domestic environment”, by Erica de Oliveira

What’s so special about sitting down to the point where this is the subject of our 14th text of the Revealed Collection project? The ways of sitting, the objects used for this or the absence of them make up, above all, social practices and, therefore, differ according to society, space and time. In Brazil, until the beginning of the 19th century, there were forms of sitting that dispensed with the use of chairs or other similar furniture. Sitting was underreported and sitting on the floor and on mats was quite widespread, as there was a shortage of furniture in general and seating furniture in particular.

As noted by Vânia Carneiro de Carvalho (2008), based on the work of Sigfried Giedion, there was an Eastern and Western conception of comfort when sitting. The first does not mobilize objects, it focuses only on the body, and consists of sitting, placing the weight of the torso on the pelvis bones and crossing the legs bent backwards. The Western mode, on the other hand, is based on the use of artifacts (such as chairs), on which the hips are supported and the legs are extended towards the floor (CARVALHO, 2008). According to the author, until the beginning of the 19th century, it was mainly common for women to sit in the Asian way, as described in the first example. This way of sitting was done on a dirt floor, on mats and on couches, in addition to the use of a hammock, which allowed for a wide variety of body positions3 (CARVALHO, 2008).

Until this period, chairs were only found in public and religious buildings, which gave the furniture a connotation of prestige and power. Outside these spaces, the existing chairs were folding and portable, which corresponded to a less stable and more migratory way of life (CARVALHO, 2008). We can see below (image 1) an example of this type of more portable furniture. It is a folding chair made of rosewood and carved leather, dating from the 18th century. Thus, as they are more limited to official environments, chairs were expensive furniture and associated with men, who generally occupied such places. On entering houses, therefore, these objects were primarily associated with male figures. Women remained connected to networks and the ground longer (CARVALHO, 2008).

The diffusion of these furniture, however, occurred unevenly. There are reports of mid-19th century houses that had only a few benches and hammocks: “[…] there is no other furniture, except for some stools and the hammock that sometimes serves as a chair and sofa. to sit in the hammock. The intimates sit together in the same hammock, one on each side; it’s a very comfortable arrangement for talking.” (BATES, 1944, p. 174). And at the end of this period there are still literary descriptions of environments that did not even have a chair, as in the passage below, in which the very poor and already ill character did not have a seat for her visit:

“Come here…” said a weak, slurred voice.
The boy took the direction of the voice, almost groping.
On that occasion, the little black girl was returning with a chair, which she had gone to ask the neighbor for, and Gustavo sat down beside the bed where the sick woman was. (SORRY,
1973. p. 292)


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*Erica de Oliveira has been an analyst at the Center for Preservation and Research at the Museu da Casa Brasileira since 2017. Doctoral student at the Postgraduate Program in Social History at the University of São Paulo, Bachelor of History (2014) and Technique in Museology at the Paula Souza Center (2008). Researches the relationship between materiality and human interiority, with emphasis on themes related to the domestic space. He has been working since 2008 in the areas of documentation and management of museum collections and production of exhibitions. In the Object Service of the Museu Paulista, she was also a member of the Technical Administrative Commission and the Museum’s Board of Directors as a student representative. In addition, she was a researcher at the University of São Paulo’s Truth Commission as a fellow of the Fapesp A USP project during the authoritarian regime: forms of control and resistance at the University of São Paulo, 1964 – 1982.

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