What’s Under Your Seat? A Short History of Cushioning

This section of a mid-19th-century Empire footstool shows the newly patented biconical springs and several clumsy attempts to correctly tie the sprigs together.

Has that old couch gotten a little shaky? Sinking in spots? Maybe that old chair has gotten lumpy and the recliner is getting to be downright uncomfortable.

What’s inside of these things that allows them to get out of sorts? That depends a great deal on when the piece was made, the original quality of the piece and when it was last upholstered.

Early upholstery was little more than skins draped across a board. Then someone added some padding, probably just more skins or some moss and leaves. Thus was born the idea of sewing all that material into a sack and making a cushion.

By the 16th century, cushions made by specialized tradesmen called “upholders” were filled with horsehair, feathers, down and wool and the cushion fit into or onto the frames of chairs. Comfort was regulated and adjusted by the addition or subtraction of the number of cushions.

But that wasn’t good enough for Louis XV, King of France, in the mid-18th century. His majesty demanded something more and he got it—flat metal springs imbedded in the frames below the cushions.

Of course the practice was not universal, since not everybody could afford the new invention, but the idea of a strong support under the cushion had a following and the idea persisted.

By the early 19th century, the concept of the coil spring arose in the furniture trade and a new era was begun.

But there were problems. The springs were made initially of iron and had a very short life expectancy. The steel of the time was not much better, except that it was too strong and not really springy enough.

The other problem was the method used to secure the springs into the frame before being covered up. The springs were attached to heavy linen straps on the bottom and the straps were nailed to the lower frame. Then a single strand of twine was used to secure the tops of the individual coil springs to the frame and to each other. The springs were covered with a thin, flat sack made of heavier linen filled with horsehair or straw, with cotton batting on top of that and fabric on top of that.

But the coil springs eventually rubbed against each other and wore through the single strand of twine holding them together. Then the limp coils went as they may, and the seating became very lumpy with a hard edge.

The mid-19th century saw major advances, both technically and intellectually. New deposits of iron ore were discovered around the Great Lakes, and iron became more plentiful and cheaper. The smelting of iron ore into steel using less carbon produced a more flexible steel wire that could be transformed into coil springs.

The intellectual advance came on two fronts. First, it was discovered that the coil spring could be made much stronger and stable using a biconical hourglass shape instead of a simple tapered coil. The other mental stretch was the evolution of a method to tie the springs together using heavier twine with multiple knots in different laces on the springs. That became the famous “eight-way tie” still in use today. Each spring is tied to the frame or to other springs with knots at eight locations around the top rim of the spring. As long as the lower support of jute webbing holds up and the twine tying the springs stays intact, the springs will stay upright and work in unison with each other.

But installing springs one by one in couch or chair frames can be time consuming and expensive. Enter more technology. Just after the turn of the 20th century, spring manufacturers introduced the “factory-seat unit.” The unit consisted of a stiff wire or flat metal frame filled with coil springs connected to each other with wire. And the early units, for the sake of cost, went back to the old tapered coil design.

Initially developed for the auto industry, the factory-seat unit quickly spread to the furniture industry and was especially welcomed by those newer manufacturers who did not have a deep background in upholstery techniques or experience. Among those were the chair factories in the Midwest and such firms as L. & J. G. Stickley, whose background was woodworking.

The factory-seat unit served its purpose in the early century, but by the 1920s tastes turned back to the custom work of spring installation. But the factory-seat unit evolved and came back into popularity as the “Marshall unit,” a smaller, better designed self-contained spring unit that could be sewn into a cover and incorporated into a cushion, thus making the cushion a spring unit of its own.

A great many of the upholstered pieces of the Depression era of the late 1920s and 1930s, especially those with multiple cushions, were made comfortable on second-quality frames and supports using Marshall units inside the cushions.

All of this, of course, was before the invention of foam rubber and during a time when softness and comfort depended a great deal on craftsmanship and construction. When you have the time, turn over one of your upholstered pieces, remove the cambric (the dust cover) and see how your piece is made. It’s worth the effort, but don’t be shocked by flat horizontal zigzag springs or tensioned rubber straps instead of biconical coil springs. That’s just more progress.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or e-mail them to me at info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800.387.6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352.563.2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.

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