History of Wooden Furniture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Our homes may have lots of wooden furniture today, but it wasn't always this way. This lesson will explore the history of wooden furniture in Western cultures and see how it came to be so popular.

Wooden Furniture

Everything has history. Yes, everything. That couch: it has history. The chair: tons of it. Your desk: you don't even want to know.

Furniture is so commonplace today that it's easy to forget that every piece is part of an ancient progression of technology, art, and fashion that spans human history. Furniture has been made in many materials and many styles, but few things have defined it as consistently as wood. As a material, wood is generally available, is soft enough to easily work with, light enough to move, and sturdy enough to last. As a result, wooden furnishings have played a big role in human history. So pull up a chair, and let's talk furniture.

The Neolithic Era and the Advent of Furniture

When you think about it, furniture represents a major stage in the development of human societies. For tens of thousands of years, all human groups were nomadic. Furniture was not part of their lives because it was not easily transportable. Then, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, the earth warmed and people developed farming. We call this the Neolithic Revolution.

With farming, people could stay in one place, build permanent homes, and fill those homes with whatever furnishings they could make. We know very little about furniture from this time since wood is decomposable, but we do have examples of basic stone beds, benches, and shelves that suggest the diversity of furniture that appeared.

Wooden Furniture and Early Civilizations

Where we first see wooden furniture really appearing in the archeological record is in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. These were some of the first major civilizations in history, with strong hierarchies of power, and the rich put money into commissioning wooden furniture. As it turned out, a wooden bed was more comfortable than a bed made of a stone slab. The Egyptians made wooden stools, beds, and tray-tables. Arms and legs were added to stools to create the first throne-style chairs in Egypt, a practice the Mesopotamians built on by establishing a hierarchy of furniture that was only accessible to people of certain privilege. This set a precedent that certain kinds of chairs were only made for royal rumps, a tradition that would continue through the centuries.

Wood-frame bed from the tomb of Tutankhamun

So, why was wooden furniture so associated with power? Wood was valued not only because it was more comfortable, but also because it could be carved, polished, or painted. Powerful monarchs, who could afford to hire artists, could display their wealth through decorative furniture. However, there's also a second reason. How many trees do you see along the Nile River? Wood had to be imported into Egypt, so it was a valuable material.

Up in ancient Greece, and later ancient Rome, there was easier access to timber due to proximity to European forests. By the time these civilizations appeared, trade routes had also expanded further, so they could purchase specialty woods from distant places. The Romans in particular were known to import materials and products from very far away. So, wooden furniture was more available, at least to the wealthy. The designs we see from this time show a very high degree of engineering and craftsmanship, and fine wooden furniture was a status symbol in Greek and Roman aristocratic homes.

Medieval Europe and the Renaissance

After the fall of Rome, the skills for finely crafted wooden furniture were somewhat lost. As Germanic tribes rose to power, they created large, bulky chairs and tables for royal halls. Wood was far from scarce in Northern Europe, but high-quality furniture also required more skill and time than it was worth to many people, so furnishings in medieval castles were extremely sparse.

This all started to change with the advent of the Renaissance. As new wealth poured into Europe from East Asia, wealthy citizens devoted themselves to art. Furniture was not exempt from this, and fine craftsmanship returned. What was interesting about this time was that a new class of bankers and merchants was developing somewhere between the peasantry and aristocracy, particularly in Northern Europe. The emerging middle class had just enough expendable income to make their lives a little more comfortable, and furniture production exploded with the advent of this new market. The advancements in upholstery didn't hurt either, as furniture slowly became more focused on comfort. It was after this that items likes desks and couches first started to become standard parts of a furniture set.

Wooden furniture also became more desirable by the 17th century because of improvements in upholstery

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