Whether you call it a sofa, couch or settee, it’s one of the most loved pieces of furniture in any house. The history of the sofa is a long one, longer than many of us realise.
Its name varies in the English-speaking world and in the late 20th century the name a person used often highlighted the division of classes. In 1954 Nancy Mitford, a journalist and novelist, wrote a light-hearted article for the Encounter which indicated a person’s class by the vocabulary that they used. The word sofa was considered upper class and the words couch and settee considered to be used more by the lower classes. However all of the words used to describe this piece of furniture, which sees the most action – from cuddles and crying to spillages and snoozing – originate in places both near and far and come from a range of languages.
The word sofa itself comes from the Arabic ‘soffah’, which refers to a raised part of the floor covered with rugs and cushions, while the word couch comes from the French word ‘coucher’ and literally means ‘to lay down’. Other widely used terms include settee – derived from the verb to settle, which means to become comfortable in a place, and the word divan, which comes from the Persian word ‘devan’. This word originally described an assembly of rulers or monarchs but, because the rulers sat on raised beds that were made more comfortable by adding cushions and blankets, the word was used in the English language in a slightly different way and became interchangeable with sofa and couch.
There is no definitive answer to the question of when couches were first used, where they originated and who the so called ‘inventor’ was, but we do know that the couch or sofa has been around for thousands of years and initially symbolised wealth, with only the very rich being able to afford to relax in a reclined seat.
However, during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, sofas became much cheaper to make and the middle classes could finally afford the comfort that the couch offered. The sofa as we know it today was beginning to take shape, with manufacturers coming up with new ideas to improve the comfort offered. For example, in 1850 the springs were finally added to the sofa to make them more comfortable and are often still used today.
The couch didn’t become a necessity in the home until the 20th century though, when almost every family in the country put communication on hold for at least a few hours in the evening and reclined on their sofas to listen to the wireless and, later in the century, watch the television.
Today, the variety of sofas available is mind-boggling. They come in all manner of sizes, shapes and colours. And that’s not even mentioning the sofa beds, futons and chaise lounges that provide decoration as well as comfort in our homes.