Tufted furniture has a great overlap with one of our favorite subjects: tufted leather Chesterfield sofas. When it comes to tufted furniture, it’s Merriam-Webster’s fourth definition we want: “Any of the projections of yarns drawn through a fabric or making up a fabric so as to produce a surface of raised loops or cut pile.“ In the world of furniture, tuft buttons secure the cushion stuffing, preventing settling and spreading over time. How and why did they develop?
CUSH FOR THE TUSH
Throughout the Middle Ages, furniture was mostly utilitarian. Having excess furniture, especially for sitting, was considered a sign of wealth and importance. The Elizabethan Age saw the life of an aristocrat starting to take on larger forms of excess with new materials hauled from colonies around the globe. Partially due to the exposure of new textiles from different cultures, and maybe because of certain health issues of their own (King Louis XIV’s derrière for example), seating design migrated to having an independent pillow for sitting, to having fabric and cushion seating as a permanent fixture of the furniture.
The resulting Baroque period took European aristocracy to new, opulent-driven heights for the interior design space. Furniture was no longer just utilitarian or just hand-crafted works of art; furniture could be covered in textile patterns, flourished with accoutrements, and could change with mood and season no different than clothes or tapestries. It was a brave new world for those who had a room in their vacation home dedicated to sitting.
This brings us to one of our favorite subjects, the folklore of Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), of the County of Derby (or Derbyshire), a ceremonial county in the East Midlands of England (see map below). Stanhope was a remarkable character as a British statesman, diplomat, an orator with a precise wit, patron saint of Industrial Artifacts, and immortalized by Charles Dickens in Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty as the character Sir John Chester.
“Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well” is a Philip Dormer Stanhope quote from Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, a collection of letters written to his illegitimate son. In the 1760s, he was fiercely against Duties in American Colonies Act 1765 (commonly known as The Stamp Act). Stanhope died 9 months before the Boston Tea party in 1773, but he was correct about the end results.
As chair and sofa cushions would sink and spread over time, chairs with the most plush of construction would form to the shape of a person, making the chair more comfortable. This creates two mythos of how tufting in Chesterfield’s furniture were created.
Because of the nature of British humor, both stories may be true at once. And with that possible social “joke” at play, many other nobles began requesting seating from Chesterfield.
QUEEN VICTORIA, REINVENTOR
100 years later, a five-foot tall Queen Victoria (1819-1901) loved the low seating of Lord Stanhope's Chesterfields, and commissioned a set for her Balmoral Castle in Scotland, but with some changes. It was for her “sitting room” after all, and comfort was key. Stanhope's original chair was more of a bench with a rigid tufted bubble on top the seat. Queen Victoria added a coiled spring suspension, set the tufts deeper, and added more horsehair to create seating with more flexibility while being supportive, while still maintaining the sofa's shape over a longer period of time.
It was John Grigg and “A Member of the Philadelphia Bar” who brought into the culture book, “The American Chesterfield, or Way to Wealth, Honour, and Distinction,” (1839) a book based around the idea of Lord Philip Stanhope’s letters to his son, but in a way that’s best described as “reverse colonialism.” Griggs and company barely referenced “Letters of Lord Chesterfield to His Son,” and filled the pages with a collection of early 1800s etiquette for young American men.
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This book presented the quintessential difference between England and the United States - that any man, regardless of their family, could raise himself into places of privilege, as long as he had the social education, decorum, and self-control to play the long game. It wasn’t just a “how to” book of well-mannered men, it was a book offering hope for anyone with the good graces to put in the work in order to maintain the privilege of proper society. Aristocratic men who weren't born into privilege was an American revolution.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, tufted furniture has not just defined a decor, a lifestyle, something we are proud to be a part of. Make sure to check out our selection of tufted furniture or click on any of the images above to view the leather tufted seating used.
If you want to see how to tuft a pillow, check out the video below from Fabric Farms.