Friday, May 28, 2021

"Anthropocene: why the chair should be the symbol for our sedentary age"

This piece was written three years ago. After the last seventeen months it is more true than the day the editor hit 'publish'. And the damn things are killing us.

From The Conversation: 

Why are there no chairs in the Bible, or in all 30,000 lines of Homer? Neither are there any in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – written in 1599. But by the middle of the 19th century, it is a completely different story. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House suddenly has 187 of them. What changed? With sitting being called “the new smoking”, we all know that spending too much time in chairs is bad for us. Not only are they unhealthy, but like air pollution, they are becoming almost impossible for modern humans to avoid.

When I started researching my book about how the world we have made is changing our bodies, I was surprised to discover just how rare chairs used to be. Now they’re everywhere: offices, trains, caf├ęs, restaurants, pubs, cars, trains, concert halls, cinemas, doctor’s surgeries, hospitals, theatres, schools, university lecture halls, and all over our houses (I guarantee you have more than you think).

If I was asked to make even a conservative estimate of the number of chairs in the world, I’d find it hard to go lower than 8-10 per person. Applying that logic, there could be more than 60 billion of them on the planet. Surely chairs should be one of the universal signals of the arrival of the Anthropocene? Just like the data required to justify the change in the name of our geological epoch, they are to be found on every continent.

As to why there are suddenly so many chairs, there is no single clear reason. It is a confluence of fashion, politics, changing work habits, and the lust for comfort. The last of these requires no explanation in a culture in which ease and comfort are among the strongest drivers of consumer decision-making.

A history of chairs

While chairs began to appear with a little more frequency in the early modern period, it seems that they became much more widely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Industrial Revolution.

Before the 18th century, a chair was relatively easily come by, but the majority of the population had little use for them. Even today, it is not easy to sit in a hard wooden chair for sustained periods and upholstered chairs were prohibitively expensive. But the fashion for a new reclining culture (imported from the French court of the 18th century) helped to popularise their early use....