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Sedan Chairs

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE sedan has long been removed from the list of chairs. There was a time, however, when the sedan chair was one of the beautiful appointments of wealthy households, and ladies and dandies sat in state as their footmen and lackeys, or their chairmen, carried them about. There were other persons of modest means who hired " chairs," much the same as cabs and taxis are hired today.


The sedan chair, which was first used at Sedan in France, soon became popular in many of the Continental towns. The Duke of Buckingham is said to have brought one over to England and thereby to have exposed him-self to an attack from those who charged him with having made " his own countrymen beasts of burden." Referring to the use of these chairs on the Continent at an early date Evelyn, writing from Naples on the 8th February 1645, describes the city, saying, " The streets are full of gallants on horseback, in coaches, and sedans," attributing their real introduction to Sir Thomas Duncombe who had seen them in use in Italy. It appears that was in 1634, and about that time Sir Sanders, having an eye to business, obtained the exclusive right to let out on hire such chairs in London and Westminster for a period of fourteen years.

Technically described, the sedan chair is a portable chair or covered vehicle with side windows and an entrance through a hinged doorway at the front ; the method of transport was by two poles carried by two men.


Much has been written about the romantic side of these vehicles, and truly they have figured in many romantic episodes. Some of these incidents bring vividly to mind the conditions which prevailed in the days when sedans were in constant use. They recall streets far from cleanly and occupied by a much rougher element, notwithstanding that there was an admixture of gaily dressed men and women parading some of the chief thoroughfares.

We read of some of the principal furniture makers giving much attention to the manufacture of sedans, and of the artists who were engaged in designing furniture, planning comfortable and convenient chairs. It is recorded that Robert Adam designed a beautiful chair for Lady Williams-Wynn in 1772. Sedans were then often exceedingly decorative, and ladies vied with one another in the possession of " Coaches " of great beautyŚcarried on poles. In London although many owned their own sedans, others were dependent upon chairmen. A writer describing the prevalence of the sedan chair in England in the eighteenth century says : " In the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century, when the style of dress was highly refined, and the least derangement to the hair of either lady or gentleman was fatal, the sedan was in the zenith of its usefulness. Then was the gentleman with his silk clothes and nicely arranged toupee and curls, as fain to take advantage of this careful casing as he went from house to house as any of the softer sex."

The private sedan stood in the entrance hall ready for use, and when the footmen or chairmen were summoned was carried out into the street ; the occupant thus called upon her neighbour in state, and, if after dark, was escorted by two links-boys who, upon their patron being ushered into the friendly portals of one of the great town houses of the metropolis, thrust their torches into one of the links' extinguishers on the rails of the gate, and in darkness awaited her pleasure, or returned home to journey thither later.


The sedan chair gradually fell into disuse in the face of altered conditions and other methods of transit. Its decline had set in even in the days of Horace Walpole, for that great statesman bemoaned its waning popularity in 1774; he was one of those who preferred the habits and customs of their youth. The sedan continued in use in many towns for some three-quarters of a century, indeed in one or two exceptional instances until living memory. Its last great stronghold was at Bath, where it was much favoured, until James Heath invented the bath-chair on wheels which rang the death knell of the sedan in Bath. It has been pointed out that the sedan was peculiarly suited for use at Bath, Tunbridge Wells, and other eighteenth-century resorts where invalids foregathered, because it could be carried upstairs into bed-rooms, and was thus a welcome boon at such places. Bury St Edmunds has been mentioned as another place where the sedan was in use quite well on towards the middle of the nineteenth century ; sedans were also used in Edinburgh until 1860. Sometimes old sedans have been mounted on wheels, but under such conditions the occupant travelled in somewhat undignified state. To be pushed about in a sedan chair on wheels to one accustomed to use such a carriage in the old days would create just such feelings of indignity as a motorist experiences when, after a breakdown of a motor car, some kindly soul harnesses his horse to the car and with a triumphal " Gee-up" cracks his whip and drives off, not forgetting at every opportunity to poke fun at the unlucky occupant of the car. No ! a sedan on wheels loses its charms, and when the handsome cab evolved from the sedan the severance of the " chair" in which the person of rank or wealth was carried about and the domestic furniture of the home was finally severed. Thenceforth the coachbuilder, and in later days the motorcar engineer, were to have it all their own way.


Discarded sedans have been used as seats for night watchmen in some of the older houses of the nobility in London, and a few may still be seen in the halls of the City Companies.

A splendid collection of sedans was got together at the International Museum at Paris in 1860, when many examples from the Continental cities and towns were on view. Those interested in sedans, allied and yet distinct from furniture, can see several isolated examples in the London museumsŚmany of them having been rescued from outhouses and sheds, where with old vehicles they have been for years.

The home connoisseur when inspecting these old chairs, ruminates on the altered condition of things, and then perhaps gives some attention to the ornamental beauty of their decoration. The French chairs were very beautiful, although much of their gorgeous grandeur has been diminished by age, and the delicate colourings of the Vernis Martin panels and tiny painted scenes have lost their pristine beauty. The work of the artists of the Louis XV. and Louis XVI. periods was very beautiful. It is said that in the old days at Versailles every duchess had her sedan and three lackeys, and every other lady two servants to carry her directly into the anti-chamber of those whom she was privileged to visit, and we can well understand how these ladies would vie with one another in the possession of a richly decorated chair.

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