Sofas - Construction   .............................  Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary

Styles - Sofas, Daybeds, Settees, and Settles

Sofas, daybeds, settees, and settles are all elongated chairlike forms usually meant for two or more people.

Récamier: a reclining couch (for one person).


Sofas - long upholstered seating forms with arms.

Sofas were made as early as the 17th century, but these are exceedingly rare.

Thomas H. Ormsbee, Field Guide to Early American Furniture
, pp. 336, 341-2

Sofas and settees are patterned after the armchair form but with seat wide enough to accommodate two or more people. The sofa, an all-upholstered piece, is losely related to the wing chair.

It was first made in America toward the close of the Queen Anne period and the resemblance was marked, but it became less so during the Chippendale years. The sofa attained real popularity in the Hepplewhite period and from about 1800 through the Early Victorian period was such an important household piece that no American parlor was considered properly furnished without one.

The legs and exposed parts of the frame are made of walnut, mahogany, rosewood or, infrequently, of cherry.The framework concealed by upholstery is generally of pine or other softwood. Where extra strength is required,some of the parts are of maple, birch or chestnut.

Sofa construction in general is the same as that of an upholstered chair, particularly the wing chair.

With long sofas, the seat frame is usually strength-ened by two slightly concave cross braces so spaced as to divide the area into three sections.

Use of coil spring in the seat did not become standard practice until about the middle of the American Empire period. Previous to that, the basis of the scat was tightly stretched canvas padded with curled hair or other material. With some sofas, the upholstery of back and ends is tacked directly to the frame; with others, there are removable panels or frames over which the padding and upholstery material is stretched. Such panels are held in place by concealed screws.

The camel-back sofa, named for its upholstered arched back, was favored from the mid-18th to the early 19th century. The major difference among various camel-back designs is the legs:

  • Cabriole or Marlborough legs are common on Queen Anne and Chippendale examples

  • Tapered legs were used on Federal-era pieces. Delicate Neoclassical carving on exposed woodwork is a hallmark of other Federal sofas, but is less evident on country pieces of the same era.

Empire sofas usually have large-scale decoration, scrolled arms, and sometimes dolphin legs or lion's-paw feet.

Rococo Revival sofas (1840-1870) have richly carved ornament on curving forms

Upholstery: The importance of upholstery on a sofa or settee depends on the style of the piece. Many high-style examples were initially upholstered in elegant fabrics, but such original materials have rarely survived.

Daybeds and Conversational Sofas

Daybeds - extended chairs used for lounging

Settees (set TEEZ)

Settees - usually shorter than sofas, though some longer models with openwork wooden backs are also given the name.

Developed from the settle. Long with a carved or upholstered back, arms, and a soft seat. it was originally designed to hold two or more persons. Usually matched the individual chairs of the period in contour and chairback decoration.

They were often described as two-, three-, or four-chair-back settees.

A front leg was provided between each chair back; therefore, a three-chairback settee would have four legs in front to delineate the three seats.

Popular in the 17th and 18th early centuries.

Thomas H. Ormsbee, Field Guide to Early American Furniture
1951, pp. 336-7, 353

The settee, previous to 1720, was an enlarged wainscot chair with solid seat and back.

Beginning in the Queen Anne and continuing into the Sheraton period, it followed the pattern of the various designs for the openarmchair, with or without upholstered seat, and was made in limited numbers. Its day of wide public favor coincided with the advent of the painted fancy chair. Painted and stencil-decorated like the chairs it matched, this form of the settee was attractive, relatively inexpensive and widely made by chair makers even afterfurniture began to be factory-produced. With the finer pieces, the seat was of rush or cane and of solid wood for the simplified later settees.

Special Comments on Settees and Their Construction

Settees have the same construction as contemporary open armchairs.

Mortice and tenon joinings are used consistently with the early solid-back settee; socketed joints are usual with the painted settees.

If a settee has a rush seat, the rush is woven over the seat rails, concealing them as with the early type of painted fancy chai; with a cane seat the caning holes are spaced about half an inch apart on the inner edges of the rails and a solid wooden seat is of pine, in one piece, with the six or eight legs socketed into the seat as with a Windsor chair or Boston rocker.

The ends of turned stretcher members are socketed into the legs; if flat, the ends fit into mortices cut in the legs. Many settees have a flat front stretcher and turned ones at ends and back.

Backs of painted settees consist of either spindles, with ends socketed into the top rail and seat, or horizontal splats, mortice-and-tenon joined to the back uprights. Some settees have both.

Windsor settee

Queen Anne and Chippendale two-seat settees made in the 18th century are rare, but Colonial Revival examples from about 1900-2O are fairly common.

Sheraton painted Fancy settees often have backs divided into chairlike sections. Rocking settees or convertibles that open up as beds were designed in Sheraton and other styles.

Federal settee

Shakers made open-back settees that were simplified versions of traditional designs.

Eastlake settee

Mission settee: Craftsmen working in the Mission style favored oak settees with wooden or leather-upholstered seats and with vertical or horizontal slats on backs and under arms; longer versions were often called settles.

19th and early 20th centuries: Settees were also made of cast iron or wicker in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Art Deco settee: Tubular steel was used for Art Deco examples of the 1930s and 1940s.


Settles - rural wooden benches with solid wooden backs and skirts or chestlike storage areas under the seats.

Mission settle: Craftsmen working in the Mission style favored oak settees with wooden or leather-upholstered seats and with vertical or horizontal slats on backs and under arms; longer versions were often called settles.

See also: The Collectors Weekly: "Sofas"  Illustrations with ebay links (online Jan. 2018)

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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