April 15, 2002
-- Americans love to lean back, put up their feet -- and relax, with the TV remote in hand and a snack and beverage within reach. The activity -- or inactivity, as it were -- dates back at least to the 1800s (minus the remote control, of course).
"Even in 19th century Europe, (people) were astonished to see how often American males would put their boots up on railings, on mantelpieces or tables," says Edward Tenner, a visiting researcher at Princeton University. "They just loved to tilt back in their seats."
In 1928, Americans got some serious help relaxing when two young cousins named Edward Knabusch and Edwin Shoemaker in Monroe, Mich., came up with the idea for a new kind of chair. It automatically reclined if you just leaned back, Cindy Carpien reports on Morning Edition
as part of NPR's Present at the Creation
"It was simply a wood slat chair that you could kick back and enjoy a summer breeze," says La-Z-Boy historian Judy Carr.
The cousins tried to sell a few of the porch chairs to a department store buyer in Toledo, Ohio, but he said he had no use for a "seasonal chair."
Carr says he told the cousins: "You know, if you boys can come up with a chair that could recline like that, but maybe had some stuffing and upholstery and could be used year round, you know it might sell."
They hired an upholsterer and spent months perfecting the design, Carpien reports. In 1931, Knabusch and Shoemaker received a patent for the first automatic recliner but realized they needed a better name than "automatic adjustable chair." They held a contest with their seven employees. The losing names were Comfort Carrier, the Slack-Back and the Sit-N-Snooze. The winner: La-Z-Boy. Eventually other companies came up with their own recliner variations, and in1947 Barcalounger added the built-in footrest.
In the 1950s, big, bulky recliners took their place in front of new television sets. But by the 1970s, the recliner moved from the den to the basement. "The problem was taste. Our over-stuffed clunkers, that once looked comfy, had become embarrassments," Carpien says.
But more than a decade later they came back -- this time with sleeker looks and classier fabrics. Propelled by sales to baby boomers, "motion furniture" is now a $4 billion industry. Recliners even play starring roles in TV shows like Friends
But the future of recliners is more like an episode from The Jetsons
. Experts predict chairs will sense your center of gravity and make you feel like you're floating on air. How relaxing.
Learn about recliner inventors Edward Knabusch
and Edwin Shoemaker
at the American Furniture Hall of Fame.
Read "The Life of Chairs
", a Harvard Magazine article by Edward Tenner.