J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sopha, So Good

Was the Rev. Samuel Peters correct about when upper-class families in American port towns started to prefer sofas over beds where couple could bundle? Peters dated that shift to 1756, or about when he graduated from Yale College.

I tested his suggestion by looking for references for “sofa” (or “sopha,” as Peters spelled the word) in Readex’s Archive of Americana database. This was hampered by the fact that a search for “sofa” brings up a lot of false positives. The tricky long s of the 1700s and the less than crisp and uniform images mean that the program proudly fetches words like “Sold,” “so far,” “Snow,” and so on. (In fact, it probably fetches “so on.”) So these findings might well be incomplete.

The first reference to a “sofa” as a piece of furniture that I found in colonial American newspapers was a story about the Persian ambassador to the Turkish court published in Boston’s New-England Weekly Journal for 7 July 1741. The same anecdote was retold in the 10 Sept 1741 Pennsylvania Gazette, this time with the “sopha” spelling.

Moving westward, an anecdote from London in the Boston Evening-Post of 6 Jan 1766 describes the Duke of Dorset lying on “a large sofa.” Such references indicate that printers expected their Americans readers to know what the word sofa meant. But it was still associated with faraway households.

In the 4 July 1754 Pennsylvania Gazette, James White, “Upholsterer and Undertaker, lately arrived from London,” listed “sofa’s” among “all sorts of furniture” he could make. John Brinner, “Cabinet and Chair-Maker, from London,” put “Sofa Bed, Sofa Settee, Couch, and city Chair Frames” near the end of the long line of goods he offered in the 31 May 1762 New-York Mercury. Upholsterer John Brower used the spelling “sopha” in the 20 May 1766 New-York Gazette.

Perpetuating the stereotype, the new piece of furniture caught on later in Boston. The first mention I found in the newspapers come from an Anglican family with immense wealth from Caribbean slave-labor plantations. On 10 May 1773 the Boston Evening-Post advertised the sale of the estate of John Apthorp, including:
A large Sopha and ten Chairs, covered with the best crimson Silk Damask, and four large Window Currains of the same.

A small Sopha and five Chairs of the same Damask, in the Chinese Taste.
So whether or not Peters’s story about “a sopha is more dangerous than a bed” was fully accurate, it does make sense for rural New Englanders of the 1760s to have associated sofas with wealthy, suspiciously fashionable households in the port towns.

COMING UP: More on bundling.

(The sofa shown above, courtesy of the Traditional Fine Arts Organization, is dated to Virginia in 1790-1805, or a generation after Peters published his story.)


Chaucerian said...

I take your point about a sopha being a marker of elegance and wealth. In the estate inventory of Gunston Hall, at the end of the century, a sopha is listed and valued at about the same amount as a riding horse, or a team of oxen. What a luxury, when one could sit on chairs (eleven chairs were valued at only slightly more than the sopha).

G. Lovely said...

There's an interesting two year old piece from the NYT that touches on the history of the sofa here:


It includes an image captioned: "This may be the earliest surviving sofa: it was made in England in the 1690s in a style that would long remain popular there, referred to as “double Windsor chairs without a division.”"

The 'double Windsor' description highlights the obvious fact: a piece of furniture with room for at least two is needed to tangle, and the new fashion was simply expanding oppotunity.

I see the good Reverend Peters' concerns about the newly popular sofa can be likened to those from the early 1920's, when the increasing availability of automobiles in the US, and the freedoms they engendered, was cause for wide-spread alarm.