19th century furniture history
By Ken Zurski
If there is one distinctive feature about furniture in the early to mid 1800’s, especially the parlor chairs, it is the height of the legs. While many leg posts are decoratively ornate, they are also quite short, and certainly much lower than what is considered standard today.
The history of furniture is a bit sketchy on this dissimilarity. Style, fabrics and materials tend to dominate the evolution of furniture. But speculation is – backed up by good statistics – that we as humans were just smaller in height and therefore furniture was made to reflect that.
Basically the lower we stood, the lower we sat.
The Civil War is a good example of this height disparity.
Statistics were actually taken for large groups of men. For instance, in the 44th Massachusetts Infantry, of the 98 soldiers between the ages of 17 and 40, the average soldier’s height was 5-foot 7- inches. The shortest man in the regiment was 5-foot 3-inches and the tallest 6 -foot 1-inch. The most surprising stat is on the higher end where based on the average, very few men were six-feet and above and no one was more than one-inch over the six-foot threshold.
Today nearly 15-percent of all men are over six-feet tall, with the average height of a American male at 177 cm, or 5-feet 10-inches. The average height of an American women is 164 cm, or approximately 5-foot 4-inches tall. Only statistics based on race changes this slightly.
So why did we get taller? Evolution is the simple answer, but even that is convoluted, as development suggests a reversal in size. “The average population should have become shorter because the shorter individuals in the population were, from an evolutionary fitness perspective, more successful in passing on their genes,” wrote Scientific American in 1998. “But this did not happen. Instead, all segments of the population–rich and poor, from small and large families–increased in height.”
Scientists claim better nutrition especially in children is the reason we got taller since the rise in height began to take root in the later half of the 19th century when there was an emphasis on living longer. It has since leveled off.
But even as the Civil War suggests, while most men stood under 6-foot-tall, there were exceptions.
Like Abraham Lincoln. ‘
Standing at 6 ft 4 in, Lincoln towered over Civil War generals like Ulysses S. Grant, who was above average at height for the time at 5 ft 8 inches. Pictures confirm this discrepancy in height. The stovepipe hat certainly adds to Lincoln’s size, but there is no doubt the 16th President stood unusually high for his time.
This means Lincoln must have been an uncomfortable guest in most Victorian-style residences of the era where ceilings were built lower and door frames tighter. Except in his own home which was modified to accommodate his tallness, Lincoln did a lot of ducking.
But his biggest obstacle may have been trying to find a suitable place to sit.
However, one permanent seat, made of marble, is the perfect size.