No sooner do we rise from our beds than it seems we want to lie down again. And throughout the ages, accomodating furniture-makers have developed pieces for daytime repose including récamiers, chaise longues and fainting couches. Let’s stretch out through three centuries’ worth of antique European and American daybeds, ancestors of our contemporary recliners.
Note: For more information on one of the styles listed, click on the title.
1. Long Chair
The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians had resting couches. But in terms of modern furniture, the first daybed developed in the late 1600s, when the headrest of a pallet started to resemble a slanted chair back. Resting on six or eight legs, these pieces were really more like elongated chairs, and – judging from this 18th-century mahogany example from Philadelphia – none too comfortable.
Trust the French to add comfort to life – and furniture. Around the 1720s, they developed the chaise longue – basically, an elongation of the newfangled bergère, or closed armchair; the back was high, with encircling arms, and both it and the long, padded seat were usually upholstered. Originally, they were open-ended, as in the gilt-wood Louis XV-style example here; later versions developed footboards.
Developed around the same time as the chaise longue, the duchesse originally differed only in that it had a rounded back. But it really clicked in a slightly later variation known as the “duchesse brisée” which consisted of two parts: the chair and an elongated separate (but often attachable) footstool; this secondary piece usually had a footboard, as in the French piece, ca. 1760, shown here.
The duchesse brisée can also be a three-part piece – essentially two chairs with an ottoman in the middle; one chair is usually smaller than the other, as in this Louis XV-style fruitwood ensemble. It was known as a “duchess” in England, where it was highly popular, figuring in the designs of Thomas Sheraton.
Towards the end of the 18th century, furniture styles underwent a sea change. Reflecting the Neoclassical taste, the récamier – a lighter daybed with scrolling back and footrest – harkened back to ancient Greek and Roman pieces. Small pillow rolls, as in this French Empire-style wood-and-ormolu example, provided cushioned comfort.
Originally, the récamier was backless, but in the first decade of the 19th century, it often developed a low backrest. This feature enabled it to be used as a sofa too – though often the backrest only ran part of the length of the piece, as in this 1805 example from the English furniture maker Gillow. Known as a Grecian couch or Grecian bed, this sort of daybed often used motifs from Antiquity, like the animal heads and feet here.
With a sloping back that runs along the length of the piece, connecting the high headrest and footrest, the méridienne further blurs the line between daybed and sofa (though it’s not as comfortable for the person on the short end). Developed in the early 1800s, it gradually became more substantial-looking as the century progressed, as in this mahogany piece with gilded bronze mounts, dating from the French Second Empire.
8. Fainting Couch
In the mid-19th century, a particularly curvy type of méridienne was popularly known as a fainting couch – so called because the heavily-corseted ladies of the period might collapse upon it to catch their breath. These daybeds were often oversized and wide enough for two – suggesting that a lady might swoon onto one for something more restorative than a nap. This late Classical Revival example, circa 1835-1845, is attributed to Duncan Phyfe and Son.
9. Turkish Fainting Couch
As the 19th century progressed, new coil-spring technology made daybeds ever more plush and comfortable. Like other pieces of furniture, they reflected the Victorian taste for the oversized, the ornate, and the exotic. “Turkish-style” pieces became the rage in the second half of the century, modeled vaguely on Middle Eastern couches with skirts, tufted upholstery and tassels, as in this combination Turkish couch/méridienne, ca. 1870.
10. Arts & Crafts Daybed
The 19th century seems to have been the daybed’s heyday. After that, its vogue lessened, due perhaps to the smaller rooms and the faster pace of 20th-century life. But it continued to be made, in styles reflective of the relative period or maker; the term “daybed” also started to include furniture that had built-in mattresses (what we’d now call a sofa bed). Even if they weren’t literally sleepers, stylistically these pieces seemed more bed- than sofa-like, as in this example made by Gustav Stickley, ca. 1904-16. With its characteristically slatted frame, sturdy oak and boxy silhouette, it’s a very masculine sort of daybed – almost the polar opposite of the feminine fainting couch.
Daybeds evolved quite a bit in the second half if the 20th century, becoming lighter and more flexible. In fact, in this 1968 chaise by Charles and Ray Eames, it seems that stylistically we’ve come full circle back to the 18th-century long chair – except that this aluminum and leather piece, created and named for film director Billy Wilder, is much more ergonomically correct, mirroring the curve of the occupant’s spine and supporting his body at crucial points.