The secret history of... The Chesterfield

By Kate Watson-Smyth

There's no doubt the Chesterfield sofa is a classic. No one would dispute that it has earned its place as a design icon. But there is some confusion in how it came to be so named and why that has come to be a shorthand way of describing a deep-buttoned, leather-covered sofa.

Paul Fleming, the fourth generation of furniture makers at Fleming Howland, whose company won the right to copyright the name Chesterfield, says the origin of the name is a real mystery. "Originally chesterfield just meant a sofa or even a piece of furniture," he said. "We have been making them for years and we have been to museums and done lots of research and we can't find a single piece of paper to explain its origin.

"It appears to be nothing more than a description of a sofa that has evolved over the centuries."

Of course, there are anecdotes. Some say, unsurprisingly, that it was named after the Earl of Chesterfield, who was a public speaker and something of a fashion expert in his day. The story goes that on his deathbed, with his servant and his friend, Mr Dayrolls, in attendance, his last words, to his servant, were: "Give Mr Dayrolls a chair." Then he died. The servant apparently was confused as to whether the Earl meant his friend should sit down or have a chair as a present. The story has lived on, but the Earl would not have meant a sofa, Fleming says. One has to assume that Mr Dayrolls wasn't seen strolling down the street with a sofa on his back.

In the late 18th century, deep-buttoning on furniture was also fashionable but in velvet, not leather. So there are no clues there either. Fleming says the proper definition of a Chesterfield is a sofa with the arms and back at the same height.

The buttons were apparently developed to make the chairs more uncomfortable. Expensive pieces of furniture even then, they often belonged to rich men of standing who would often have people waiting to see them. The buttons were designed to discourage them from staying.

Whatever its origins, the Chesterfield is a classic item that symbolises a certain style. Still popular in gentlemen 's clubs, there has also been a return to the original form with velvet chesterfields increasing in popularity. To own (or at least desire) a purple velvet Chesterfield is to be marked as officially middle class.

While there are dozens of places to buy a Chesterfield, Fleming Howland produces one made abroad and two others in the UK using traditional techniques.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?