Monday, May 23, 2022

Sedan Chairs........A Beautiful Way To Travel

A very popular mode of European transportation for centuries was the sedan chair and it's use spread from Italy to France and on to England and Scotland. The name is probably from the Italian 'sede' (Latin sedes),which gave rise to seda ("seat") sit, however, some say they were named after the town of Sedan in France. 

The sedan chair was a popular means of transport for a number of reasons including shelter from the weather and notoriously dirty roads as well as safety from the many horse-drawn vehicles which made the streets congested. Also you could make good time in a sedan chair and avoid carriage traffic jams because the sedan chairs were legally allowed to use the sidewalks. They could easily be carried through the streets of many European cities that were too narrow for a carriage. All this made the sedan chair very appealing for the wealthy who could travel in their own private enclosures.

The sedan chair made it's first appearance in England late in the 16th century but didn't really gain popularity there until 1634 when Sir Saunders Duncombe introduced the sedan chair for hire in London. Chairmen wearing uniforms and an official scarlet badge would wait until the aristocracy had their footman summon a chair by standing in the street and shouting Chair! Chair! Then the competing chairmen rushed forth to provide the service.

So there you have it.....the first taxi. Bet you didn't know that about these exquisite sedan chairs. There is more history below.....hope you enjoy the info and images I have gathered.

A collection of exquisite sedan chairs (or Chaise à porteur in France) on display at the Palace of Versailles.

These portable covered chairs, used in one form or another in other cultures since ancient times, consisted of a seat inside of a cabin with  windows, a hinged roof, and door at the front. Sedan carriers called chairmen inserted long wood poles into metal brackets on either side of the chair. The poles were long and springy and provided a slightly bouncy ride. They were arranged in such a manner that the chair would remain in a horizontal position as the carriers climbed up steps or steep slopes.

The sedan chair was a common sight on the streets of European cities. Passengers entered and exited between the poles if they remained in place. Chairs for the wealthy were richly carved, painted, and decorated on the exterior and extravagantly upholstered in silk on the inside. Those for the lower classes were of a simple design.

via Pinterest

The interiors of these beautiful sedan chairs would have been damask, brocade, silk, or velvet lined. 

Of course the sedan chair had the ever present curtain used for privacy as well as keeping out dust and providing shade from the sun.

On the more ornate sedan chairs, painters would create beautiful scenes on panels mounted on the sides.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the chairs stood in the main hall of an affluent city residence to be used at the owner’s convenience. A lady could enter and be carried to her destination without setting foot in a filthy street.

And of course the sedan chair had to be painted and decorated to match the interior décor.

Men traveled in sedan chairs. Their choice was usually black and dignified, made of leather and embellished in gold.

Painting by G. Borgelli

The sedan chair became extremely popular with the women because they provided cover to the extravagant wigs and gowns that were currently in fashion. They were usually much more decorated than those of the men.

Sedan chair in the great hall at Château de Chimay.

18th Century Louis XVI Period French Sedan Chair

Alexander Roslin

The roofs could be opened to allow passengers to wear tall hats, feathers or elaborate hairstyles

Passengers had to put their trust in the chairmen's competence. Their movements had to be completely in sync and their surefootedness was also very necessary. 

A sedan chair was quite weighty before a person even sat inside therefor a chairman had to be strong and healthy to even lift it. However, there seems to be no requirement for height.

Château d'Ussé Photo by Morio60 on 
flickr......nia Pinterest

Even with the best there were still accidents. Can you imagine one of these with an elegantly dressed lady inside toppling over with glass breaking, doors flying open and occupants tumbling out onto the dirty road. 

Pedestrians were run down because they were slow to get out of the way by flattening themselves against the wall or they failed to hear the chairmen's warning shout of "By your leave !".

When you see these beautiful sedan chairs you immediately think "how glamorous". Not really the case! The chairmen were notoriously foul mouthed and were regularly fined for cursing loudly in public. Not only that but unless your chair had glass windows instead of just curtains it was open to the air and when it rained the vehicles became unpleasantly soggy inside.

 There was sedan sickness because of the swaying from side to side as well as the up and down movement especially when the chairmen were moving at a pretty good clip. Don't forget it had to be stuffy inside and when you are corseted to the max and wearing so many layers of clothing you have the perfect condition for a good faint. 

Watercolour on paper by Louis Emile Benassit
A Young Lady In A Sedan Chair And Three Gentlemen

Chairmen then were like taxi drivers today. They had to be licensed and display a number to prove it. A trip within the city cost sixpence, and hire for a whole day, four shillings. The chairs were available around the clock, but after midnight the chairmen would be paid double the fare. Journeys were usually limited to two miles. A similar system later operated in Scotland.

Like modern taxi stations, the Sedan chairs were supposed to have a separate station from where passengers could hire a chair. The wealthy, however, did not use these stations.  Moreover, some even kept their own chairs which were elaborately decorated with family crests.

A sedan chair in black leather with a coat of arms in gilded wood from the 18th century.
Any chairs like this with a symbol of nobility were destroyed in great numbers during the French revolution.

Sedan chairs from designer Jacques Garcia's Château du Champ de Bataille

Since these portable chairs could be carried inside with anonymity for the passenger they were perfect for those naughty noblemen and women who were dallying in romantic trysts behind their spouses backs.

They also made it easier for people who were evading the law to go about their business in secret.

From the series Les quatre saisons à Versailles et au Trianon : La chaise à porteurs by Maurice Leloir

Sedan chair on display at Maison Louis XIV, Museum in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France.

Painting by N. d Roever

Sedan chair attributed to Christopher Huet, circa 1750, with a Vernis Martin finish. This finish was extremely fashionable from the mid 17th century through the early 19th.

Created to imitate Asian lacquer at the end of the 17th century, the French invented lacquers of different colors with polychrome decorations.

French lacquer or "Martin varnish" lacquer was created by the Martin brothers who were varnishers to the king and had made a specialty of decorations for sedans, coaches, sedan chairs, sleds…

Many French sedan chairs featured Rococo panels painted with romantic scenes.
The Martin brothers were able to offer the most beautiful and fashionable decorations because of their partnerships with the greatest painters of the time such as Boucher.

Another popular style of the day was the Chinoiserie themed sedan chair decorated with intricate Asian scenes.

via Pinterest

Also it was the French who added wheels to the sedan chair.

Most people think French when they think of the sedan chair. However, many European countries had these lovely portable chairs. This one is Venetian and is in the Museo di Palazzo Venezia.


Another Italian ormolu, giltwood, and polychrome decorated sedan chair with painted panels attributed to Giacinto Diano. Circa third quarter of the 18th century.

via Pinterest

An 18th century Sedan chair at the National Museum of Scotland.

The Italian sedan chairs were exquisite. This chair belonging to Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj is displayed in his Rome residence.

This sedan chair belonged to Queen María Luisa of Spain.

The wealthy also used sedan chairs in the cities of colonial America. A sick and feeble 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin travelled to meetings of the United States Constitutional Convention of 1787 in a sedan chair.

There were also sedan chairs for multiple passengers. This would usually take four chairmen.

Here is another beautiful example of the double sedan chair in the corner of this lovely French room belonging to designer Ginny Magher.

Sorbi, Raffaello (1844-1931)

The public sedan chair began to fall out of use in the early 19th century. The end of the tradition came because of better paved streets and the rise in popularity of the more comfortable carriages and coaches.

Château d'Anet

An exquisite Faberge sedan chair believed to have been made for the Russian Royal family more than 100 years ago.

all images via Pinterest

The sedan chair has been popular in decor and featured in many beautiful porcelain pieces.

There are also lovely miniature sedan chairs coveted by antique toy collectors.

Louis XVI Chaise à porteur.
Sedan chairs are still sought after by today's antique collectors. Purists display them as they were meant to be while others make them into curio cabinets and other repurposed furniture pieces.

These magnificent, once utilitarian objects, are sought after today by serious collectors for use in their old world interiors.

They can be quite expensive to obtain going as high as $10,926.36 at auction. Seems like these beautiful treasure of the past will always belong to the wealthy.

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This blog post was published by Lisa Farmer

In the event that I have not credited the correct source of an image, please contact me at and I would be glad to correct it.

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