The Case for Protecting Upholstery

The eighteenth-century witnessed an immense rise – and imbalance – in personal wealth, spawning the demand for comfortable and fashionable furnishings. Ownership of upholstered chairs and sofas would have come at considerable cost, confirming one’s status. It would have been difficult not to impress one’s peers with fashionable silk damasks from Genoa or printed calicos and chintzes from Calicut.

Fig. 1. Block printed Indian chintz, early eighteenth-century.

Natheless, periodic replacement of such expensive needlework or printed cotton or silk tight covers (the show fabric, nailed to the seat frames) through fading and wear and tear would have been disagreeable even to the wealthiest homeowner, so once the visitors’ coach had departed the front gates, the vibrant, delicate covers would have been protected beneath cases[1] made from less costly linen or serge for daily use (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Settee protected with a green serge case. Robert Dighton, The London Dentist, c.1784.

Beginning as informal utilitarian essentials, cases quickly gained acceptance as fashionable accessories on which the wealthy enjoyed lavishing money. Listed in the “Paynted Roome” at Montagu House in London were:
11 Caine Chaires, Damask Cushions & Serge Case’s.
4 Elboe Chaires Stuft Damask Cushions & Serge Cases.
In the Lady’s Bed Chambr… 8 Chaires & 2 Round Stooles the Same as the Bed. with false Serge Cases. an Easy Chaire Covered wth: Greene Damaske & Silver Silk and a Shalloone[2] Case.[3]

In his diary entry for Sunday the 11th of October 1663, Samuel Pepys describes: “… doing things in my chamber, altering chairs in my chamber, and set them above in the red room, they being Turkey work [knotted embroidery, in imitation of Turkish carpets], and so put their green covers upon those that were above, not so handsome.”

Fashionable early eighteenth-century bed hangings, curtains and seat covers were commonly of silk damask and boldly printed calicos, chintzes and silks imported from India, though as with other household goods brought from the Orient (in particular, porcelain), English craftsmen exhibited consummate ability in replicating them – albeit with a distinctly English bent. “Britishness was by this time stylistically defined by fabrics and motifs of Asian origin that had been absorbed into the patterns of daily life.” [4]

Woven checks or ‘plad’ [5] were popular and serviceable for making cases.[6] Major innovations in spinning and weaving in the early part of the eighteenth-century saw the establishment of large mills in Derbyshire and Lancashire that by mid-century, produced prodigious quantities of plain and woven check fabrics and floral-printed cottons and linens.

In 1752 a mechanised procedure was devised in Ireland for printing fabric using engraved copper plates (latterly known as toile de Jouy – Jouy cloth – after the town in Northern France where it was extensively produced from about 1770) and lead to Thomas Bell inventing the roller printing process in 1783.[7] ‘Toile’ (produced predominantly in red, though black, blue, green and yellow dyes were also used) was highly popular for all manner of furnishings and apparel for the remainder of the eighteenth-century and beyond.

Fig. 3. Mid-eighteenth-century toile.

Fig. 4. Baloon de Gonesse toile, c.1784.

The subjects of contemporary paintings were occasionally portrayed, relaxed, on, or surrounded by furniture cloaked in cases. The artist, John Hamilton Mortimer – an ardent chair case admirer – painted not only himself seated on a bold check-cased chair (fig. 5), but also many of his patrons (figs. 6, 7, 8 and 9).

Fig. 5. John Hamilton Mortimer, self portrait, c.1760.

Fig. 6. John Hamilton Mortimer, George Thompson, his Wife and his Sister-in-Law, c.1766-8.

Fig. 7. John Hamilton Mortimer, Group Portrait of Sergeant-At-Arms Bonfoy.

Fig. 8. John Hamilton Mortimer, John Hamilton Mortimer with Joseph Wilton and a Student, c.1760-65.

Fig. 9. John Hamilton Mortimer, The Oyster Party, c.1760.

Thomas Chippendale had a preference for blue, buff, crimson, green and yellow serge over checks and stripes for informal apartments. However, in 1773 Chippendale advised Lady Knatchbull, “Serge is most commonly used but as the room is hung with India paper, perhaps you might Chuse some sort of Cotton – suppose a green Stripe Cotton which… is fashionable.” [8]

It became commonplace to have cases of expensive, showy fabrics made in sets to enable rotation between launderings. Additionally, this approach obviated the need of expensive tight covers; the tight covers could simply be of plain linen… ‘in canvas’.[9] Sets of cases were also used to update older furniture, or completely alter the décor of a room. In such event, matching curtains would also have been hung (fig. 10).

Fig. 10. En suite cases and curtains. Robert Dighton, January, c.1785.

Stripes became popular in the third quarter of the century. In 1786 the firm of Haig and Chippendale supplied striped cotton cases for mahogany armchairs, sofa squabs and cushions to Merton, the home of Lord Walsingham. They also replaced the case for the sofa using the “old stripe case sent us as a pattern”. [10]

In the 1790 third edition of his Guide, George Hepplewhite made a couple of recommendations for upholstering, firstly, a wing chair:

“Plate 15 ſhews a deſign for a Saddle Check, or eaſy chair ; the conſtruction and uſe of which is very apparent ;  they may be covered with leather, horſe-hair ; or have a linen caſe to fit over the canvaſs ſtuffing as is moſt uſual and convenient.”

…and secondly, a Duchesse (a chair and stool ensemble):

“The ſtuffing may be of the round manner as ſhewn in the drawing or low-ſtuffed, with a looſ ſquab or bordered cushion fitted to each part ; with a duplicate linen cover to cover the whole, or each part ſeparately.”

In a letter relating to a case for an easy chair, the head of the Gillows cabinetmaking firm of Lancaster and London wrote to a client, “We presume [the chair] will require some sort of washing cover which requires a good deal of nicety to make them fit well to such sort of chairs.”

As the images above attest, cases were largely informal, loose coverings which facilitated their easy removal and replacement. Linen tapes at critical points enabled the cases to be secured to the furniture as witnessed on Mortimer’s chair in fig. 5 and the sofa in fig. 7. A more formal appearance, not unlike a tight cover, was achieved with closer fitting cases which were kept in place with hooks and eyes; or stitched eyelets that were hooked over stout pins on the undersides of the seat rails; or by temporary thumb tacks (witnessed by small, regular rust stains on period cases).

In this throw away age, cases are scarcer as families commonly replace their entire ‘suite’ of bulbous seating every few years, however, some still glean much satisfaction from extending the lives of antique furniture by periodically changing just the cases.

Fig. 11. Circa 1760 pair of ‘Gothik’ mahogany arm chairs with printed cotton cases.

Jack Plane


[1] Case; False; Slip-on; Slip-over. A covering for furniture, particularly tables and chairs, made of leather, gingham or serge, as appropriate, to protect from light and dusk [sic]. Fastened by ties, or hooks and eyes, or made to fit loosely.
Geoffrey Beard, Upholsterers and Interior Furnishing in England, 1530-1840, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 326.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dr. Tessa Murdoch, Noble Households – Eighteenth Century Inventories of Great English Houses, John Adamson, 2006, pp.18-19.

[4] Beverly Lemire, Domesticating the Exotic: Floral Culture and the East India Calico Trade with England, 1600-1800, Textile, I (2003), 65-85, p. 80. Cited in Maxine Berg, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.313.

[5] Murdoch, p.73.

[6] Ibid, p. 147.

[7] Toile de Jouy Museum, A Short History, http://enfilade18thc.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/press.pdf

[8] Christopher Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, Tabard Press, 1978, p. 57.

[9] Murdoch, p.187.

[10] Letter from Haig and Chippendale to Mr. Andrews, Merton, 1786, Norfolk Record Office, WLS/L/9/427×2, cited in Pamela Clabburn, The National Trust Book of Furnishing Textiles, Penguin, 1988, p. 170.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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7 Responses to The Case for Protecting Upholstery

  1. Josje says:

    A wonderful post! Just the information I needed.

    I had seen cases on chairs in the painting ‘The Art Gallery of Jan Gildemeester’ by A. de Lelie. The cases look like they have embroidery on them which matches the border on the carpet. I couldn’t find any information on it other than the cases are there to protect the valuable upholstery underneath. The chair next to the man dressed in black sitting in the bottom left corner looks like it has the tight cover on show.

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  2. Joe M. says:

    Thanks for “covering ” this topic.
    It leaves one wondering how accurate museums are when showing furniture/rooms in thier natural settings. They are shown to highlite the individual items not as they would have been kept in the actual time. There are of course places to see such senarios (plymouth Plantaion, historic deerfield, Some individual houses), but the majority of “rooms” in larger museums are Just that . Showrooms. At least that’s my impression.
    So much furniture today is viewed as pieces of art, were in the period much of the furniture and funishings had everyday utilitarian uses and viewed/used as a nessessity. The need to get every minute of value from the life of a piece is, as you bring out in your post, somewhat opposite today. In this throw away world. I often wonder what will the future generations feel/say about the items we use on a daily basis. Would they hold them with the same repect as we do the furniture of the early periods.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      I can appreciate the quandary faced by museums and other institutions charged with perpetuating the past: On one hand, accurate presentation of furniture is essential to understanding and appreciating exceptional pieces, but it is also as pertinent to witness the role of that furniture in daily use.

      Many period films now go to tremendous lengths to portray the minutiae of life and living – often consulting historians and related academia – that they can offer accurate, though fleeting insights.

      JP

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  3. Roy Davi says:

    Well,old ideas are still used in this family that has lots of visiting teenagers, who love to flop about on furniture. Cover everything I say and wait till they grow up leave home before uncovering prised objects such as expensive furniture. But be warned,recovering soon begins as grandchildren arrive!
    Enjoy while you can!!!!!!

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  4. Pingback: Embroidered Furniture at Montacute House | Pegs and 'Tails

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