Welcome to my home! Sit down, make yourself comfortable. Would you like some tea or coffee? I have some fresh-baked cookies too!
This scene is mostly likely to happen in a living room, and the guest will probably sit on a couch. This essential piece of furniture is a symbol of comfort and hospitality.
Let’s take a closer look.
The couch: A history
We know of pieces of furniture for sitting or reclining existed as far back as the Greek and Roman antiquities, and probably even further back. Only men would use these recliners to sit and eat; women would sit on chairs.
Until the 17th century, only the aristocracy and rich merchants would have the space for couches. But with major improvements in Germany and England, the couch quickly became ubiquitous, present in most middle-class households from the 19th century on. Interestingly, English has no native word for it: “sofa” comes from the Arabic “suffah”, a noun describing a similar piece of furniture, and “couch” comes from the French “coucher”, a verb meaning “to lie down”. French uses “sofa”, “divan”, or “canapé”, which, in English, is a word for finger food.
The modern sofa has changed little since the 18th century. It is still a wooden or metallic frame covered in cushions and fabric. The most modern iteration of the couch is the sofa-bed. A two-place sofa is called a loveseat. Alternative (but increasingly archaic) names for a couch include “Chesterfield”, still in use in Canada and Northern California.
The couch: A cultural view
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the couch was the center of erudite salons, where literatis would meet and discuss art, literature and philosophy. These events would happen in living rooms (hence the use of the French word for living room, “salon”) and would require seating space for guests. The couch quickly became the centerpiece of good hosting, along with the living room or drawing room, where the couch was placed.
Our Western culture understands the couch as a space of relaxation and discussion. It is at the crossroads between entertainment and serious endeavors; you can watch a sitcom or read history books in the same place. Along with the table, it is the space where people hang out, share and get to know each other.
In movies and television shows, the couch (and the living room) are mostly female-dominated spaces used for intimate discussions and encounters or as quiet scenes in between more action-oriented sequences. The couch represents the safety of the hearth, the innocence of childhood and the strength of family life. Living rooms invaded by antagonists (or antagonistic events) instantly become tainted and unlivable.
The couch: A personal view
For me, the couch represents many things: my “break room” during the day, a space of intellectual inquiry (I always read on the couch, never on a table) and relaxing moments with television or video games alone or with my partner.
Couches are part of many important personal moments. The child sits between his or her parents, watching television or playing games with siblings and friends. The couch is a focal point of their imagination: it easily becomes a fort, a boat, a car or a spaceship. Teenagers use the couch for flirting and expressing interest during early sexual explorations (when they’re home alone, of course!).
The couch is second only to the bed for its importance in a living space. It is often the most expensive set of furniture you purchase, and the one where quality and comfort matter the most. A major rite of passage into adulthood is choosing our first living room set as we move out of our parents’ house and set out into the world.
The couch also provides comfort and security in uncertain times. People help friends in need by letting them sleep on their sofas. The couch provides a relatively comfortable sleeping space during conjugal difficulties (otherwise known as “dog house”). As the center of socialization and relaxation, the couch is a refuge when things in other places become difficult. This is where we center ourselves and reconnect with who we are and what matters most to us.
In my life, the couch invites me to stretch my legs and enjoy a nice cup of tea with a good book. What does your couch invite in your life? Let us know in the comments!