CLOSE
iStock
iStock

How 10 Pieces of Furniture Got Their Names

iStock
iStock

The next time you’re lounging in your living room, ask yourself a question. Why is your favorite place to relax called a couch? Who named that sofa, or for that matter, the bedroom bureau or mom’s grandfather clock? And why do some pieces of furniture have multiple names? Exploring the origins of furniture names can often reveal something about their history. From the Colonial trundle bed to the romantic hope chest, each name has a story to tell.

1. COUCH

Let’s start with your cushy couch, which is also called a sofa, a divan, and a settee. Couches first became fashionable in the 17th century and the name comes from the old French coucher, meaning to lie down. Early couches were designed for sleeping as well as resting.

While couch is the favored name for this furnishing in the U.S., in England it tends to be known as a sofa. That name comes from the Arabic soffa, which is a raised part of the floor that’s padded with carpet and pillows. Another name is the divan, which comes from a Persian word dēvān, now dīwān. The diwan originally was the privy council who got to sit in the raised cushy space. Jane Austen might have referred to the couch as a settee—as in the place to settle down for a long discussion of the eligible bachelors newly arrived in town.

2. BUREAU

iStock

For many in the U.S. the word bureau may conjure up a chest of drawers, but that’s not how it started out. In fact, looking at its original use might explain why bureau is both the name of furniture and certain organizations, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Europeans are more likely to think of the bureau as a writing desk. And the name likely evolved from the Old French word burel, for the dark brown cloth that was traditionally used to cover writing desks. In the 17th century bureaus were simple flat writing desks with drawers underneath. Such desks were used in offices, as a place to write letters and store paper and ink. Since offices had bureaus, French offices also became known as bureaus, and, by extension, so did larger complexes of offices and organizations. As time progressed, some furniture makers added extra drawers. By the 18th century the versatile English bureau often had four deep drawers topped with a desk or a bookshelf. While they still had a handy writing surface, these bureaus also provided storage.

The writing desk was also called a secretary, from the Latin word secretarius, which meant a scribe or clerk entrusted with confidential information. While some designs of bureaus acquired drawers, the secretary kept them to a minimum, but also often included a top storage department enclosed by doors. By extension, the women employed to write at these “lady’s desks” became known as secretaries. With the advent of typewriters, Victorians quickly needed more surface space to accommodate them and larger desks became popular. Secretaries employed to use the newfangled typewriter were called typewriters or type-writer girls.

3. WARDROBE

iStock

The original Old French warderobe or garderobe described a room where the robes of the powerful were guarded alongside gold and other valuables. The room contained places for hanging clothes as well as providing shelves and storage places. Eventually the wardrobe became a self-standing piece of furniture and the word was also used to describe the clothes contained within that piece of furniture. Of course, the association with protecting something valuable remained long enough for C.S. Lewis to use a wardrobe to obscure a magical portal in his Narnia books.

4. TRUNDLE BEDS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before there were bunk beds or blow-up mattresses for sleepovers, fitting in a few more slumbering bodies required a trundle bed. The word trundle implies motion and these beds on wheels rolled out from under a larger bed.

During the middle ages, children might sleep in the pull-out trundle bed stored under the larger bed where the head of the household slept. Several members of a family might sleep together like this, with the newest child in a cradle alongside the bed. Even the rich and powerful did not sleep alone, as their servants slept near them ready to serve and defend them. If this sounds a little close for comfort, it’s worth noting that in pre-central-heating days, such proximity provided warmth during bitter winters. The trundle bed was first mentioned in 16th century writings.

5. HOPE CHEST

Wikimedia Commons  // Public Domain

The name for this item may seem more obvious, since it’s a chest used to collect things for an event you hope will happen, but that anticipated event might not hold the same significance as it did in the days when women commonly lived at home until they married. The hope chest, also known as a glory box, was used to store a bride’s trousseau, as well as practical items for her new household. The contents might include linens, quilts, candlesticks, and sometimes dishes. A young woman often received such a chest when she reached marriageable age, and she might then begin to acquire or make the items required. 

6. GRANDFATHER CLOCKS

iStock

Grandfather clocks may be found in your grandfather’s house, but that’s not the real reason these long, encased clocks acquired their names. The real reason is a song. In 1875, an American songwriter named Henry Clay Work stayed at the George Hotel in North Yorkshire while visiting England. He noticed a large pendulum clock in the lobby that no longer worked. After enquiring, the hotel owners told him that the inn had previously belonged to two brothers, and that when one brother died, the clock became less accurate. When the second brother died, it stopped altogether, and could not be repaired. Work wrote a song about the clock, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” in 1876. The song sold over a million copies in sheet music and has been recorded multiple times, most recently by Boys II Men in 2004. Apparently, the name for the clock stuck. 

7. WINDSOR CHAIR

iStock

Although the Windsor chair has come to be associated with Colonial American homes, it has royal associations in English history. The Windsor chair features a very simple design with back and sides consisting of turned spindles attached to a solid sculpted seat. The chairs have likely been handcrafted since the 16th century in Wales and England, but they did not become stylish until the 18th century. The chair was named after the English town of Windsor, which is the home of Windsor Castle, one of the official residences of the British Royal Family.

In fact, royalty is rumored to have played a part in the popularity of the chair. Legend has it that King George I (1660-1727) was caught in a storm and found shelter in a cottage. There he was offered a simple spindled chair that was very different from those found in his court. He was so impressed that he asked his furniture makers to copy the chairs for Windsor Castle. By the 1730s, the chair had arrived in America, where it quickly became the colony’s most popular piece of furniture. Colonial craftsmen further refined the design.

8. DIRECTOR'S CHAIR

iStock

This lightweight folding chair does evoke the Hollywood directors of the 1920s, who made it fashionable, but the design actually dates back to the sturdier, heavier chairs used by 15th century makers of coffers or chests. That chair was in turn inspired by the Roman curule chair. The lightweight and portable curule chair traveled to China along the Silk Road and was used by the Chinese as a military chair in the second century CE. The foldable cloth version of the chair achieved popularity in the U.S. in the late 1800s, debuting at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892. That’s just around the time motion picture cameras were invented and production companies were set up. The folding chair was naturally cast as a director’s chair because it was so easy to transport on location. Sitting in “the director’s chair” has come to be synonymous with wielding creative control.

9. OTTOMAN

iStock

The ottoman that often serves as a comfy footrest is named after the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1298 to 1908. The padded, upholstered seat, which has no back or arms, was brought to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century. Early versions of these cushioned seats were flatter and longer, but they eventually became rounder and self-standing.

10. CLOTHES VALET

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The modern-day clothes valet may only air and hang out your clothes, but the position it was named after did much more. As you might know, a valet is a personal manservant and is short for the French valet de chamber or valet of the chamber. 

Isabella Beeton, whose 1861 Book of Household Management made her the Martha Stewart of her day, described a valet’s duty in the Victorian era:

“His day commences by seeing that his master’s dressing room is in order; that the housemaid has swept and dusted it properly; that the fire is lighted and burns cheerfully; and some time before his master is expected, he will do well to throw up the sash to admit fresh air, closing it, however, in time to recover the temperature, which he knows his master prefers. It is his duty to place the body-linen on, to lay the trousers intended to be worn, carefully brushed and cleaned, on the back of his master’s chair; while the coat and waistcoat, carefully brushed and folded, and the collar cleaned, are laid in their place ready to be put on when required.”

Try getting your clothes valet to do that.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Lists
25 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Recycle
iStock
iStock

According to the EPA, Americans generate 254 million tons of waste each year. Here are a few things you may have been throwing out that, with a little effort, you can actually recycle.

1. DENTURES

iStock

Grandpa's choppers may hold $25 worth of recyclable metals, including gold, silver, and palladium. The Japan Denture Recycling Association is known to collect false teeth, remove and recycle the metals, and discard the rest of the denture (which is illegal to reuse). The program has donated all of its earnings to UNICEF.

2. HOLIDAY LIGHTS

Bundle of holiday string lights

Got burnt out holiday lights? The folks at HolidayLEDs.com will gladly take your old lights, shred them, and sort the remaining PVC, glass, and copper. Those raw materials are taken to another recycling center to be resurrected. (In 2011, the State of Minnesota collected and recycled around 100 tons of dead lights.)

3. SEX TOYS

iStock

The first step in recycling your toy is to send it to a specialty processing plant, where it's sterilized and sorted. There, all "mechanical devices" are salvaged, refurbished, and resold. Silicone and rubber toys, on the other hand, are "ground up, mixed with a binding agent, and remolded into new toys," according to the aptly titled website, Sex Toy Recycling. Metals, plastics, and other leftovers retire from the pleasure industry and are recycled into conventional products.

4. HOTEL SOAP

Hotel bathroom counter with cups, shampoo, and soap

Not all hotels throw out that half-used soap you left in the shower: Some send it to Clean the World. There, soap is soaked in a sanitizing solution, treated to a steam bath, and then tested for infections. Once deemed safe, the soap is distributed to less fortunate people across the globe. So stop stealing soap from hotels—you may be stealing from charity.

5. MATTRESSES

iStock

You don't need to dump your old box spring at the landfill. Equipped with special saws, mattress recycling factories can separate the wood, metal, foam, and cloth. The metal springs are magnetically removed, the wood is chipped, and the cloth and foam are shredded and baled. In its future life, your saggy mattress can become a summer dress or even wallpaper.

6. COOKING OIL

iStock

When you’re finished making French fries at home, it can be tempting to toss the spent frying oil down the drain. But you shouldn’t—approximately 47 percent of all sewer overflows are caused by fat and oil. There are a few curbside programs in the United States that accept used cooking oil, which may send the oil to a biodiesel plant that will transform it into fuel. To see if there’s a collection point near you, check this website.

7. DIRTY DIAPERS

iStock

The average baby soils 6000 diapers before being potty trained—that's one ton of diapers rotting in a landfill per child. But not all poo-packages have to suffer this fate. The company Knowaste collects and recycles dirty diapers at hospitals, nursing facilities, and public restrooms. After sanitizing the diaper with a solution, they mechanically separate the "organic matter" from the diaper's plastic, which is compressed into pellets and recycled into roof shingles. Meanwhile, paper pulp in diapers grows up to become wallpaper and shoe soles.

8. CDS

iStock

CDs are made of polycarbonate and won't decompose at a landfill. But if you send your discs to The CD Recycling Center, they'll shred them into a fine powder that will be later melted down into a plastic perfect for automotive and building materials—even pavement!

9. SHOES

iStock

Send your beat-up sneaks to Nike Grind and you'll help build a running track. Nike's recycling facility rips apart worn shoes, separating the rubber, foam, and fabric. The rubber is melted down for running track surfaces, the foam is converted into tennis court cushioning, and the fabric is used to pad basketball court floorboards. So far, Nike has shredded more than 28 million pairs of shoes.

10. SHEEP POOP

iStock

Why turn sheep poop into fertilizer or manure when you can make it into an air freshener? The folks at Creative Paper Wales do that, plus more—they can transform sheep poop into birthday cards, wedding invitations, bookmarks, and A4 paper! Sheep dung brims with processed cellulose fiber. The poo can be sterilized in a 420 degree pressure cooker, which separates the fiber from a smelly brew of liquid fertilizer, allowing the fiber pulp to be collected and blended with other recycled pulps, creating tree-free paper.

11. TROPHIES

iStock

Is your room full of plastic bowling trophies from fifth grade? If the thrill of victory fades, you can recycle your old trophies at recycling centers like Lamb Awards. They'll break down your retired awards, melting them down or reusing them for new trophies.

12. HUMAN FAT (WARNING: ILLEGAL)

iStock

If it weren't for legal complications, America's obsession with cosmetic surgery could solve its energy problem. In 2008, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon lost his job when police caught him fueling his car with a biofuel created from his patients' liposuctioned fat. (Convicting him wasn't hard, since he advertised the substance online as "lipodiesel.") That's not the first time fat has powered transportation: In 2007, conservationist Peter Bethune used 2.5 gallons of human fat to fuel his eco-boat, Earthrace.

13. ALUMINUM FOIL

iStock

Foil is probably one of the most thrown away recyclable materials out there. (Americans throw away about 1.5 million tons of aluminum products every year, according to the EPA.) But foil is 100 percent aluminum, and as long as you thoroughly clean it of any food waste, you technically should be able to recycle it with your aluminum cans (but first check with your local recycling plant to ensure they’re equipped to process it; some aren’t).

14. CRAYONS

iStock

Don't toss those stubby Crayolas! Instead, mail them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, which takes unloved, broken crayons to a better place: They're melted in a vat of wax, remade, and resold. So far, the program has saved more than 118,000 pounds of crayons.

15. DEAD PETS

iStock

When Fluffy bites the dust in Germany, you can memorialize your beloved pet by recycling her. In Germany, it's illegal to bury pets in public places. This leaves some pet owners in a bind when their furry friends die. A rendering plant near the town of Neustadt an der Weinstraße accepts deceased pets; animal fat is recycled into glycerin, which is used in cosmetics such as lip balm.

16. SHINGLES

iStock

The EPA estimates that 11 million tons of shingles are disposed each year [PDF]. Most of them are made out of asphalt, which is why more than two dozen states pulverize the old shingles and recycle them into pavement. For every ton of shingles recycled, we save one barrel of oil.

17. PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

iStock

You can—and should—properly dispose of expired prescription drugs. But what about unneeded pills that are still good? Some states let you donate unused drugs back to pharmacies. Some charities also accept leftover HIV medicine from Americans who have switched prescriptions, stopped medicating, or passed away. These drugs are shipped overseas and distributed to HIV victims around the world.

18. FISHING LINE

iStock

Fishing line is made from monofilament, a non-biodegradable plastic that you can't put in your everyday recycling bin. At Berkley Fishing, old fishing line is mixed with other recyclables (like milk cartons and plastic bottles) and transformed into fish-friendly habitats. So far, Berkley has saved and recycled more than 9 million miles of fishing line.

19. WINE CORKS

iStock

Your recycling center probably doesn't accept wine corks, but companies like Terracycle and Yemm & Hart will. They turn cork into flat sheets of tile, which you can use for flooring, walls, and veneer. Another company, ReCORK, has extended the life of over 4 million unloved corks by giving them to SOLE, a Canadian sandal maker.

20. PANTYHOSE

iStock

Most pantyhose are made of nylon, a recyclable thermoplastic that takes more than 40 years to decompose. Companies like No Nonsense save your old stockings by grinding them down and transforming them into park benches, playground equipment, carpets, and even toys.

21. TOOTHBRUSHES

iStock

If you buy a plastic toothbrush from Preserve (which makes its toothbrushes from old Stonyfield Farms yogurt cups and other everyday items), it will take back your used toothbrush and give it a new life—this time as a piece of plastic lumber!

22. TENNIS BALLS

iStock

The company reBounces doesn’t really recycle tennis balls, it resurrects them. If you’ve got at least 200 balls sitting around, the company will send you a prepaid shipping label to help get the box on the road and repressurize the balls.

23. YOGA MATS

iStock

Most yoga mats are made from PVC, the same material in plumbing pipes, heavy-duty tarps, and rain boots. While many local yoga studios will accept well-loved mats and find them a new home, the company Sanuk has an appropriately squishy vision for each mat’s future: It will transform your old yoga mat into flip flops.

24. DEFUNCT CURRENCY

iStock

All governments have a way of dealing with old, worn money. (In 2016, the Indian government shredded old bills and turned them into hardboard.) But what about currency that is no longer legal tender? Ends up you can donate your old French francs, Spanish pesetas, or Dutch guilders to Parkinsons UK, who will recycle the old coins and banknotes.

25. PET FUR

iStock

All of the pet fur on your sweaters, your couches, and your carpet could help save the ocean from oil spills. Hair is excellent at sopping up oil from the environment (hairball booms were used to soak up oil from the 2010 BP Oil Spill), so non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco-based Matter of Trust will accept pet fur to make oil-absorbing mats of Fido's fuzz.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Scott Jarvie
arrow
Design
Optical Illusion Rug Creates a Bottomless Void in Your Floor
Scott Jarvie
Scott Jarvie

Artist Scott Jarvie doesn’t believe home goods need to be warm and inviting to earn a spot in the house. That’s certainly the case with his mind-bending void rug: When viewed from a certain perspective, the interior design piece inspires feelings of dread rather than comfort.

According to designboom, Jarvie achieved the rug’s bottomless black hole illusion using clever, two-dimensional design elements. To people standing directly over it, the item resembles a shaded crescent moon cupping a flat black circle. But adjust your position, and the simple rug morphs into a stomach-turning void in the middle of your living room floor.

If the circular rug isn’t trippy enough, Jarvie also made a rectangular runner that can turn an entire hallway into an empty pit. Neither rug is something you’d want to forget you own on a midnight trip to the bathroom.

Void rug optical illusion.

Jarvie’s art isn’t limited to floor rugs that trick the eye. The Scotland-based artist’s creative furniture and home decor includes laundry balls, a cling wrap dispenser, and a chair made from 10,000 plastic drinking straws.

Void rug optical illusion.

Void rug optical illusion.

[h/t designboom]

All images courtesy of Scott Jarvie.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios