They may not teach the history of the recliner chair in schools – although if they did, you probably would have paid attention – but the modern-day La-Z-Boy has roots in 19th-century France. Napoleon III was reported to have owned the very first reclining chair.
The Origin of the Recliner
The first known recliner chair came from France around 1850. Known as a reclining camp bed, the chair served as a bed, chaise and a lounge. Built with a steel frame, the reclining camp chair was portable and featured padded armrests for added comfort.
The First Patented Design
While Napoleon is rumored to be the first owner of a recliner, two American cousins are credited with the creation of the recliner chair: Shoemaker and Knabush. The two were granted a patent in 1928 for a wooden recliner, and would go on to form La-Z-Boy Incorporated.
The original wooden recliner was designed for outdoor use, porches mainly. But the two inventors quickly realized that they were onto something, and people may want to bring their wooden recliners indoors. So in 1930, they patented an upholstered version of their design with mechanical movement. The patent is the first of its kind for an indoor, fully-upholstered reclining chair.
In May of 1929, Shoemaker and Knabush attended their first furniture show, and they came home with more orders than they could handle.
As their recliner gained in popularity, the pair realized that the chair needed a name. In 1930, a contest was held to name the recliner. What was the winning name? You guessed it – La-Z-Boy. The name was quickly trademarked, and it’s been synonymous with the reclining chair ever since.
It was through the use of smart market marketing that La-Z-Boy is still around today and was able to flourish even through the Great Depression. To celebrate the grand opening of their showrooms, the two set up circuses in front of the store. The shows delighted guests, allowing them to forget the anxieties of those caught in the grip of the Great Depression.
Business was so successful that a new showroom was opened in 1935.
La-Z-Boy recliners are still around today, and while competitors have emerged, its name is still synonymous with the reclining chair.
The Modern Day Recliner
Shoemaker and Knabush may be credited with obtaining the first wooden recliner patent, but it was Daniel F. Caldemeyer who created the modern day recliner in 1959.
Owner of National Furniture Mfg. Co., Caldemeyer’s invention would pave the way for widespread home use of the reclining chair – which he called the “rocket recliner.” Caldemeyer said he gave his invention this name because its design was based on the science of kinetics, which he used while he was serving in the U.S. Air Force.
Caldemeyer’s design would eventually be used by NASA to create the seats in Projects Apollo, Mercury and Gemini.
The rocket recliner’s design was so popular, the Secret Service bought 50 of them for President Johnson as a Christmas gift.
Caldemeyer was granted over 300 patents evolving recliner design. He eventually added heated seating, foot lift rest and massage features.
Modern day recliners are still very similar in design to Knabush’s and Shoemaker’s original design. We’ve seen the introduction of electric recliners, and models with extra features like Wi-Fi connectivity, but the overall design and function remains the same.
In many ways, recliners still serve the very same purposes as the first recliner in the 1850s: chair, lounge and bed. Many modern designs are just as comfortable – if not more comfortable – than a traditional bed. And with the pull of a lever (or push of switch), you can switch right back to a conventional chair.
While the recliners we know today are a still a relatively new invention, the original reclining chair has a rich history that dates all the way back to 19th century France. Only time will tell which new advancements will make these luxurious chairs even more comfortable and functional.