sedan

 

sella gestatoria - Gaffiot

image: Dictionnaire illustré latin-français (1934) – Félix Gaffiot

 

 

The Romans used forms of litters, called basterna and lectica, which were portable beds or sofas adapted for a reclining posture. They had however a third type of litter, named sella gestatoria, which was a portable chair adapted for a sitting posture. The feminine noun sella, meaning seat, is from the verb sedere, to sit, and the feminine adjective gestatoria, meaning that serves for carrying, is from the verb gestare, to carry (cf. the English noun gestation).

 

All the evidence goes to show that the portable chair as it is known in modern Europe has its origin in Italy — and ultimately in the Roman sella gestatoria — and that it subsequently found its way into France, Spain, Great Britain and other countries. According to James H. Jamieson in The Sedan Chair in Edinburgh (1916):

Indeed, in the Album Historique, edited by Professor A. Parmentier, and published in Paris, it is stated quite definitely that the chaise à porteurs, as the portable chair was designated in France, came from Italy into that country. In an article in La Grande Encyclopédie on the chaise à porteurs there is reference to an entry in 1556 in certain royal accounts of a chair for Catherine de’ Medici, and it is therein also stated that especially after the time of her daughter, Marguerite de Valois, the chair came greatly into fashion in France. In 1617 a company obtained letters patent authorising them to put hackney-chairs on the streets of Paris and other cities, and thereafter for considerably more than two hundred years the chaise à porteurs was a picturesque sight in the larger French towns.
It has been stated that the chair was seen in England as early as 1581, and, although the statement is not supported by proof, there is no reason to discredit it. Probably, however, the earliest definite record of sedans being brought to England is that with reference to the visit of the Prince of Wales, afterwards Charles I, to Spain in 1623. On that occasion Charles and Buckingham* appear to have brought home with them one or two sedans of curious workmanship, and it was probably one of these chairs which the Duke afterwards used in London.

(* George Villiers (1592-1628), 1st Duke of Buckingham)

In The history of Great Britain being the life and reign of King James the First, relating to what passed from his first access to the crown, till his death, published in 1653, Arthur Wilson (1595-1652) wrote:

When Buckingham came to be carried in a Chair upon Mens shoulders, the clamour and noise of it was so extravagant, that the People would rail on him in the Streets, loathing that Men should be brought to as servile a condition as Horses. So irksom is every little new impression, that breaks an old Custom, and rubs and grates against, the publick humour! But when Time had made those Chairs common, every loose Pimp, or Minion, used them; so that, that which gave at first so much scandal, was the means to convey those privately to such places, where they might give much more. Just like long hair, at one time decried as abominable, at another time approved of as beautiful. So various are the fancies of the times! And that strong Reason is only able to manage this Beast, that can best curb its own Appetite.

 

However, it was not until Sir Sanders Duncombe introduced his chair — together with the name sedan — that it became really popularised in London. He procured a letter patent in 1634 for setting up hackney-chairs in London for fourteen years, the number put on the streets at first being forty or fifty. The first use of the name sedan was just after Duncombe introduced his hackney-chairs: in the 1634 grant in his favour, they are referred to simply as “covered chairs”, but in the entry in the Index of Patents for that year the reference is to “covered chairs (called sedans)”. The English writer John Evelyn (1620-1706) stated in his diary, on 8th February 1645, that Duncombe had brought the sedan from Naples:

They [= the Neapolitans] greately affect the Spanish gravity in their habite, delight in good horses; the streetes are full of Gallants, in their Coaches, on horse-back, & sedans, from hence brought first into England by Sir Sanders Duncomb [sic].

This statement may be correct, as the portable chair had long been in use in Italy. In A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598), John Florio thus translated the Italian noun seggietta (from seggio, meaning seat):

a kind of chaire used in Italy to carrie men and women up and downe in.

Therefore, even though there is no evidence of the existence in Italian dialects of any form from which the English name could be borrowed, sedan — which was not applied to this type of chairs in any continental country — might have been coined by Duncombe directly from the Italian noun sede (Latin sedes), meaning seat, or from the Italian verb sedere (Latin sedere), meaning to sit.

 

A popular theory connects the word with the name of Sedan, a town in the north-east of France. In the 1755 edition of A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson wrote that the noun sedan, which designates “a kind of portable coach; a chair”, is “from sedes, Latin”, but in the 1773 edition, he wrote “I believe because first made at Sedan”. And, in Curialia Miscellanea, or Anecdotes of Old Times (1818), Samuel Pegge wrote:

The place principally hinted at in the above Grant, or Patent, seems to have been the City of Sedan in Champagne; where, we are at liberty to suppose, these covered Chairs being most in use, they obtained with us the name of Sedan Chairs, like the local names of Berlin and Landau.

But in the above-mentioned article, James H. Jamieson writes:

Although such a supposition may on the face of it seem quite plausible and quite possible, there is no evidence to support it, and in view of what has already been shown as to the early history and development of the chair, the theory is not one which can be adopted without some very clear proof. It lies quite out of the historical setting which has above been indicated, and, in addition, it seems unlikely that the chair was in use in a northern French town before its introduction into Paris and other large French cities.

However, as early as 1636, in a pamphlet playlet titled Coach and Sedan, pleasantly disputing for place and precedence the brewers-cart being moderator, Henry Peacham (circa 1576-1643) made Sedan declare:

(modernised spelling)
Beside, we have our name from Sedanum, or Sedan, that famous city and university, belonging to the Duke of Bouillon, and where he keeps his court.

Here, Sedan, who has acknowledged that he is “a mere stranger, till of late in England”, replies to Coach, who has said that he is “a gentleman of an ancient house, as you may perceive by my so many quartered coats, of dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, barons, knights, and gentlemen”. This explanation of the name sedan as applied to a hackney-chair may have been an original and isolated pun by Henry Peacham, but it may also have been already widespread at the time. Duncombe himself, for some reason or other, may have adopted the name of the northern French town. The name sedan as applied to a covered portable chair remains an unsolved etymological problem.

 

When Richard Brome (circa 1590-1652) published the comedy titled The Sparagus Garden in 1640, sedan was a new name, as the following passages show:

(modernised spelling)
– Moneylacks: I shall find means to live without your trouble hereafter.
– Striker: You may, you may. You have a wit, Sir Hugh, and a projective one. What, have you some new project afoot now to outgo that of the handbarrows – what call you ’em, the sedans?
[...]
– Brittleware: ’Sfoot, where’s my wife then?
– Samuel: If your wife be the gentlewoman o’ the house, sir, she’s now gone forth in one o’ the new hand-litters: what call ye it, a sedan?
– Brittleware: O Sedana.

When Richard Brome wrote his comedy, sedans had become a very fashionable mode of transport in the London streets. But this new form of domestic transportation was seen as direct competition both by hackney coach drivers and the watermen who worked the River Thames with their taxi service. This was the occasion of much discussion and debate in pamphlets and literature in the 1630s, as in the above-mentioned playlet by Henry Peacham:

(modernised spelling)
– Coach: There is never a lord or lady in the land, but is of my acquaintance; my employment is so great, that I am never at quiet, day or night: I am a benefactor to all meetings, play-houses, mercers’ shops, taverns, and some other houses of recreation, for I bring them their best customers, as they all know well enough.
This other that offers me the wrong, they call him Monsieur Sedan, some Mr. Chair; a green goose hatched but the other day; one that has no legs to stand upon, but is fain to be carried between two, and whereas he is able with all the help and furtherance he can make and devise, to go not above a mile in an hour; as gross as I am, I can run three or four in half an hour; yea, after dinner, when my belly is as full as it can hold, (and I may say to you) of dainty bits too.
[...]
– Narrator: The morning began to be well up, and people in the streets to cluster about us, like the ballet-singers’ auditory, when by chance, came by a plain country farmer, who newly it seemed, had passed the Thames (for a waterman followed him with a bag full of writings or such like) and demanded of me what the matter was, I told him in brief that there were two (well known in the city, Coach and Sedan) fallen out about superiority, and place, and in a contention, which of them should deserve best of the commonwealth.
– Waterman: Deserve (said the waterman) they deserve both to be thrown into the Thames, and but for stopping the channel I would they were; for I am sure where I was wont to have eight, or ten, fares in a morning, I now scarce get two in a whole day, our wives and children at home are ready to pine, and some of us are fain for means to take other professions upon us, as some in frosty weather to gather dogwood for butchers, to get birch and broom for besoms, and sometimes to catch birds with lime, or set springs in the marshes for water fowl, honest shifts, it is true, in necessity.

 

The Lord High Commissioner’s chair, from a drawing in the City Museum, Edinburgh
(image: The Sedan Chair in Edinburgh (1916), by James H. Jamieson)

The Lord High Commisioner's chair - from a drawing in the City Museum, Edinburgh

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