Mr Stephen Loft-Simson in a chairman's livery

The European Sedan Chair: a brief history

Pius V, Pope 1566-1572, being carried in a litter (Sedia Gestatoria)
Pius V, Pope 1566-1572,
printed 1568, Germany

The Sedia Gestatoria and the carrying chair was the local transport of the Pope and heads of state during the 16th century. The canopied carrying chair became popular in Naples, Genoa, and the Spanish Court in the last quarter of the 16th century. These forms of transport developed more widely into the fully enclosed (close) or covered chair and man-carried litters during the early 1600s.

The Sedan, a glass-windowed, cloth-lined enclosed chair or litter was developed in London during the early 1630s. Its name, according to Henry Peacham (1576-1644, author of Coach & Sedan, 1636) derives from the Principality of Sedan on the Meuse, an important centre of cloth manufacture and a Protestant enclave on the North European mainland. The two names ‘sedan’ and ‘chair’ were commonly combined during the first decade of the 18th century and by the late 19th century the combined term came to describe all man-carried transport with a seated occupant. Many European countries extended the use of earlier words to include this new glass-windowed carrying chair. So France used chaise a porteur(s) and Spain silla de manos. In Italy portantina replaced seggiola, whilst in Germany Sänfte described the new chair as well as the mule-litters already in use.

A Modern Belle going to the Rooms at Bath, by James Gillray, showing a public-hire sedan chair
A Modern Belle going to the
Rooms at Bath, by James Gillray (1756-1815),
published 1796 by Hannah Humphrey, London

In London, the glass-windowed sedans became available for public hire from October 1634 and by the late 18th century more than 2,000 sedan chairs were available to hire in over 37 cities/towns across Great Britain and Ireland. Ornamentation reached its zenith during the period 1745-1775 when there were tens of thousands in private use across Europe. Today probably only 1,600 survive.

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