It is believed that decorative upholstery buttons appeared with the Chesterfield style in Great Britain toward the end of the 19th century. However, the buttons were not merely an aesthetic addition – they had a surprisingly specific function.
The rigid, leather-upholstered Chesterfield chairs were first employed in salons and reception areas of the wealthy and influential. These areas were often crammed with great numbers of people requesting favours, making the process a tiring ordeal for both patron and prospective beneficiary alike. So the patron, in an effort to hasten the process, needed a means of weeding out those less-determined, less needy individuals. The solution was to make lobbyists feel unwelcome by making them uncomfortable.
Unlike the cushiony Chesterfields of today, the former were stuffed with straw, cured Spanish moss, or horse hair, or a combination of the three, creating a very hard, rigid seat. And to make the seats even more uncomfortable, protruding buttons were added. So anyone willing put themselves through the discomfort of sitting on one of these Chesterfields, or alternatively standing, for an extended period of time, had to be more motivated, and in greater need, than those unwilling to put up with the discomfort. One wonders if this is where the expression “pain in the bottom” derives itself…
Today, we continue see these hallmarks of the past on many chesterfields, though thankfully the buttons are now recessed to contribute to our comfort rather than to reduce it.