Most English cottages of the 16th century had only a few essential pieces of furniture. Upstairs would be a loft or room with a bed, a small table and usually a coffer or lift-top chest for clothes and bedding. Downstairs was a central room around which daily life revolved. Here the family would work, play, cook and eat; furniture consisted of a dining table, joined stools or benches, and perhaps a fixed settle built into, or beside, the large open fireplace.
The term “settle” is an early English word derived from the Latin “sella” or “sedilia” which literally means “seat.” Earliest examples, seen in woodcuts or found in early inventories, were simply long wooden benches with high backs fixed against a wall, either in the chimney corner or along a wall with a dining. In 16th century inventories the term “langsettel” or “longsettle” referred to this type of “long seat.” It was a popular early form of furniture because the high wooden back kept off draughts and made a cozy place for the men to sit and smoke or drink ale while meals were being prepared. Sometimes it doubled as a bed in colder weather.
By the mid-17th century, the settle had evolved into a movable piece of furniture that could still be used beside a fireplace, but more often as a room divider. Its open-frame construction was more closely related to the armchairs evolving from joined stools at this point in time than to the fixed settles of the previous century. The open-frame settle continued to be popular through the early 19th century, especially in the North Country (Cheshire, Southern Lancashire, Southwest Yorkshire) where industry created prosperity and an explosion in vernacular furniture.
The typical North Country settle of the 17th century was made of oak. It had a paneled back, often with carving along the top rail, slab arms, a plank seat and turned legs most often joined by stretchers (see Fig1). Some were fitted with chest-like bases. The seat would lift up to reveal convenient storage space for kitchen items or tools and wood for the fireplace. Called a “box” settle, this form continued through the 18th century.
By the mid-1700s, settles had found a place in a hallway or beside the open fireplace of many a stagecoach inn between London and the North Country. In a Lancashire or Southwest Yorkshire inn, a typical settle would have a fielded panel back, slab arms and either straight or, more likely, cabriole legs joined by stretchers. Often the seat would be strung with rope webbing to support a loose cushion (see Fig. 2).
This style remained popular well into the 19th century, and by then was often used in a manor house hallway or sitting room. Some settles of the early 19th century were quite large (six feet in length) and would seat three or four people comfortably. These would often have the same fielded-panel back and rope and cushion seating arrangement as earlier ones. The only exception was that the cabriole legs usually stood alone, without stretchers (see Fig. 3).
Today settles are popular in country homes where they are used in hallways, or sometimes even as a bench for a dining table. Box settles are just as popular for storage as they were in the 17th century, and early examples are often found today in halls or mud rooms where they are used for putting on boots and storing mittens and gloves.