Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on February 16, 1663, “Up and by coach with Sir W. Batten and Sir J. Minnes to White Hall, and, after we had done our usual business with the Duke, to my Lord Sandwich and by his desire to Sir W. Wheeler, who was brought down in a sedan chair from his chamber, being lame of the gout…”
Filthy streets littered with mud, garbage and excrement were a health hazard in 16th and 17th century Europe, but also made walking the street difficult, hence the sedan chair.
Named after the town of Sedan, France where it was first used, the sedan chair consisted of a seat inside a cabin with a detachable roof, mounted on two poles and carried by two men known as chairmen, one at the front and one at the rear.
Sedan chairs swayed and bounced as they were carried. The passenger would get in and out through a door at the front of the chair.
Sedan chairs soon became popular among the gentry because their use allowed the passenger to keep their shoes clean and the detachable roof allowed for the tall, elaborate headdresses sported by fashionable ladies. They were also popular in some places where carriages were unable to navigate the narrow streets.
Legally, sedan chairs were allowed on the pavement and it was expected that pedestrians would yield to them if they heard a warning of “Have a care!” or “By your leave, sir!” That last phrase was interesting because en the Marine Corps if one walked up behind an officer and wanted to pass him, you rendered a hand salute and made the request, “By your leave, sir.” I never knew where it came from until now.
In many cases pedestrians wouldn’t give way and accidents happened with chairs tipping over, etc. One wonders how many of these were real “accidents.”
Just like taxi drivers of today, chairmen were licensed and sedan chair stations were set up from which passengers could hire a chair. Sedan chairs were available for hire around the clock, but after midnight the fare was doubled. After dark, the sedan chair would be accompanied by “link boys” or torch bearers to light the way.
The wealthy didn’t actually go to the chair stations themselves, but would send their footman out into the street to summon a chair by shouting, “Chair! Chair!” Or, if they were wealthy enough, they might have their own chair, that was often painted and decorated to reflect the decor of the house.
The rapid expansion of the cities and the distances involved meant that sedan chairs eventually fell out of favor and they became less and less fashionable, and by the mid 19th century had virtually disappeared.
A Short History of the Sedan Chair