Padded and upholstered footstools are humble pieces, but they have a long history, and can be found in a wide range
of woods and styles.
The footstool is a descendant of the ordinary stool, the earliest form of individual seating; three-legged stools have been made for at least 1,000 years. Strongly made, heavy, four-square joint stools were the main type of seating until well into the middle of the 17th century.
Footstools evolved when people - at first, only very important people - began sitting in chairs. Similar in size and shape to seat stools, but generally lower to the ground, they provided both the opportunity to sit at ease and the means to lift the feet off the chill and draughty floors that were then the norm. The first references to them are in the inventories of great Tudor houses. They were usually covered in
needlework or 'turkey work', a knotted fabric similar to Middle Eastern wool-pile carpets.
In the 17th century, footstools became more common, forming parts of luxurious suites of furniture upholstered in matching fabrics. They fell out of favour a little in the Georgian period, when the dictates of elegance and etiquette discouraged lounging, but re-emerged in the Regency as matching accompaniments to couches and settees. Their real heyday, though, was in the Victorian era.
No Victorian middleclass drawing room was without at least one fringed and braided footstool; some had a stool for every chair. Most also had a fenderstool. Longer and lower than conventional stools, fenderstools had first appeared in the 18th century. They were made to be placed in front of the fire so members of the household could toast their toes while taking their ease.
The emphasis on comfort changed the shape of footstools. Some were very low, just off the ground, and while most had square or oblong tops, others were simply plump and round. A number incorporated feet-warmers, either through built-in ceramic or pewter hot water bottles, or a small crock of glowing charcoal - decorative vents in the top of the stools allowed heat and smoke to escape.
Throughout their history, footstools have been made as accompaniments to other pieces of furniture, and their style always tends to reflect contemporary fashions in seat furniture. Cabriole legs were used on most 18th-century examples. Early 19th-century ones were characterized by neo-classical outlines with scrolled-over ends, or inward scrolling ends with straight, tapering feet.
Regency footstools were also likely to have brass inlay on the feet and frame. In the Victorian period, of course, all these previous styles were adapted and reproduced, and fully upholstered round stools with very small or no feet were also introduced. Gilt wood stools in a vaguely French style are probably from the middle of the 19th century.
Most Regency and Victorian footstools had mahogany legs, though the rest of the frames which were covered with upholstery - were usually fashioned from less expensive woods. Rosewood and walnut were also used for the exposed parts. Oak footstools are likely to be Edwardian or later, rather than 17th-century.
Look closely at the covering. Authentic Victorian upholstery adds value, and has survived surprisingly often. The practice of working Berlin patterns with a dense arrangement of tiny tent stitches over a canvas backing made for an extremely hard-wearing cover.
Check that any fading or discolouration is consistent over the entire piece, as recent mending of embroidery often shows up in this way, and make sure that there are no variations in the stitchwork; the same thread should be used in the same way throughout.
A few missing beads on a beadwork piece should not really be a problem; it suggests authenticity. Don't try to replace them; matching can be very difficult, and the piece will probably be devalued. Footstools were meant to be used rather than gazed upon, so they are bound to have had a bit of wear at least. By all means use them yourself. They'll come to no harm, providing you remember that outdoor shoes are their enemy. Bear in mind, too, that few cats can resist sinking their claws into the canvas-covered tops!
Victorian embroidery tends to form pictures, not abstract designs, but there were some abstract ones, influenced by the Islamic designs found on Middle Eastern carpets. These are likely to be seen on stools which also have a vaguely oriental touch to their