The practical and adaptable ottoman was a popular piece of furniture in the 19th century, when it added a touch of the exotic to many different interiors.
The ottoman is a versatile piece of furniture, both useful and decorative. Some of them were large enough to use as daybeds, but most were smaller. They were sometimes made available as parts of suites of furniture. Even when they were bought separately, they were often reupholstered to match the rest of the decor and furnishings by their original owners.
An ottoman is an upholstered seat for one or several people, with little or no visible wood. A variation, the box ottoman, has a hinged top so that it can be used for storage as well as for seating. Though its name suggests a middle eastern origin, the ottoman was actually a European creation, inspired by the upholstered benches, covered with cushions, that were used in Turkey and other parts of the Ottoman Empire.
The ottoman was first popularized in England at the beginning of the 19th century, with the publication of an influential book of designs by George Smith. Smith was cabinetmaker and upholsterer to the Prince Regent, whose well-known fondness for all things oriental influenced Smith's taste.
Regency ottomans could be either round or rectangular. Most were upholstered in the ubiquitous striped cotton or in silk and looked like mattresses on low wooden plinths. The upholstery was held in place by tightly drawn threads prevented from pulling through the fabric by silk tufts. After 1820, it was more common to use buttons rather than tufts.
Sprung seats were put on ottomans from around the 1830s onwards. The Victorians produced many variations on the basic design. A few Victorian ottomans had padded arm-rests and upholstered backs. Many were designed with attractively curved sides that made it possible for full-skirted Victorian ladies to sit more comfortably.
The second half of the 19th century was the heyday of ottomans. They could be found in large and small houses, in reception rooms, bedrooms, smoking rooms - where they were a particular favourite - libraries and studies. Box ottomans were particularly popular.
In the best houses, the ottomans were upholstered to match the chairs. Coverings included printed fabrics, carpet or embroidery, particularly the thick, plush Berlin woolwork. Sometimes the designs were embellished with decorative braid or ornamental brass tacks.
There can be enormous variations in the quality of Victorian ottomans. The best examples had a solid wooden carcase, like a box. Most, though, have a lighter wooden framework, perhaps constructed by the upholsterer himself. Webbing was stretched across the frame and covered with hessian to support the stuffing.
Sometimes you may come across a homemade version, where a basic frame box has been given a thinly-padded top and the interior has been lined with cheap cotton or even wallpaper. Professional work, including circular or bow-fronted examples and the elegant parlour ottomans with curved sides, had interiors lined with dark linen or cotton, the top edges of which were tidied up with simple braid or cord.
Box ottomans remain one of the cheapest and simplest forms of storage, as an interesting covering fabric can transform a crude frame into an acceptable piece of furniture. They have remained in production through the 20th century, with particularly luxurious ones in buttoned leather, and enjoyed a come-back in the 1930s. Current variations are typically constructed from foam rubber, rather than wooden frames, and upholstered in hard-wearing woollen fabrics.
Ottomans of all periods can be found in second-hand dealers and at small auctions. Antique models in good condition need not be too expensive, while ones that need a lot of renovation can often be purchased quite cheaply at house sales or in junk shops. If you're planning to re-cover a damaged ottoman, always do it in period style.