Watch your back. Photographer: Jerry Redfern/LightRocket via Getty Images
Watch your back. Photographer: Jerry Redfern/LightRocket via Getty Images

Is it fine to recline? Last weekend, two passengers got into a fight aboard a Denver-bound flight over precisely this question. One sought to recline, but the occupant of the seat behind him frustrated his attempts with a plastic prophylactic called the Knee Defender.

The fight that broke out between the dueling passengers prompted an emergency landing in Chicago. The altercation has since gone global, thanks in part to a piece at The Upshot by Bloomberg View alum Josh Barro, who vigorously defended his right to recline.

There’s more to this contretemps than the tired laments over greedy airlines and the decline of civility. The deeper history begins a long, long time ago, when the dreaded reclining seat first made its appearance.

No, it wasn’t on some airplane in the 1970s. That’s where the story ends. Rather, it was in the 1840s, when passenger trains first became commonplace. Unlike Europe, where trains often had three or even four classes of seating, the earliest passenger trains in the U.S. had only one class.

At first, this democratic impulse led to simple upholstered benches akin to the “swing backs” used on many commuter trains today. But as trips grew longer, and the desire for comfort increased, inventors and entrepreneurs sought to find a way to convert ordinary daytime seating into a place to sleep, or at the very least, nap.

This desire inevitably collided with the fact that space in railroad cars was at a premium. As the architectural critic Sigfried Giedion noted in "Mechanization Takes Command," inventors of this era “seemed possessed with the idea that the railroad seat, within its narrow space, must be made as comfortable, as adjustable, as convertible as was humanly possible.”

This desire, though, was coupled with an equally strong devotion to maintaining some semblance of equality. This meant transforming ordinary coach seats into beds without substantially cutting the number of passengers per car.

“It was like squaring the circle,” wrote Giedion, “and proved insoluble. But there is something appealing in these often freakish ideas: a desire to find the democratic solution that will allow everybody an equal share of comfort.”

That freakishness, of course, is what gave us the reclining passenger seat. Inspired by so-called “invalid chairs,” designers of railroad-car seats rushed to patent reclining chairs that could be stacked, sardine-like, in tight rows, each reclining backward into the laps of the passengers behind them.

Some reclining railroad-car seats seem to have been in service as early as the 1840s, and the first patent dates to 1852. It soon had company. John T. Hammit's “Improved Railroad Car Seat,” announced with great fanfare in 1853, used a lever and a rod to transform an upright chair into a reclining chair with a footrest.

Some of the new seats had creature comforts that have, alas, been lost to time. J.M. Baird’s “Car Seat and Reclining Chair,” for example, sought to “promote cleanliness” via a “spring spittoon box” hidden beneath the seat, cleverly designed so that “gentlemen may expectorate without annoying their neighbors or soiling ladies’ dresses.”

Source: The Scientific American
Source: The Scientific American

But strip away the more archaic details of these seats, and you’re looking at a modern coach seat on Delta. Then, as now, each seat could recline independent of others in its row. Likewise, anytime someone had the chutzpah to recline, they invaded the personal space of the passengers behind them.

And as for actually sleeping in these seats? Hammit, for example, claimed that his invention would “render railroad traveling more pleasant than staying at home.” But this was nonsense. The problem, familiar to anyone who flies coach, is that these contraptions weren’t beds. Little wonder that a standard textbook for car builders from 1895 described them as seats “in which people try to sleep.”

In the late 19th century, the only place where you could reliably sleep on a train was on the furniture designed by George Pullman. The Pullman sleeping cars, which catered to well-off travelers in need of a good night’s sleep, offered actual beds. But it was also possible to sleep in the chairs that Pullman offered. In so-called “chair cars,” the occupants could laze in the comfort of overstuffed armchairs that could pivot, swivel and recline.

In the 20th century, as air travel moved from a curiosity to a genuine competitor to the railroad, the story of seating repeated itself -- in reverse. Unlike the train, which had begun as a more democratic mode of travel, the plane was initially a luxury for the very wealthy, with beds and chairs like those found on the Pullman railroad cars.

In the postwar era, though, the democratic impulse conquered air travel. Everyone in America was entitled to a seat -– or better yet, a bed -- on a plane. But the hoi polloi couldn’t afford sleeping berths. They could, however, afford a spot in cramped rows of adjustable seating. And that’s what they got -- and less and less of it, too.

And so, when you board a plane this Labor Day weekend, cursing the guy reclining into your lap, remember this: you may be flying in the year 2014, but when it comes to seating, you’re very much stuck in 1852.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Mihm at mihmstep@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.