Bean bag chairs have recently been reintroduced into popular culture, and they are becoming more widely accepted as a viable alternative to traditional furniture each year. It is no wonder that everyone seems to be clamoring for bean bags. They are versatile, durable, comfortable and easy to clean. Bean bags have become mainstays at movie theaters around the world, and doctors are recommending them for their ergonomic properties and as a form of therapy for children on the autism spectrum. What is also fascinating about the bean bag is that it has a long and rich history that remains unknown to most people.
The Great Debate
The actual history of the bean bag is shrouded in mystery because it has such a simple design and dozens of uses. Those who are only thinking about furniture say that bean bags were invented less than 50 years ago. However, many believe they were around long before the 1960s, and their history can be traced back more than 4000 years to ancient Egypt.
No matter who is ultimately right regarding the history of bean bags, it is fun and educational to explore the topic, take a look at their historical uses and discover how they evolved over time.
Bean Bags in Ancient History
According to one historian, bean bags were first invented by the ancient Egyptians sometime around 2000 B.C., and for thousands of years they were used to play games and for other recreational diversions. The first bean bags were small, round and made of leather. They were most likely filled with dried beans or pebbles, and they were used by some of the world’s first jugglers.
Bean bags were also said to be used by Native Americans in the Great Plains of the United States. Several tribes, including the Blackhawks, filled pig bladders with dried beans to play a game that was a precursor of our modern game of Cornhole, also known as the bean bag toss. In this game, a hole is drilled in a board, which is placed horizontally on the ground. One side of the board is then raised so that it looks like a ramp. You can play with only two people, or you can form teams. Taking turns, you toss bean bags at the board, trying to get them through the hole. The first team to reach 21 points wins the game.
Bean bags were also used as training tools in ancient China by students of tai chi. Tai chi is a martial art that teaches you how to develop internal power for self-defense and health. This martial art originated in the 12th century, and it stresses slow, graceful movements that help to focus your inner strength. At some point, tai chi masters began to use small pouches filled with sand, dry beans or small rocks that were kept in the air by striking them with various parts of the body.
An old video dating back to 1937 depicts a tai chi practitioner kicking one of these bean bags. This video is also considered to be the origin of the footbag, often referred to by the trademark Hacky Sack.
Bean Bags as Furniture
Although it seems like a no-brainer to fill a giant bag with soft pellets to use as a chair, sofa or bed, because we now know how comfortable they are, the first bean bag chair was not invented until the 1960s. In 1968, a patent was filed by William Roger Dean, working for the Royal College of Art, for the sea urchin chair. According to the patent, the sea urchin chair consisted of a spheroidal outer shell made of a synthetic material that was self-supporting yet resilient and pliable. The shell was filled with 12 individual blocks of foam that acted as cushions.
Because the sea urchin chair was not filled with beads, it cannot be considered the first bean bag chair, but it was an important predecessor of a chair that would be invented the following year.
The First Bean Bag Chair
The very first bean bag chair was known as the Sacco, and it was released in 1969. It was designed by Cesare Paolini, Piero Gatti, and Franco Teodoro, who were commissioned to create the piece by Zanotta Design in Italy. The trio was asked to produce a chair that was aesthetically appealing, comfortable and unique. It was later considered a major part of the art movement known as Italian modernism.
Italian modernism was characterized by its use of new technologies and materials that had become available after World War II. Among these new materials were polystyrene and other plastics that could be easily and affordably produced for the masses. Creating these products required revolutionary thinking, and the input of designers was indispensable.
Paolini, Gatti, and Teodoro created the Sacco to be a shapeless chair, but when full, the leather shell was shaped like a pear. Although leather is far from a type of plastic, it was a material that Italians took pride in, and they wanted the Sacco to be indisputably Italian. However, the target market for the chair was people belonging to or identifying with the hippie culture that started in the United States and had spread to Europe. The hippies were known to be very relaxed, and they were not interested in conforming to the norms established by previous generations. Thus, bean bag chairs fit with their culture perfectly.
Bean Bags of the 1970s
In the 1970s, bean bags were at the height of their popularity. They were being produced by a large number of manufacturers, and you would be hard-pressed to find a household in the First World that didn’t have one. Although some were still being made of leather, newer materials, such as nylon and polyester, were commonly being used. In addition, other new materials were being employed for filling bean bags. Many of the first bean bags were filled with pellets made of PVC or extruded polystyrene, but during the 1970s, it was discovered that expanded polystyrene (EPS) was more resilient and durable.
Most of the bean bags manufactured during this era were spherical in shape, and they often featured bright colors and busy designs. However, very few were made of high-quality materials, such as those used for the Sacco. Most of them were comprised of cheap, inexpensive materials that made them increasingly affordable.
The Great Bean Bag Resurgence
During the 1980s and 1990s, the popularity of bean bags declined greatly in popularity, but they were still being manufactured by several companies. At this time, only cheap bean bags were available, and the deaths of several children were attributed to these unsafe products. This prompted federal authorities in the United States, Europe and Australia to adopt new manufacturing standards that included safety mechanisms to prevent children from opening them, climbing inside and suffocating on the beads.
Today, bean bags are just as safe as any other type of furniture, and they are experiencing a strong resurgence in popularity. Bean bags are now available in several shapes, sizes and styles. They may mimic the shapes of traditional chairs, sofas and loungers, and they can be used indoors or outdoors. They are also made of materials that are more durable and are even being sold for use as pet beds.