‘Fainting couch’ is a novelty piece

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I was wondering if you could tell me about this old piece of furniture that has been in my family for a very long time. I am not sure if it is referred to as a fainting couch or not. I have never seen one that folds out into a bed before. It was recovered in the 1980s because the original upholstery was in bad condition. It has an 1890 date on the legs. How old do you think it actually is, and what is its monetary worth?

Thank you,

C. C.

Dear C. C.:

When we first started being interested in antiques (some say dinosaurs still gamboled here and there), pieces of furniture such as this were indeed called “fainting couches.” But times have changed and collectors have become more sensible about their nomenclature.

Yes, it was romantic to visualize Victorian ladies coming down with fits of the vapors and “fainting” onto these pieces until a cooling compress and smelling salts could be administered. Sadly, that is just claptrap designed to evoke a merchandisable image.

These pieces are also called “recamiers” after Juliette Recamier, who was painted by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) as reclining on a piece of furniture inspired by an object associated with the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Madame Recamier was the wife of a Parisian banker and one of the more notable socialites of her day, but she has nothing to do with this type of furniture.

Instead, these pieces were merely prosaic daybeds where naps could be taken in the day’s heat (or whenever the mood struck). They also served as couches, but they were not really designed to be all that comfortable for sitting.

The style of the piece in today’s question is Victorian Eastlake, which was popular in the United States from the late 1880s to about 1900. The February 1890 date cast into the metal legs is the date on which this convertible bed was patented, and we feel it was made no later than circa-1895.

We think this is a really neat piece because the seat does fold down with legs at the back to support the hidden sleeping surface. This is the sort of space-saving device that came into popularity in big cities where apartment living became more prevalent in the late 19th century and beyond. They are found only occasionally but we would not consider them to be rare or even uncommon.

It is a novelty piece. And the fact that this is an early sleeper sofa is perhaps its only saving grace — almost all Victorian furniture is out of fashion with collectors and homeowners and is almost impossible to sell on the current antiques market. Yes, some sellers do try to gussy them up by calling them “fainting couches” and “recamiers,” but that does not alter the true purpose and origins of this piece.

The reupholstery work on the piece is appropriate and we particularly like the brass tack decoration, but at retail this piece is probably worth only $600 to $750.


Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you'd like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at treasures@knology.net. If you'd like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.