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from "Everybody Take A Seat," by Mariana Gosnell, Smithsonian, July 2004 :: image via Neeta Exports :: first posted here 17 November 2008

Maybe you’re sitting on one right now. It has a high back with slats, or arches, or a fan of leaf blades, or some intricate tracery. Its legs are wide and splayed, not solid. The plastic in the seat is three-sixteenths of an inch thick. It’s probably white, though possibly green. Maybe you like how handy it is, how you can stack it or leave it outdoors and not worry about it. Maybe you’re pleased that it cost less than a bottle of shampoo.

No matter what you’re doing, millions of other people around the world are likely sitting right now on a single-piece, jointless, all-plastic, all-weather, inexpensive, molded stacking chair. It may be the most popular chair in history.

That dawned on me recently after I started noticing The Chair in news photographs from global trouble spots. In a town on the West Bank, an indignant Yasser Arafat holds a broken chair damaged by an Israeli military operation. In Nigeria, contestants in a Miss World pageant are seated demurely on plastic chairs just before riots break out, killing some 200 people. In Baghdad, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III, during a ceremony honoring Iraqi recruits, sits on a white plastic chair as if on a throne….

The plastic chairs in all those places were essentially alike, as far as I could tell, and seemed to be a natural part of the scene, whatever it was. It occurred to me that this humble piece of furniture, criticized by some people as hopelessly tacky, was an item of truly international, even universal, utility. What other product in recent history has been so widely, so to speak, embraced? And how had it found niches in so many different societies and at so many different levels, from posh resorts to dirt courtyards? How did it gain a global foothold?