The long, backed benches on which congregants in many traditional churches sit originated around the time of the Protestant Reforemation. They came to be called "pews" from the Old French "puy", meaning balcony or elevated seat. It is no coincidence that the origin of the pew coincides with the rise of the lengthy Protestant sermon. Before this, there was no common public seating in many churches; Catholic masses did not require it.
Yet with more time in church families started buying long benches to sit on. They were property, privately owned, often crafted to individual specification, and sometimes enclosed. These last were called box pews and endured through the mid-19th century did away with that construction because of its tendency to encourage very non-religious activity in the church.
Today pews provide common, public, free and shared seating for millions of congregants.