Early English Oak Benches

Benches, or forms (the two terms were used interchangeably in their day), were used for dining at the long "refectory" tables in Elizabethan and Jacobean houses. Many of the "great rooms" or "halls" had benches built into the walls; moveable ones were used on the room side of the tables. On some, the carving and turning copied that found on the tables, and indeed the benches looked like tables reduced in size. The earliest forms, from the 13th to the 16th centuries, were supported on shaped boards at each end, but by the late 16th century and through the 17th, benches with legs became the standard form. Contemporary inventories also show that forms were also placed at the ends of beds, where they were used for conversation.

In construction and decoration, benches are like elongated joint stools. In his 1649 book, Academy of Armory, Randal Holme describes them in detail: "Some are made with turned feete, 4 or 6 according to its length, hauing railes or Barres both aboue for the seat to be fixed upon, and below, to hold the feet firm and stiddy."

Though they served similar purposes to joint stools, benches are far less common. In The Shorter Dictionary of English Furniture, Ralph Edwards writes that "seats constructed in this 'fashion of a form' continued to be made throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.. In the 17th century large oak tables were often provided with a nest of stools, which were ranged along the stretchers when not in use, and consequently forms were seldom made." Inventories cited by Chinnery show that forms were still in use in the 17th century, though they were far less numerous than stools: "In the Hall.one table bord, one forme, 5 stolles." (1615): "In the hall.One long table, eight joyne stooles, two joyne formes." (1686).

Benno Forman, in American Seating Furniture, 1630 - 1730, suggests another reason for their falling out of favor: "[Benches] were not sufficiently individualized to remain acceptable in the public room of a New England house. In 1677, for example, a form was used in the kitchen of William Hollingsworth's house in Salem, while chairs graced his 'best roome'." Forman argues that benches were the lowest status form of seating, and were typically used by women and children. He refers to a contemporary engraving showing a mother and children on a bench listening to their husband-father who is, as befits his patriarchal authority, sitting in a chair.

Not only were there far fewer joined benches than joined stools in their period, but their survival rate seems to have been lower as well. Their lack of utility in later households seems to have led to them being discarded without much thought. Today, however, they are one of the very few forms of unmodified antique furniture that can serve as a coffee table in front of a sofa.