Early English Oak Bible Boxes
More boxes have survived from the seventeenth century
than any other form of furniture. Contemporary inventories show that most
households owned many of them. Like their larger cousin, the chest, they
were very useful, and comparatively easy to make. Chests stored larger items,
and boxes the smaller ones: almost anything that today we might stuff into
a drawer would have been kept in a box -- drawers were rare until the second
half of the century. Though the boxes are from the seventeenth century,
the name "bible boxes" is from the nineteenth. They were obviously
used to store far more than just bibles, indeed, boxes outnumbered bibles
by many times.
In 1547, the inventory of King Henry VIII listed many
boxes: in the closet next to his privy chamber were boxes which contained
"painted antiques" (we have to wonder what an antique was in 1547!),
"table men" (carved figures, or chess men), "pictures of
needlework", "12 pairs of hawks' bells, small and great, and a
falconer's glove", "slippers of velvet for women", "burning
perfumes" and two or three containing dolls for his children. In 1598,
a domestic advice book said that when a lady rides abroad, one of her serving
men "is to carrie her boxe with ruffles and other accessories."
The household accounts book of the Shuttleworth family of Gawthorpe showed
that they bought at least three boxes between 1617 and 1621. Incidentally,
we have never come across an inventory listing a bible in one of these boxes!
In New England, very similar boxes were used for similar
purposes. The 17th century probate records of Essex County, Massachusetts,
include references to "1 box and some small matters in it, as two small
black handkerchiefs, 1 black quoife, 1 bonnet"; "Small squar boxe
full of mean books"; "Little boxe with 4 shillings, 2 pence and
half a crown.”
Construction and Decoration
English boxes are typically made of oak, though walnut
examples can be found: American ones may be of oak, pine or maple, or of
mixed woods. Boxes are typically made of boards joined by nails or pegs.
Dovetailed boxes are rare, and paneled boxes rarer still. The ends of the
boards sometimes have small notches chiseled out of them to prevent the
wood splitting along the grain. The bases often overlap the sides and front
by about an inch, and the tops are hinged by snipe, strap or butterfly hinges.
All are fitted with locks -- houses in the period were much more public
than today's, and personal items had to kept secure and private. Some boxes
have sloping lids for writing or reading: these are usually called “desk
boxes” or, in England, “slopes.” Some of them have small
drawers fitted in their interiors.
The boxmakers’ guild was incorporated into the
Joyners Company of London. This is somewhat surprising, since the boxes
were not joined, and the quality of the carpentry is basic. The quality
of a box is determined more by its carving than by any other factor, and
the best of the boxmakers were skilled carvers with a vigorous sense of
Like most 17th century vernacular furniture, boxes
were decorated with repeated, formal patterns which were adapted to fit
almost any vertical surface. The decoration is usually flat-carved: the
background is chiseled out and matted with a punch to contrast with the
design left at the surface level. Occasionally, particularly with the trailing
vine motif, the design is rounded and not left flat – a sign of quality.
Lines are usually gouged with a chisel.
The decoration is conventional but not monotonous since
the carving is so vigorous and free. Although the designs are formalized,
each carver interpreted them freely, with the result that no two boxes have
the same decoration. Among the more common motifs are lunettes, guilloches,
nulling, lozenges and vine trail (see glossary below). Gadrooning and rondels
are less common. One also finds abstract geometric patterns and lovely free
floral or foliate designs. Initials, and particularly a date, add to the
value of a box and to its attraction for collectors. American boxes were
decorated with similar motifs and patterns. One difference, however, is
that applied split spindles were a much more common decoration in this country
than they were in England.
Restoration and Value
Common faults that detract little from value: Lost
lock or hasp, hinges replaced in the eighteenth century, cleats on lid lost
or replaced, reinforcing strip inside the lid, small losses or repairs to
the wood (especially the corners).
Faults that reduce value: Replaced lid or bottom, later carving, newer hinges,
major restoration to the wood.
Lunette: A semi-circle often filled with decorative
Gadroon: A carved ornament resembling short ruffles.
Nulling: A series of arched, concave niches.
Lozenge: A diamond usually filled with decorative carving.
Guilloches: Two interlocking series of horizontal S-curves forming a row
Rondel: A circle usually filled with decorative carving.