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 design.

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.

Glossary

Lunette: A semi-circle often filled with decorative carving.
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 of circles.
Rondel: A circle usually filled with decorative carving.