Early English Oak Coffers (or Chests)
Coffers, along with boxes (their smaller cousins),
are the most frequently found examples of seventeenth-century furniture.
They are a form of sixteenth-century furniture that the average collector
can still find and afford.
Coffers were the general purpose storage units of their
day, but they were also used for seating and even for sleeping on. All had
locks to ensure privacy and security in the crowded households of the period.
Some were used for the storage of household goods, but others were personal:
most members of the household had their own coffers for their own belongings.
Some have initials or names on them to identify their owners.
There is a nice little story in the autobiography of
Thomas Whythorne, a sixteenth-century itinerant music teacher, that illustrates
the personal nature of the chest. The mistress of one house wanted to extend
their relationship beyond the professional, and
His story does not say explicitly that he slept on
his chest, but he almost certainly did, for a man of his status would not
have had a bed.
Coffers, or Chests
In the period, the words "coffer" and "chest"
described different functions rather than different forms. Coffers were
used for traveling or for storing valuables, while chests had a more generic
storage function. Most of what we now call coffers were, in their day, called
chests. For the last hundred years or so, however, dealers and collectors
have used the name “coffer” to distinguish these early chests
from their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century descendents.
The distinction is worth making. In the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, chests were important pieces of furniture that stood
in the public areas of the house. Their high status was reflected in the
high quality of their decoration and construction. By the eighteenth century,
however, chests of drawers, desks, and cabinets had become the favored means
of storing everyday goods; the status of chests declined, and they were
moved from the public to the private rooms of the house. Their forms subsequently
became simpler and humbler. A coffer is, quite simply, a seventeenth-century
chest, or, to put it another way, a chest of importance.
Construction and Form
Coffers come in two basic forms: boarded and joined
(or paneled.) Joined coffers are paneled and were made by joiners, whereas
boarded coffers were nailed or pegged, and could be made by the less skillful
carpenters. Boarded coffers are made out of six boards, one each for the
front, bottom, back, and lid (in which the grain runs horizontally), and
another two for the ends (in which the grain runs vertically) which are
extended downward to form the feet. The boards are nailed or pegged together,
sometimes with simple butt joints, but often without. This can cause shrinkage
cracks, particularly where the front and back boards are nailed to the ends:
the front and back contract horizontally, but the vertical grain at the
ends allows for no movement. The cleats at each end of the lid can similarly
cause the lid to crack.
In joined coffers the panels were set in frames that
allowed the wood to move, so they suffer less from shrinkage cracks. The
outer stiles extend downward to form the legs. The lids may be paneled or
boarded. Some coffers were paneled on the front only, in which case they
are known as “joined and boarded.” It is sometimes thought that
boarded coffers preceded joined ones, but this was not the case: both forms
were made over the same period of time. The choice between them was one
of cost: joinery was more expensive than carpentry. The most costly coffers,
then, were those in which all sides and the lid were paneled.
The other big cost factor was the decoration. In the
plainest joined coffers, the only decoration is channel-and-groove molding
around the frames. In the most exuberantly decorated, the rails, stiles
and muntins, together with the panels they enclose, are all carved. In coffers
made before about 1630, carved figures, known as terms, were often applied
to the stiles and muntins. The extent of the carving was determined by the
taste and wealth of the owner, and today greatly affects the value.
In boarded coffers, any carving is confined to the
front, and even this is sometimes only scratch-decorated. Some are not carved
at all. Their “primitive” simplicity gives them a different
appeal to the more elaborate, joined examples.
Restoration and Value
Common faults that detract little from value include: a lost lock or hasp,
hinges replaced in the eighteenth century, reinforcements under the lid
or to the bottom boards, and small losses or repairs to the wood. Height
loss is common, and an inch or two should cause no concern. Faults that
affect the value somewhat more include one, or at most two, replaced bottom
boards; pieced rear legs -- the bottoms of rear legs have frequently rotted
for they stood against the wall on the dampest part of the stone floor.
Common faults that reduce the value significantly include a replaced lid,
new bottom or back boards; later carving; newer hinges; and major restoration
to the wood.
Rail: a horizontal member used in framing a panel.
Stile: a vertical, load-bearing member on the outer ends of a paneled front
Muntin: a vertical member between two panels, not load-bearing.