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

caused a chest of mine to be removed out of the chamber where before that time I was accustomed to lie, and to be brought into a chamber so nigh to her own chamber as she might have come from one to the other when she list without any suspicion. This chamber I was then placed in.

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.

Glossary

Rail: a horizontal member used in framing a panel.
Stile: a vertical, load-bearing member on the outer ends of a paneled front or side.
Muntin: a vertical member between two panels, not load-bearing.