Antiques Guide - COFFERS

Item #576

The English Coffer is basically a large box made up of planks of wood with a hinged lid. Most were made out of solid oak although at times walnut , elm, chestnut were used. Coffers date back to medieval times and were made through the 18th century. Coffers are difficult to date since the method of construction largely went unchanged for centuries. Coffers were very useful pieces of furniture – used for storage, side tables and even seating. By the 17th century some coffers were made with drawers at the bottom, these were called mule chest. These mule chests were the forerunners of the chest of drawers.

Today the best examples of coffers that have survived were constructed in the 17th century. The two coffers that we have in our shop are good examples of two types of coffers that were made. One is simply constructed of six planks of wood (top, bottom, back and sides) , nailed together with handmade iron nails and fitted with wire loop hinges. The other coffer has joined construction (connected with mortise and tenon joints), paneled top and front, carving on the front and the lid is hinged with large iron strap hinges, although you can see evidence of earlier wire loop hinges that were replaced with the strap hinges.

Notice that the six plank coffer at one time had two locks – a family’s most prized possessions were keep in this chest hundreds of years ago. Also note the date “1741” and initials “F D” on the front of the coffer. Dates on coffers can be misleading. It was not a common practice for the furniture maker to carve the date on the coffer. However it was a common practice to carve dates in furniture when they were given as gifts at a later time. Most likely this coffer had been in a family for some time and then in 1741 given as a gift (possibly a wedding gift) to FD.

Interesting fact: “Some coffers were often later decorated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Evening classes in wood carving were popular and couples often took along a family coffer to practice on.” (Payne, p. 53) During this time period ‘Jacobean’ furniture was popular so people would take an old coffer and carve on it to give it more of the Jacobean style. This is much like today when someone will take an old piece of furniture and paint it or strip it to make it more in keeping with the current popular style.

Sources:
Field Guide to Antique Furniture, Peter Philp & Gillian Walking
Miller’s Collecting Furniture, Christopher Payne