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Antique Wooden Chests & Coffers

Description of the history of antique wooden chests & oak coffers furniture.

From very remote times chests have been used chiefly for clothes, and the dower chest was perhaps the earliest form of receptacle. It was the forerunner of the chests and wardrobes that we know today. Up to the sixteenth century coffers were nearly always found in churches, where they were used for the storing of vestments,, deeds and valuables, and later they reached a high stage of finish and were often elaborately carved. The typical linenfold carvings of Tudor chests were eventually replaced by the arcaded panels of Jacobean design, and during the seventeenth century coffers were not only carved but inlaid.

Examples of Elizabethan work are still obtainable, and the plainer types with simple mouldings and panels of polished oak can be placed in halls , corridors or bedrooms. In a hall a coffer is extremely useful, for travelling rugs and other things that are difficult to dispose of tidily may be put inside ; and its presence will give a distinct note of interest. The hall may be modern and very ordinary, little better than an enlarged passageway, with a conventional treatment of wallpaper above a painted dado. It may be sadly lacking in character, and yet much can be done with such unpromising material. When we put an oak coffer against one wall , with a pair of rush-seated ladder-back chairs on either side of it, then do we realise that nondescript decoration does acquire a certain dignity when it is considered as a background.

Travelling Trunk
Travelling Trunk, 1547-1553.
Oak, with stamped leather and silk linings and wrought iron handles.

Coffers are too often included in a furnishing scheme because they are old and interesting. This is a museum ideal, and terribly destructive to sincere furniture arrangement. Unless there is a definite use for it a coffer should not appear in a small room ; for only large rooms can afford to be influenced by decorative and historical considerations.

Coffer, 1861
Coffer, 1861.
Wood (probably pine), with silver leaf, glazed and painted with tinted varnishes; wrought iron mounts.

The modern safe had its equivalent in the past in the leather and iron-bound chests that were used for jewels and personal valuables, and their association with the housing of treasure has woven about them a pleasantly romantic interest. In the early coaching days such chests accompanied their owners on journeys, and rather clumsy luggage they must have proved. Small leather chests and boxes with curved lids make excellent cases for gramophone records, and can easily be fitted with baize-covered divisions inside.

The development of the larger type of chest in wood produced mule chests, which illustrates the transitional period between the dower chest and coffer and the chest of drawers. It was a piece of furniture that possessed the characteristics of both types of chest, for the upper part was a coffer, and this rested on a solid base in which a couple of drawers were fitted.

Next: Chest of Drawers.

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