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The Bible-Box, The Cradle, The Spinning Wheel, And The Bacon Cupboard

( Originally Published 1912 )



THE Authorized version of the Holy Bible, "translated out of the original tongues and with the former translations diligently compared and revised," by His Majesty's command, found a place in every household in Stuart days. The letter of the learned translators "To the Most High and Mighty Prince James, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith," &c., retains its place in modern editions. It is an historic document worthy of preservation, and perhaps those who have forgotten its terms may be glad to have their memory refreshed. It is of surpassing moment to all who recognize the Protestant derivation of the Bible as we now know it, and the sectarian feelings which inspired the translators under King James in their fulsome dedication to the Modern Solomon. "Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God the Father of all mercies bestowed upon us the people of England, when first he sent your Majesty's Royal Person to rule and reign over us. For whereas it was the expectation of many, who wished not well unto our Sion, that upon the setting of that bright Occidental Star, Queen Elizabeth, of most happy memory, some thick and palpable clouds of darkness would so have overshadowed this land, that men should have been in doubt which way they were to walk; and that it should hardly be known who was to direct the unsettled state; the appearance of your Majesty, as the Sun in its strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gave unto all that were well affected exceeding cause of comfort; especially when we beheld the Government established in Your Highness and your hopeful seed, by an undoubted title, and this also accompanied by peace and tranquillity at home and abroad."

It is, as we affirm, an interesting document as showing the Puritan tendencies at a time when much was in the melting-pot and the first of the Stuarts, with his broad Scots accent and his ungainly ways, came down to St. James's from the North. Compare the above literary dedication to James the First with the word-portrait painted by Green the historian, and one may draw one's own inferences. "His big head, his slobbering tongue, his quilted clothes, his rickety legs, stood out in as grotesque a contrast with all that men recalled of Henry or of Elizabeth as his gabble and rodomontade, his want of personal dignity, his buffoonery, his coarseness of speech, his pedantry, his contemptible cowardice. Under this ridiculous exterior, however, lay a man of much natural ability, a ripe scholar with a considerable fund of shrewdness, of mother-wit, and ready repartee."

Himself a theologian, James influenced his contemporaries. "Theology rules there," said Grotius of England only two years after Elizabeth's death. There was an in-difference to pure letters and persons were counted fine scholars who were diligent in the study of the Bible. The language of the people became enriched with this study, which extended to all classes. John Bunyan, the son of a tinker at Elstow, learned his intense prose from the Bible. The peasant absorbed the Bible till its words became his own. With the Puritan movement came the production of men of serious type, and with it too, came the disappearance of the richer and brighter life and humour of Elizabethan days. It was a literary movement and a religious movement which penetrated to the lower classes and often left the upper classes and gentry unmoved. In dealing with this and its reflex upon the domestic habits of the people, the visible effects in regard to furniture are strikingly evident in the plethora of Bible-boxes belonging to those in this period of Biblical study, to whom Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were unknown and Spenser's Faerie Queene and Milton's Comus were sealed books.

It would almost seem that in many cases the Bible was the only book which was read and treasured. It was incorporated in the home life. It served as a register to record the names and dates of birth, death or marriage of members of the family. Some of these family registers have been most valuable in tracing details in biography where parish registers have failed to supply the necessary information.

We give a series of illustrations indicating some of the interesting details of carving to be found on such boxes, where, as in work intended for a treasure-chest to preserve a sacred book, considerable zeal has gone to the elaboration of ornament. These seventeenth-century relics of a wave of religious enthusiasm are the crude Puritan equivalents, belonging to a less innately artistic race, of the tabernacles and reliquaries of the Italian renaissance. They both, though poles asunder in realization, represent the instinctive love of man for ornament in connexion with his religious emotions. Savage races with quite other ritual produce religious and ceremonial wood-carving representative of their best. Here, then, is the Puritan craftsmanship, mainly of provincial origin and found scattered over various parts of the country, following motifs executed by the same hands as Jacobean chairs and dressers, but bearing rich touches of ornament, betraying much originality, within the limited scope of Jacobean design.

The carving has nothing of the humour or strong, bold relief of the misericords of the palmy days of the wood-carver in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century in details that might well have been applied to the Bible-box. The ambition of the Puritan wood-carver never reached figure-work, though he might have represented Biblical scenes if an abhorrence of graven images had not limited his fancy. Some of the early boxes have bold carving. We illustrate a fine example (p. 91) of about 1660. The design is floral, embodying well-known conventional flowers. Illustrated on page 75 is another carved box with floriated design. It was a frequent practice to treat the front of the box as though the pattern was continuous, leaving off at the ends much in the same manner as modern wallpaper. In the previous box it will be seen that the front is panelled and the design is confined to a circumscribed area.

Another piece illustrated on the same page has a bold type of carving in the two semicircles extending across the front. This example has incised or "scratch" carving. It will be seen that there is never an attempt at inlay or any of the delicacies of the refined craftsman. Among the various types of "scratch" boxes the use of circles and heart-shaped ornament is constant.

In the acquisition of Bible-boxes the novice must carefully learn the exact limitations of the school of wood-workers in this minor field. The touch of the foreign craftsman should be easily recognizable, with its piquancy and real artistic feeling. These Puritan Bible-boxes have flat lids, and in order to give some touch of romance to them or whet the appetite of the collector they are frequently described as "lace-boxes," though it is very doubtful if such boxes were ever used for storing lace. Sometimes similar boxes with sloping lids were used as early forms of writing desks.

The Jacobean Cradle always exhibits in the oak variety associated with farmhouse use, a plainness which is noticeable. They are usually panelled, but the panel has received no carved ornament and is especially simple.

Of course they always have rockers. Sometimes the latter are plain and sometimes they have slight ornamental curves. The only other ornament may be found in the turned knobs at the foot and sometimes at the head. Sometimes too there are fine knobs on the hood.

The latter is occasionally shaped and exhibits a naive attempt at symmetrical design. These cradles have long been familiar objects in cottagers' homes, but are now being displaced by modern wicker cradles. The picture A Flood (187o), by Sir John E. Millais, shows one of these cradles floating in a flooded meadow. The baby is crowing with delight, and a black cat sits at the foot of the cradle.

The holes frequently seen in the sides are intended to receive a cord stretched across the cradle to protect the occupant.

To this day the spinning-wheel is used in the High-lands of Scotland. The wool or yarn winders are usually of windlass form with six spokes. The turning upon these winders and spinning wheels resembles the spindles on the spindle-back chairs. There is in Buckinghamshire bobbins a similar turning, individual in character, and exhibiting considerable artistic beauty. In spinning-wheels there is considerable scope for the use of fine touches of ornament. Bone was sometimes used in the turned knobs. The making of these spinning-wheels, practical objects dear to the housewife, was undertaken by persons desirous of winning the esteem of those who used them. Many of them have come down as heirlooms in families, and have not been held as objects of art to be regarded as curiosities, but as articles of everyday use.

The use of the spinning-wheel was not confined exclusively to the farmer's wife. In early days great ladies were adepts at spinning. By the time of George III it was employed by ladies of titled families. Mrs. Delany, when staying with the Duchess of Portland at Bulstrode, writes : "The Queen came about twelve o'clock, and caught me at my spinning-wheel, and made me spin on and give her a lesson afterwards; and I must say she did it tolerably for a queen." This letter, dated 1781, goes to prove two things, that spinning was a real task still undertaken by great ladies, and not a fashionable amusement. Had it been the latter Mrs. Delany would not have used the expression "caught me at my spinning-wheel," wherein she indicates that the occupation was somewhat of a menial one.

In regard to the Buckinghamshire bobbins, sometimes finely carved in bone, they indicate the character of the cottagers' treasures in the pillow-lace-making districts. The patterns of these bobbins are not repeated. Individual touches which are not duplicated are given to these bobbins by the village turners. In use, the bobbin has to be identified by some mark, and beads of different colours are employed, which are affixed by means of a wire to the bobbin.

Another class of furniture which it is convenient to place among miscellaneous objects is the bacon-cupboard. The illustration (p. 157) shows the type of bacon-cupboard with seat and arms and, beneath the seat, a chest. The position held by the bacon-cupboard in the farmhouse is shown by the growing dignity in the character of these cupboards. The gradual growth and development are shown in many specimens of the Queen Anne period, frequently of Lancashire origin. Such pieces, with classic pilasters, broken cornice, and bevelled panels and drawers beneath, are typified in wardrobes and dressers belonging to eighteenth-century farmhouse furniture. The development of capacious cupboards for various domestic uses is noticeable in this class of furniture up to early nineteenth-century days.



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