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Furniture - The Chest Or Coffer

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE marginal difference between a chest or a coffer is slight. It would appear, however, that while the chest, known in England at an earlier period by some variations of the word, was primarily an uncovered box—that is to say, a box with a lid, but not covered over with skin or any additional protective covering—the coffer was regarded as of somewhat greater importance in that it was chiefly the receptacle for valuables. Hence the coffer is the name more frequently associated with the dower-chest or marriage cassone. The chest, although in early days serving the purpose of a marriage coffer, was essentially a portable piece of furniture, and associated with many a weary march. It may well claim to be the most venerated of antiques. It takes precedence of all other pieces of furniture, in that most of the other furnishings of the home sprang from it. It has served in turn as a seat, a couch, a bed, as a travelling trunk, and in its later developments as a general receptacle for household goods and personal effects. As a curio and antique the chest ranks second to none, although in almost every position assigned to it in the modern collector's home it seems out of place. It is so obvious that it belongs to a former generation—almost an older race. It is a superfluous furnishing, although with a curious irony of contradiction it is a useful receptacle for bedding and luxurious textiles and upholsteries, a safe place in which to keep the textiles of olden times.

The chest has no counterpart today, for although the foundation from which so many things sprang, it has out-lived the intermediate connecting links, which have long grown beyond their original forms. Modern chests are an abomination, for they are such obvious replicas of the antiques they purport to represent, so much so that no modern maker has yet made a chest to deceive the greatest amateur unless he is wilfully blind or quite ignorant of the elementary methods of ancient joiners and of modern cabinet-making.

The treasure chest was not unknown to older nations. The Romans had their arca, which stood in the atrium or hall. Sometimes the area was fastened to the floor, attached to the wall. It was a chest of iron or very hard wood strengthened with bands of bronze. It was a veritable treasure chest in which money and valuables were kept, and as such it was held in respect and carefully guarded. The Roman chest of that type may be regarded as the forerunner of modern treasure chests, which is exemplified to-day in the fireproof safe. From such a chest we have derived the modern term " war chest," indicating the treasure kept in reserve for such an emergency.

The chest is associated with the life history of all civilised races. It was the treasured piece of furniture in which the possessions of a tribe or a household were conveyed. In Western Europe the old treasure chest was covered with ox-hide, and sometimes contained a smaller box, which was securely locked and bound with iron. We can well understand its importance in the Middle Ages, and why such heavy chests were fitted with iron handles or rings, so that they could be the more conveniently carried about. The chest was taken over to the New World by the Pilgrim Fathers, and was given a safe and honoured place in their new homes.


The chest is indeed a foundation piece, for it has been the beginning of many a home, and from it have been evolved many grand pieces of furniture. Some of the very early chests were roughly hewn. They were cut with the adze or the axe, and their framework was shaped and fastened together with oaken pegs. Solidity was a necessary consideration, and very massive indeed were some of the chests made during the Middle Ages. They were used under all conditions. Richard III. slept on his military chest at the " Blue Boar " at Leicester on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth. We have heard of the treasure chest brought to this country in the retinue of William the Conqueror, and of many famous coffers used in the Middle Ages. Such chests were made of wood, put together with oaken pegs, and their covers or lids were bound with iron.

The addition of the arched top was a somewhat later innovation ; originally the chest was a travelling package, a box sufficiently strong to hold its well-filled contents, which consisted of household valuables, metal wares, textiles, and other properties. It was made of the most useful shapes for transport, and was carried on poles thrust through the rings which were provided, or in the more simple chests through holes in the sides. Chests in the Middle Ages were made by special craftsmen known as chestmakers, doubtless many of them members of the Carpenters' Guild. They were made of many different sizes, according to the purposes for which they were to be used. Travelling merchants' chests were carried on the backs of their pack-horses. It is said they used them as seats when they were negotiating a sale, and perhaps that use had a double meaning, for they would thereby keep guard over their money and valuables contained therein.

In old wills chests are spoken of, and carefully described as being " bound with yren," or merely mentioned as a bound kiste." In old documents the word is spelled in various ways, and met with as chist, chiste, cheste, cheist, and occasionally as an ark ; " k " is used now and then, thus kyst, kyste, kyrst.

At first, no doubt, the chest was without ornament. Afterwards it became one of the most beautiful objects, enriched with deep carvings, and inlaid with rare woods and even metals. The ornament of the chest was then of some importance, for it assisted identification. As early as the fourteenth century it is recorded that chests of oak were taking the place of iron chests, and the iron bandings on wooden chests were being discarded as they interfered with decorative carvings. The carving of the panels is a guide, too, to the modern collector, in that by the style of ornament he is able to fix with some degree of certainty the period when it was made. The date of the first appearance of the fleur-de-lis on oak chests is not accurately known, but on the early chests it is quite clear that the use of the French emblem ceased in 1558, when Mary lost Calais. The decorative chests, which appear to have been first made on the Continent of Europe, are the most interesting to collectors because of their beautiful workmanship, but those who prefer old English carvings will appreciate the somewhat crude attempts to reproduce mediaeval scenes such as were enacted in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Sometimes so-called tilting coffers are discovered ; knights in armour being the chief features in the carved panels. There is one very beautiful little chest in the Victoria and Albert Museum, on which two knights tilting in the field are observable.

When James I. ascended the English throne the Scotch thistle became a common form of ornament, and was often used in the beginning of the seventeenth century. It is said there was a tulip mania in this country about 1630, every one who had a garden cultivating the plant. The village carpenter seized upon the new flower, and successfully transferred it to wood.


There are many varieties of chests collectable, yet all the outcome of the initial coffer. There are two distinct classes which seem to have sprung into existence at an earlier period, the one the ecclesiastical chest, the other the treasure chest of the layman. Many of both these types have been preserved. The muniment chests in old cathedrals, abbeys, and churches, some of them having come from the religious houses suppressed at the Reformation, seem to have suffered much from neglect and exposure, and perhaps from fanatical hands. When examining carefully one of these old chests, carved with figures and scenes, it is no uncommon thing to discover that some of the figures have been mutilated. The necessity for such chests for the preservation of church records and valuable plate is not so great as in former days, for there are more modern methods for their protection. Uses, however, are found for the old chests, which are often receptacles of vestments and similar portable objects.

The chest used for the conveyance of household goods in early days frequently contained a small tray or division in one corner for jewels or valuables. Indeed, it became a chest of chests, and when the fixed drawer was added it ceased to have that distinctive characteristic which separates the chest from the more modern type of furniture.

There is much to be admired in the cedar-wood chests, which, although large and cumbersome, were good store places before every household owned cupboards, chests of drawers, and wardrobes. Cedar-wood chests were mostly imported from Holland, many being brought over in the days of Queen Anne. They were rarely panelled, but the fronts and sides were decorated by line carving filled in with a kind of cement, the ornament being cut with a V-shaped tool. The designs took the form of curious animals and monsters, some of which had a bird's head, an animal's body, and a fishlike tail. Such chests were said to have possessed some curious properties, for the wood, while keeping moths out of textiles, caused brass or copper to discolour and even corrode, and when printed fabrics were stored the peculiar characteristics of the timber caused the ink to run or blur.

In the southern counties of England, where many chests were made, the lids were almost always quite smooth, whereas those made in the North of England were panelled. Chests filled the need for a useful and capacious receptacle, and even when the original purpose was superseded by more modern methods of transport and the pieces of furniture which evolved from the chest, they served as useful seats in deeply-recessed windows. The day of adversity came, however, and chests were relegated to the kitchen or bedroom, and finally banished from the house altogether. They were put into stables to serve as corn-bins, into sheds as tool-boxes, and in gardens, where the beautiful old oak was often painted green. They were bleached by the hot sun, twisted and warped by rain and sunshine, and every indignity heaped upon the luckless chest, until in more modern times chests have been searched for by collectors.

The two illustrations shown here are very fine examples. Fig. 77 is a handsome Jacobean chest deeply carved, and in fine condition ; Fig. 78 is another chest in which the whole of the front is carved—it has a plain lid, whereas Fig. 77 is panelled, illustrating the two distinct characteristics already referred to.


The distinctive use to which coffers were put in early days calls for special mention apart from the oaken chest, from which evolved so much useful furniture. The coffer presented to the bride, and conveyed with great ceremony to her new home, became a feature in household economy at an early date. The trousseau and her dowry of house-hold linen, finely-wrought embroidery, and jewels, were enclosed in that precious casket. The chest intended for such a special use, to be regarded afterwards as an heirloom of great value to the bride's descendants, would naturally be an object upon which the artist and decorator would bestow their best efforts.

The cassone, or marriage coffer, was probably looked for with pleasurable anticipation, for in the Middle Ages property was stored " in kind," and the extent of the bride's possessions would be gauged by the richness of the chest and its contents. Many remarkable chests have been preserved and handed down as heirlooms in old families. To the collector they are doubly interesting, because of their intrinsic value as specimens of the carver's or decorator's art, and of the way in which they tell by their carvings of the scenes associated with marriages in older time. Sometimes such chests travelled far, and they are often referred to in history as indispensable features in the marriage preparations. Catherine de Medici had her cassone in her baggage when she travelled with her cavalcade from Tuscany to France. Catherine of Aragon brought her marriage chest along with her personal possessions, which were shipped to England, where the fickle Henry awaited his bride. Another royal lady of that name, Catherine of Braganza, carried a cassone among her Indo-Portuguese treasures when she journeyed to Whitehall.

Although the styles of such beautiful chests differed, there was often something about the marriage coffer which indicated a special character. Its inlays and other ornaments in gesso, or carved wood, were of the richest. Now and then the cassone would be overlaid with velvet and costly needlework. The painter and the carver vied with one another in rendering such coffers beautiful. Many very elaborate pieces were made in Italy, France, and Spain during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries ; in Spain the cuir boulli process of leather ornamentation was much favoured. The subject matter of the ornament is, however, the chief consideration of the connoisseur who inspects marriage coffers. In museums and private collections there are many interesting specimens. One notable chest has an inlaid panel picturing a room in which are a matron and maid, both seated, while standing near is a youth, the attitude of the young couple indicating a betrothal ceremony. In some schemes of ornament a cavalcade (in which the chest itself figures) indicates the arrival of the bride and her retinue at the home of the bridegroom. Other carvings represent the departure of the bride from her old home. On one notable chest the bridegroom's mother is seen embracing the young wife in the presence of an assembled company. Through an open doorway in the distance there is a mule laden with the baggage of the newly-married girl.

There are some fine old marriage coffers in the Musee Cluny in Paris. The museum is a wonderful place, well worth visiting. Its associations are so full of interest to the collector and antiquarian. In the old Latin quarter, the historic site where once stood a Roman palace in 1331 passed into the possession of the Abbots of Cluny in Burgundy. There a palace was built, and in it James V. of Scotland and the daughter of Francis I. of France were married ; their daughter was Mary Queen of Scots. The so-called Hotel, now a museum, contains upwards of twelve thousand art treasures, and many wonderful examples of old furniture are among them. One fine marriage coffer, dating from the sixteenth century, is worth inspecting. Its decoration is pate applique in relief upon a gilded surface. The moulding is remarkably well executed and extremely effective.

In the Victoria and Albert Museum there are several beautiful Venetian coffers of cypress wood of fifteenth-century make ; there are also some walnut cassones, and others ornamented with gesso. One of these pieces of sarcophagus shape is of walnut, and afterwards painted ; another is of black walnut deeply carved in high relief—it is purely architectural in design, and has some fine mouldings surrounding figures of cherubs and angels. An Italian fifteenth-century marriage coffer is almost entirely covered with scenes representing processions of knights and dames. The carving is in low relief, and much of the ornament is filled in with stucco, painted and gilt, the ends of the coffer being enriched with damask work. Among the coffers, which are essentially marriage chests, is a very fine cassone of Italian (Florentine) style, made about 1550. Upon it are carved the triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death. On the front are Pyramus and Thisbe, and on the sides Narcissus. In the allegorical carving Cupid is shown bound to the central car of Chastity, which is drawn by two unicorns ; on another portion of the chest there is a funeral car bearing Death, with his scythe, standing on two coffins.

The chest underwent many changes in the manner of its decoration, as we have seen. In the early days there was the simple coffer ; later the sarcophagus form became the popular type of the marriage chest. In Italy decorative ornament began, and some of the most beautiful effects were produced in gesso, which was a mixture of whiting and glue, spread over the surface of the carved wood, forming the basis of gilding. The chests of Spain were ornamented in a similar way, although the cuir boulli leather coverings were often used, especially for coffrets or small coffers.

There is a special interest in the highly-decorative marqueterie work, which readily groups itself into several distinct classes. This method of decorating furniture by inlay, and by processes of overlay, takes its origin in very early days. Pliny, under the name of cerostrotum, refers to a combination of wood with inlays of horn. The intarsiatori, or marqueterie workers, were first heard of in Italy in the thirteenth century. It is not, however, until we come to the fifteenth century that the more famous works of well-known artists are recognised. Among the names of Italian marqueterie workers may be mentioned those of Giuliano da Maiano, Baccio Pellini, Guido del Servellino, and a little later the several brethren of the Carthusian Order made this kind of work popular. They adopted scenic and landscape decoration as well as geometrical designs, combining with coloured woods ivory, and in some instances metal, many of the smaller coffrets being enriched with precious stones. Italy was the chief country celebrated for the manufacture of furniture in pique, but some of it was produced in Portugal. In many instances the decorated wood-work is further embellished with pierced copper ornaments and fancy bands and hinges. This class of work, although somewhat distinct from marqueterie, as it is generally understood, is often used in conjunction with it. The most common type of pique work is Indian ; but such fine mosaic inlays seem to have originated in Persia. The Indian work, however, is somewhat similar, and Persian cabinets were much copied in Venice.

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