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When Oak Was New
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Early English Oak Joint Stools

Joint stools were made in large quantities in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were the most common form of seating (chairs were status symbols, and were reserved for the head of the household), but also served as small tables and as footstools. There were 170 in Lord Lumley's estate when he died in 1590. Many stools were made in sets, often matching the long table around which they were set. In 1642, Richard Lumpkyn, of Ipswich, Massachusetts, had "one table with six ioyned stooles."

English inventories give us glimpses of how numerous joint stools were:

"The joined table and half a dozen joined stools belonging to it." (1585)
"Great joined table, 6 joined stools and one walnut-tree chair." (1586)
"Great Chamber, one drawinge table of walnutte cutt and carved of three leaves long, and xii stooles cutte and carved." (1594)
"In the parlor, One long table, eighteene joined stools, two chairs." (1681)

Joint stools were socially ubiquitous: they were used in the homes of yeoman farmers and town burghers as well as in the most aristocratic houses.

Form and Construction

The variations among joint stools, particularly in height, suggest their various uses. Stools of around 22" high were used for sitting at table: their height enabled the sitter to rest his or her feet on the table stretchers, thus keeping them off the dirty and draughty floor (tables of the period were 32’ to 34" high, compared to the 28" height of 18th century ones, and the 30" height of 19th century and modern ones.) Stools 18" high were used for seating in other places, or in workrooms such as the kitchen: people sitting on them rested their feet on the floor. There are also stools of 12" to 16" in height that were foot stools or children's stools. At the other end of the scale are stools taller than 22": these were probably what were sometimes referred to at the time as "stoole tables". These stools often have thinner legs and occasionally a larger overhang of the top, indicating that their main use was as small, easily moveable tables. The legs of the taller stools were splayed at the narrow ends for stability, but on footstools (or children's stools) they were usually straight.

Other variations include stools with hinged tops over a small storage compartment, and a few with a drawer fitted under the seat. Both these forms are rare, and cost three or four times as much as a regular stool.

In his Academy of Armory published in 1649, Randle Holme illustrated a typical example, and described it as "a Joynt stoole….so called because it is all made and finished by the Joyner, having a wood couer," He distinguished it from a turned stool, "made by the turner or wheelwright…wrought with knops and rings." Joined stools were also distinguished from boarded stools, which were nailed and made by carpenters. Very few turned or boarded stools have survived.

The frame of a joint stool consists of four turned legs joined at the top by rails (the “apron”) and, just above floor level, by stretchers. The legs and rails are often carved, the rails and stretchers may be molded. All the joints are pegged mortice-and-tenons. The top had ovolo molded edges, and was pegged to the frame in one of three patterns: one peg into the top of each leg, or one into the middle of each rail, or two into each long rail and one into each short. Tops have often been nailed to the frame later for extra security, and have often been replaced.

Because joint stools were so common and of comparatively low regard, later generations discarded them without thinking, or relegated them to workshops and barns where they deteriorated rapidly. Their survival rate was low, but today their versatility and small size means that the survivors are eagerly sought after, and as a result they are comparatively expensive (backstools generally cost less than joint stools, for example).

Joint stools are occasionally called "coffin stools". Like the term "bible box", this is a nineteenth century invention -- the Victorians seemed to like giving early furniture connotations of the church! While it is certainly possible, and even likely, that two joint stools were used to support a coffin during a funeral service or a wake, this was certainly not their primary function.

Restoration and Value

Faults that detract little from value include minor height loss, minor repairs to the top or feet. More significant faults are a replaced stretcher and four replaced feet. Faults that reduce the value considerably are a replaced top (often a period top from another stool), many replaced stretchers, a replaced leg.