A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

July 2009

Click on any image to enlarge it.

Oak bookcase, 1690-1720, from Knell, David (1992): English Country Furniture: The Vernacular Tradition 1500 – 1900, Woodbridge, the Antique Collectors’ Club.

The Bodleian Library, Oxford, built in 1612, shown in an engraving of 1675.

Samuel Pepys’ library, c. 1690.

The library (or “studdye roome”) at Langley Marish, Buckinghamshire, England, c. 1620.


Barrels of Books

In our last Acorns we devoted some time to Samuel Sewall’s “bill of lading” as we might call it. It was the list of goods he brought back to Boston from a trip to England in 1689. Among them were a lot of books – a puncheon and a barrel, to be precise. A puncheon was a cask of 72 -100 gallons, so we hate to think of what it weighed when full of books, and a barrel was a cask that held 36 gallons of beer, or 100 pounds of gunpowder. Seventeenth-century New England had the highest literacy-rate in the world (all that Bible reading!) but even then, that’s a whole lot of books.

Barrels, of course, were the all-purpose packing crates of the time: everything was shipped in them, including books, surprising though it might seem to us. But the really interesting question is where good Samuel kept his books when he unpacked them. There was no such thing as a bookcase in seventeenth-century New England. In England, the first known domestic bookcases were installed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford around 1600, and the first domestic bookcases were made for Samuel Pepys in 1666, but the form did not become widespread until the turn of the century when it appeared on top of desks to make what we Americans call a “secretary” but the English, more accurately, a “bureau bookcase.”

We asked Paul Dowling, an antiquarian book dealer and Acorns reader, if there was anything in the history of the book that might explain why the bookcase emerged only in the second half of the century. He consulted with fellow experts, and they came up with a couple of possible reasons. One was the reduction in political and religious censorship and in the strictness of licensing in the 1640s that made publishing far less risky to the life and liberty of the printer (printers were the publishers of the period) with the result that far more books were published. The second was the change, in the second half of the century, to publishing more books in smaller formats. Large books, such as those in folio, were stored lying flat -- many bureau bookcases still have a narrow shelf at the top or the bottom to accommodate them. But the smaller format books stood more easily on end -- hence the bookcase…

Before then, books were stored in table boxes or coffers. A gentleman in Suffolk owned “a great chest of elming borde [elm] standing in the lower gallerie, for to put therein the bookes,” (in Thornton 1978:306.) And in Cockesdon’s “studdye roome” (which is what early domestic libraries were called) there were two large trunks with locks that we assume were for books. In 1634 the Countess of Leicester kept a coffer full of her books by her bedside. Books were also kept in enclosed cupboards, known as aumbreys; Elizabeth of York, Queen of Henry VII, had one “for to put in the bokes.”

But in Boston in 1689, where Sewall kept all those books must be a matter of speculation.

NOTE: Illustrations 2, 3 and 4 are from Thornton, Peter (1978): Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

A cooper’s shop from a children’s book Orbis sensualium pictus (The Physical World in Pictures) by Johan Comenius (1658). The cooper is hammering bands made from hazel rods onto a cask.

The crest of the Coopers’ Guild, c. 1450.

A cooper in the Guinness brewery, Dublin, Ireland, in the late nineteenth century.


Roll Out the Barrel

We’re now happily settled in our new home in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Before our house was built in 1725, the site held two houses, each occupied by a cooper. After carpenters, of whom there were 17, there were more coopers (9) than any other type of woodworker in seventeenth-century Ipswich: 3 turners, 3 wheelwrights, 2 joiners (one of whom was Thomas Dennis,) and a shipbuilder. Coopers were a mainstay of the economy: practically everything the town imported or exported, dry goods or wet goods, was shipped in a barrel. Thinking about the relationship between a man and a barrel, particularly if it held beer, turned on John’s nostalgia tap.

One of the many pleasures he experienced in growing up in a small country town in England during and after WWII was watching beer being delivered to the pubs. It was all in oak barrels, of course, and arrived on a flat-bed truck (“lorry” in English English). The driver would lay a pair of rails from the lorry to the ground, spin a barrel to the top of them, and flip it over onto its side. Then he’d roll it down them and along the sidewalk (“pavement”) to the cellar door. Its bulgy shape allowed him to steer it easily. Inside the cellar door was a stone ramp with narrow steps in the middle, a permanent version of the rails from the back of the lorry. He’d roll it down the ramp, across the flagged floor and, using the curve of the barrel, would easily flip it upright. He’d done it that way for centuries. The relationship between man and barrel was ergonomically perfect. No wonder that the barrels John saw in England in the 1940s were identical to those made where our house now stands in the 1650s (the only difference was the hoops -- now iron but originally woven hazel rods.)

The cooper was a specialist who made nothing but casks. He had to specialize, because his skill was phenomenal. Barrels were made of staves -- long, narrow boards of white or red oak. A stave was wide in the middle and narrowed in a slight curve to each end. The curves were shaped by eye with a hatchet and a plane, and the edges then beveled. Casks for liquids had to be watertight, so the workmanship had to be perfect. They were made of white oak, which was strong, flexible and tight-grained. Red oak, whose open pores soaked up liquid, was used for dry goods and could tolerate slightly less perfect workmanship. The cooper also had to know exactly how many staves of what width and length were needed for each size of cask.
The skill of New England coopers and the availability of white oak produced a flourishing trade – thousands of staves were exported annually to Spain and Portugal for wine casks – wine matured in oak was a sign of quality even then.
And then came the cardboard box, the fork-lift, the four-by-four pallet, and the semi-trailer…..

Rob Tarule’s book, The Artisan of Ipswich, has a full account of the woodworking trades in seventeenth-century New England – highly recommended.


Pick of Our Picks

The settle that is the pick of our picks this month also stood in a pub where beer was delivered in barrels in the way John describes. It could have stood in a farmhouse, but the history of use written on its seat suggests a public house rather than a private one: the three distinct indentations evenly spaced along it must have been made by more pairs of tired (and perhaps slightly drunken) buttocks than one could reasonably expect in one family.

The settle might well have been made in Westmoreland, a bleak, windswept county in the north west of England – certainly those turnings occur on other Westmoreland pieces, and there’s nothing in the carvings to contradict the idea. What is unusual about it, and we think unique, is the fact that the top row of panels folds down on snipe hinges. We’ve never heard of a settle with this feature – have any of you? We think of it as the settle’s winter and summer configurations.

Imagine a long, low pub with thick stone walls, small windows and a roof of stone slabs. In winter, the settle stands full height, at right angles to the fire and with its back to the door, keeping the warmth in and the drafts out. Here dusk falls in mid-afternoon and the evenings are long. Three old villagers are sitting silently on the settle – no need to talk – contentedly letting the evening drift past.
In summer, the days are long and the evenings short. The pub’s door is open, the top of the settle is hinged down and the pub is as full of light and fresh air as it ever is – which, by today’s standards, is not much.

The old-timers on the settle prefer the winter: it’s more familiar.

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