More boxes have survived from the 17th century than any other form of furniture. Chests stored larger items, and boxes the smaller ones. Since drawers were rare in the first half of the 17th century, almost anything that we might stuff into a drawer today would have been kept in a box.
Though many “bible” boxes are from the 17th century, the term “bible box” is of Victorian origin. Up until then, the box was simply known as a box. Bibles held great value to a family and could be kept in a nicely carved, locked box away from critters and sticky hands. Many of the bibles owned in America during the 1800s were quite large and the early boxes were large enough to house them.
In the American Colonies, the joiner or box-maker was hard at work crafting wooden boxes very similar to those being made by his contemporaries back in England. Quite a few English craftsmen came to America and it was only natural that they would incorporate many of the designs they learned in their native land into the furniture they were making here. Amateurs and professionals alike produced this container locally in a great variety of styles and finishes. Just about anybody who could afford nails, a few planks of wood, and a hammer could improvise a bible box.
Since the quality of the carpentry was basic, the value of a box is determined more by its carving than by any other factor, and the best of the box makers were skilled carvers with a vigorous sense of design. Like most 17th-century vernacular furniture, boxes were decorated with repeated, formal patterns which were adapted to fit almost any vertical surface. The decoration is usually flat carved: the background is chiseled out and matted with a punch to contrast with the design left at the surface level. Occasionally, particularly with the trailing vine motif, the design is rounded and not left flat – a sign of quality. Lines are usually gouged with a chisel.
Although the designs were formalized, each carver interpreted them freely, with the result that no two boxes have the same decoration. Among the more common motifs are lunettes, lozenges and trailing vine, as well as abstract geometric patterns. Initials, and a date, add to the value of a box and to its attraction for collectors. American boxes were decorated with similar motifs and patterns. One difference, however, is that applied split spindles were a much more common decoration in this country than they were in England.
Bible boxes were also used as desks. Many had a slanted or angled top with a lower lip, meant to hold the bible for reading. When the box was placed on a table it then served as a portable lecture. Over the years the typical bible box was also used to contain writing implements such as a quill, ink pot, blotting and writing paper. Although, like the small, mahogany writing boxes of the Sheraton and Empire years, it was still a device to be picked up and carried around.
Over the years, it naturally morphed into a larger box with a frame of turned uprights and square cross members. Frame and writing box were separate pieces, but the ensemble was now a desk and well on its way toward the more elaborate forms on which the cabinetmakers of the 18th and early 19th centuries demonstrated their skill and ingenuity. It was already more a piece of cabinetry than of joiner-carpentry. The size had increased and sometimes a drawer was added to the frame.
Although it can difficult to differentiate between bible boxes made abroad and those made in the colonies, it is easier to tell the two apart when they are viewed side by side. English boxes are typically made of dark oak, though walnut examples can be found. American ones may be of lighter American white oak, pine or maple, or mixed woods. The top and bottom of the American-made examples were frequently of pine or other soft wood; the sides are of oak, the top and bottom of ash.
Prices can range from $500 to many thousands, depending on age and condition. Some common faults that do not detract from value include a lost hasp or lock, hinges replaced in the 18th-century or small wood losses. Conversely, faults that do reduce value are a replaced lid or bottom, newer carvings or major wood restoration.
As an object commonly found in early American homes, the bible box was used to store far more than just bibles, and, indeed, boxes outnumbered bibles by many times.
Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Va. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook at Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities.