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Coffin Stool

Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
HOA: 24 3/4; WOA: 15 1/4; DOA: 11 3/4
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Four legged stool: Made entirely of cypress; oval top with an S-shaped hand hole; four elongated-vase turned legs joined by stretchers tenoned to the legs and single-pinned at each joint; top originally fastened with three large triangular glue blocks.

FORM: This object was long considered to be a joint stool for sitting. For several generations it was used for that purpose in the Miles Brewton house on King Street. More than three inches overhanging its side diminished the practicality of the stool for sitting, however, and long ago the top broke away along the grain, leaving it largely flush with the frame on both sides. The surface of the stool retains no traces of any finish, which is somewhat unusual for a piece of seating furniture made of cypress. Also not common to joint stools in the British vernacular is the cut-out S-shaped hand-hole in the center of the top.

A clue to the stool’s probable intended use occurs in the 1749 inventory of Charleston joiner Archibald Young. Listed along with coffin hardware were “2 Coffin Stools” worth £1 for the pair. Similarly, in 1760 cabinetmaker Thomas Stocks’s shop contained a quantity of lumber, two workbenches, and a “Broken Sett of Coffen Furniture” along with several other partial and whole sets; “2 Coffen Stools” worth £2 were inventoried with these items. The inventory of the successful Charleston cabinetmaker Michael Muckenfuss, who died in 1808, also listed a pair of “Coffin Stools.”

The “undertaking” of funerals was a standard service offered by many cabinetmakers, so they naturally kept the materials on hand necessary for such occasions. Further proof of the use of such stools is poignantly illustrated in Plate 6 of William Hogarth’s A HARLOT’S PROGRESS of 1732, the focus of which is the coffin of the prostitute Moll Hackabout. Moll’s coffin rests upon baluster-legged coffin stools. Another such stool, this one with an oval top, stands nearby. The use of coffin stools throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth makes dating this stool difficult, since it was hardly necessary for the style of such objects to keep up with fashionable household movables. The use of huge triangular cypress blocks rather than pins to fasten the top, along with the delicate ovolo moldings on the leg stiles and at the bottom of the frame, suggests a date past the first quarter of the 18th-century.

CONDITION: Both sides of top replaced; two glue blocks replaced; one side of frame damaged by a carpenter’s saw in 1969.

This coffin stool descended in the Pringle, Frost, and Manigault families of Charleston. With a long history of ownership at the Miles Brewton House, its exact provenance is unknown. In the early 20th century, it was known to have been used by the house servant tasked with waiting by the door during calling hours, and was probably moved to a lesser part of the house when not in use.
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph P. Hanes