Coffin Construction in Eighteenth-Century America
Throughout the eighteenth-century, the decaying and blackening of the body in death was seen as an indication of a lack of politeness, morality, virtue, and civility. The coffin, therefore, provided the perfect opportunity to ward off decay by placing a body in a sealed box of civility. In other words, the sealing of the coffin slowed down the decomposition process and reduced the apparent smell of decay, leaving the body of the deceased with some dignity in death. In the American colonies, just as in England, cabinetmakers played a role in determining the type of wood in coffin construction that reflected the socio-economic status of the deceased individual and their family.
In England, elm was the traditional wood used for making a coffin. However, oak, beech, mahogany, and deal were also used. In the colonies, however, pine, poplar, walnut, cedar and sometimes cherry were used, with many Pennsylvanians appearing to have a preference for walnut coffins. Regardless of the wood, design sources from England played a sizeable role in literally shaping the coffin. English design sources were available for American colonists, so it is probable that coffins made by American cabinetmakers, such as John Williams, were influenced, either directly or indirectly, by these design sources. Later in the eighteenth century, well-known English cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale, also produced coffins in addition to furniture and design sources which may have later influenced American cabinet and coffin makers.
Any good cabinetmaker knew that the key to making a good coffin was making it as quickly as possible and as close to air and water tight as possible. As a result, cabinetmakers would have worked to eliminate the number of exposed joints on the coffin. They would have fitted the base inside of the sides and ends, ensuring there were as few gaps as possible, then nailed the side and end pieces together. The coffin then might have been lined with upholstery to help absorb any fluids that the body excreted during the decomposition process. Traditionally, the leftover sawdust and wood shavings would be gathered together and placed in the coffin. There was an old superstition that bringing these extra pieces of wood into a house or gracelessly brushing them off of clothing might invite death to make the offender its next victim. After the upholstery and/or sawdust and wood shavings were added to the coffin, pitch was used to coat the internal seams of the box, increasing resistance to air and water. Lastly, the coffin was sealed by fixing the lid to the box’s sides. All of this would have been crafted, typically, in just about one day.