An Introduction to John Williams

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An Introduction to John Williams


John Williams Account Book


John Williams worked as a cabinetmaker in New Castle, Delaware during the eighteenth-century. Born to Hendrick (Henry) Williams-Neering, John Williams was one of six children. Upon his father’s death in 1694 or 1695, he was left the sum of ten pounds, his sisters Sarah and Mary were also specifically mentioned in their father’s will, while the other three children remain unnamed. Henry Williams’ estate was to be divided up equally amongst his six children except for his specific bequests to John, Sarah and Mary.

Although not much is known about his personal life, John Williams left behind an account book that details his work from the period between 1700-1758. While far from complete or meticulously organized, this account book sheds light on the role this cabinet-maker played in the New Castle community. Various entries in the account book depict Williams’ work as related to his personal household expenses, cabinet-making, building repairs and construction, joining, shopkeeping, importing and exporting goods, and coffin making. From the entries in the account book, Williams’ appears to have worn many different hats, all of which required him to be relied on by the people of New Castle for everything from their furniture and repairs to their houses, to purchasing tobacco or for making a coffin for a recently deceased family member. In other words, both the well-off and the poor would have had dealings with Williams, and Williams would have seen these individuals at both their high and low points in life.

It is not until a century later, in the nineteenth-century, that coffin making becomes highly romanticized and commercialized in America. However, John Williams’ “Account of Coffins” in his account book reflects the trust and respect that the residents of New Castle must have had for his skills as a woodworker to entrust him with creating the container that would preserve their loved one’s dignity and body in death. It is for this reason that John Williams’ role and significance of being a coffin maker will be further examined.

Eighteenth-Century Perceptions Of Death

It is safe to say that death is something that comes for everyone. In the British-Atlantic world, death and decay were not new topics. However, during the eighteenth-century, one of the most horrific aspects of death was the decay that the body underwent. Society in the eighteenth-century judged politeness and virtue not only on actions, but on outward appearance. How quickly a body decayed was thought to reflect an individual’s politeness in life. Additionally, the eighteenth-century was a highly racialized period in American and British Atlantic world history. When accounts of dead bodies decaying and turning black reached the masses, the association was made to the skin pigmentation of the Africans they encountered. As a result, the negative stereotypes assigned to this group of people, such as being savage and brutish, bled over into perceptions of decomposing bodies and their virtue, or lack thereof. In Christianity, white symbolizes purity. Therefore, the body of a caucasian individual turning black in death was thought to reflect an individual who lacked morality or virtue.

Consequently, new advancements in mortuary science came about during this century. Embalming, in particular, was thought to help preserve the fair color of individuals, enabling their outward appearance to remain dignified in death. In England, lead coffins were also used to help tightly seal coffins from outside elements, better preserving the body housed inside. However, in the American colonies, despite being up-to-date on English scientific techniques and burial practices, embalming and lead coffins were rare and, if used, were reserved for very important burials.

Eighteenth-Century Perceptions Of The Coffin

During the eighteenth century and beyond, the coffin has been viewed as a symbol of status. In England, the coffin became a way to maintain class distinctions even in death. During the fifteenth-century, no individuals belonging to the peasant class would have been expected to be buried in a coffin. Moreover, the tradition of allowing family members or friends of the deceased individual to construct the coffin themselves did not always yield positive results. It is not until the sixteenth-century, with the introduction of the parish coffin, that coffin decoration increased the distinction between classes in death. The parish coffin was reusable, and its varying degrees of ornamentation distinguished a noble or gentry funeral from a working class funeral. However, disease, most notably, the plague in 1665, hit England hard during the seventeenth-century, leading to the abandonment of the reusable parish coffin. In addition to the plague, the seventeenth-century saw the rise in the funeral furnishing trade, and by the eighteenth-century, the supply of coffins was more or less dictated by this trade.

Workers in the funeral furnishing trade, the cabinetmakers and the family of the deceased, would have known that, when organizing the funeral, the distinctions of rank had to be apparent and preserved through everything from the wood chosen, to the construction, to the ornamentation of the coffin, lining and shroud. During the late eighteenth-century, catalogues and other design source books appeared, allowing members of society to see what woods, linings, and coffin furniture were deemed suitable for a lower, middle, and upper class coffin and funeral. By the first quarter of the eighteenth-century the trade of funeral furnishing had become well-established in England.

Coffin Construction In Eighteenth-Century America

Throughout the eighteenth-century, the decaying and blackening of the body in death was seen as indicating a lack of politeness, morality, virtue and civility. The coffin, therefore, provided the perfect opportunity to encase the decaying body in a 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 would play a role in determining the type of wood in coffin construction; the price of the wood reflecting the socio-economic and social 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. Irregardless of the wood, design sources from England played a large 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. A little later on in the eighteenth-century, well-known English cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale, began working and making a name for himself. He also produced coffins in addition to design sources, so his designs and sources of information may have later influenced American cabinetmakers when constructing coffins.

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 held that if these extra pieces of wood were brought into a house of gracelessly brushed off of clothing, then the person doing these actions might invite death to make him/her it’s 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.

“Account of Coffins”

John Williams’ list of coffins provides great insight into his work as a coffin maker and his social status, and that of others, in eighteenth-century New Castle society. By solely examining this list of work orders, it is possible to see which coffins are more elaborate and expensive than others. On the left hand side of the second picture, there are two orders for walnut coffins. While it has been noted that Pennsylvanians prefer walnut coffins, and Pennsylvania is Delaware’s neighbor, the use of walnut was also favored by the elite. The price of these walnut coffins, however, when compared to the coffins listed that do not specify a type of wood, were only several shillings more expensive. The most expensive coffins, seem to have been ordered by a John Welsh, who purchased two different coffins, for a cost of over two pounds, at two different times. The second coffin John Welsh ordered to be made specified the inclusion of “handles and letters” in the coffin’s design.

Early and simple coffins typically did not have handles. The coffin was carried by family members and/or friends to its final resting place on wooden planks. Coffin hardware really began to take off during the latter portion of the eighteenth-century and throughout the nineteenth-century. These pieces of coffin hardware typically reflected the popular design styles of the period, all the while adding to the expense of the coffin, as well as the appearance of dignity, and distinction of rank for the deceased and their family members. Along with this distinction of rank, comes changing perceptions of death and its romanticization and commercialization in the nineteenth-century. However, this coffin, presumably made around 1747, is too early to fit into this trend that dominated the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Therefore, the request for “handles and letters” to be included in the coffin’s construction probably act as a way to display status rather than a romanticization or commercialization of death and coffin making.

Examining the way in which the coffin orders were paid off can reveal information regarding the social status of John Williams’ customers. There are several instances where the cost of the coffin was noted as being paid “By Cash in full” and other instances where money was not used at all, rather some sort of bartering or trade system was in place, reflecting the type of people who comprised Williams’ customers. There were those who had money on hand, and those who had to pay “By 2 Bushels of...meal” for a coffin to be constructed. This sheds light on the varying socio-economic status and possible occupations of Williams’ customers, but it also allows a glimpse into Williams himself. His willingness to accept traded goods shows that he is willing to work with others in his community and is sympathetic and understanding of their situation and values the work that they do and the products they are able to yield. In other words, he does not turn away someone for not having enough money to pay for a coffin, he works with them and makes a deal to account for the cost of the coffin.


Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library, WPAMC Summer Institute 2017


Alexandra Rosenberg


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“An Introduction to John Williams,”, accessed April 23, 2019,