seventeenth-century carved boxes

carved box, John Savell 1642-1687

Jn Savell box, side carving

Tonight, a follow-up to two earlier posts about William Savell, and his sons John & William, of Braintree, Massachusetts. 

(see and )

The surviving examples of carved oak boxes attributed to these joiners are my favorite models for making this common form of furniture. The above photos are of an oak box, with a pine bottom. Usually period boxes like these are carved only on the front board. Typically they are nailed together, right through the front & rear boards, into the end grain of the box sides.

This shop carved the sides as well as the front, and fastened the rabbet joints with square wooden pins instead of nails. This box is one of two surviving examples, both in museum collections, that we attributed to John Savell (1642-1687).  [apologies for the photos’ color, these are both the same box – I’m working here with old slides…]

The carving on the box’s front board is directly from the top rail of the joined chests, while the side boards of the box relate to the carved panels on the chests.

Long after the article was published in 1996, Robert Trent showed me a box in a private collection that I feel now was made by William Savell (1590s-1669). It too is carved on 3 sides, pegged not nailed, and also features the chisel & punch band of zig-zags above & below the carved patterns.

carved box, William Savell, 1590s-1669
carved box, William Savell, 1590s-1669


carved box, side. William Savell, 1590s-1669
carved box, side. William Savell, 1590s-1669


There are many other direct quotes in the carved patterns, linking this box to the others & to the carved joined chests. Among these similarities are the “broken” concave outline on the side view, as well as the gouge-chopped decoration just outside the lunette on the same view. Below is a detail from a joined & boarded chest at the Smithsonian showing the same motif:

carving detail, Smithsonian chest
carving detail, Smithsonian chest

I have carved many examples of these boxes; usually I adapt them one way or another, although sometimes I have made direct copies of them. Below is my most recent take on these boxes; done in white oak – followed by a copy I made years ago of the desk box illustrated in the American Furniture article.

PF version of Savell box
PF version of Savell box
PF repro of desk box
PF repro of desk box

17 thoughts on “seventeenth-century carved boxes

  1. I think all three carvers are great. I like Steve Golden’s description of William sr’s work, reminiscent of old New England headstones.

    Peter, from reading your article; Understanding the joiner’s trade and the Roy Underhill episode, it sounds like they (joiner’s) didn’t fuss to much with art.

    I like how you incorporate the best of all, in your work!

    In regards to hardware, hinges, nails ect. is it all from your local blacksmith? Or is there a good catalog source?


  2. Hmmmm, the box carved by william in a private collection & PF version, isn’t this a “fleur de lis” pattern? Is this the only known example of this pattern by savell family?

  3. Great post, Peter! I find so many of these patterns beautiful and intriguing. I wonder, were these patterns simply pleasing to the eye, or did most also have some symbolic meaning? For example, was a certain pattern often carved on a box to be presented as a wedding gift due to its symbolism?

    I believe I recognize your white oak box from your recent and excellent article in Woodwork Magazine.


  4. I’ll gang up some answers to the recent comments. I am glad folks like posts like this one; sometimes I worry that it bores some readers…

    Yes, the iron work that I use is from the smith I work with; I am trying to cajole him into making stuff for sale. I’ll let you know how it goes. As a consequence, I no little or nothing about ordering this sort of stuff from general sources.

    The box I attribute to William Savell, Sr is just that, an attribution that I have made based on what I described in the posting, as well as a few other details. All of the three other Savell boxes, as well as this one, have interiors with either multiple tills and/or compartments and spaces for drawers. Not unheard of, but unusual.

    As far as the meaning behind the carving motif(s) – I have never seen any period reference to any, nor have I ever seen any period reference to these sorts of things being wedding gifts. Some furniture is marked with dates commemorating marriages, but it’s still a leap to then connect this as a gift. We know little or nothing about how a joiner and his customer reached their arrangements. Perhaps another post subject.
    Thanks to all for the comments.

  5. Peter: The suposition that inscribed boxes and chests are marriage gifts has possibly arisen because inscribed marrriage dates are accompanied by spouses initials. I agree that the marriage gift supposition is a stretch given the absence of other period evidence. I bow to your much more extensive research but add I have seen no such confirmation. Thus far, the gift supposition remains a romantic hustle for today’s Marriage Registry Industry. Hopefully, more will be revealed.

  6. James: thanks for the link to the pictures of that carved box “ME 1689” …it’s from Devon, one of only a few boxes from a large group of carved chests from there. You will note the relationship between the carving on that & the carving on your box stool, if I ever get it shipped off to you. Still am waffling on the paint.

    Re: the nomenclature. Some people call them this, some call them that. What I have tried to do is stick to terms I see in period documents, which is why I steer clear of “bible box” etc…

    there certainly is a trend to marking furniture with initials & dates, often commemorating marriage dates. But because we don’t know who ordered the box, etc we stop short of calling it anything other than “carved box” or just “box.”

    Over the past century or more, there has been a leaning by auction houses, antiques dealers and furniture historians to elaborate and fill out the stories we can know about these things. That’s where “Bible box” comes from…

    Also, see the blurb that came with the link you sent, wherein the writer tells us that the houses had no locks – a statement not backed up by the archaelogical evidence, or by logic. If they had locks on all the case furniture, why no locks on the door to the house?

  7. Peter,
    Yeah, i have heard that the term “bible box” came from the 19th century victorians as few folks, at least in america had personal bibles in their homes during the 17th century.

    I note the price listed for that box is 3k,HEY, sign me up, i want it, lol. I can see where in your position you would want to be careful about “tall tales” from days long ago without facts/evidence to back it up.

    Keep on waffling on the paint for that stool, wheres the fire? The “pinkish” paint on the front of that linked box is a KNOCKOUT. As a collector of period 18th century PA. german painted dower/blanket chests, it’s ALL about the paint you see, lets not rush the paint on stool!!

    I lost out yesterday on an english 17th century stool at auction but have found a new lust, James 1 stools, where the legs are carved and fluted, very impressive.

  8. “Peter, from reading your article; Understanding the joiner’s trade and the Roy Underhill episode, it sounds like they (joiner’s) didn’t fuss to much with art.”

    I agree, at least in america during this period, function must have been KING, and art was way on down the list of priorities for joiners and their clients. Still, even if fuction was supreme during this time, art still found a way to express itself.

  9. ” If they had locks on all the case furniture, why no locks on the door to the house?”

    Indeed, speaking of locks, where did they come from, england or they were made by the local smith? Iron was a very valuable commodity during this period as the VA. house of Burgesses passed a law in 1645 to prevent home owners from burning down their houses to recover the nails.

    Act VII

    Interesting article by Greg Lefever on nails

    Click to access Early%20Nails%202.pdf

  10. Peter;

    I’d like to thank James conrad for sharing the above links. Most interesting is the article on, Forged and Cut Iron Nails…It tracks the history of the nail and blacksmiths. It also mentions names of some talented craftsmen that sell their goods.

    Maybe “Jimmals” are in ones inventory!

    Thanks, Peter & James

  11. Joel, thanks, actually, i was searching for the history of the locks and found very little when i stumbled into the nail article.

    To me, the lock is an important element to these boxes, if Lefever is correct on nails, locks just had to be far more valuable than nails and would require much more “machining” to produce.

  12. peter,
    I have always enjoyed collecting 16th and 17th century bible boxes. I especially like it when I could find them in original condition after so many years of use. I did a box exhibit a few years ago and published a small box on the collection. I also am planing an exhibtion of period English furniture from my collection that will include construction techniques and the like. thank you for sharing your talent with us oak lovers george

    • The blacksmith I have worked with for 18 years now has formerly re-headed Tremont nails. They are a little clunky for some use. Best to find someone to make nice thin nails for joiner’s work…. but if your stock is thick enough, the Tremonts might be an easy way to go.

  13. […] Today saw the completion of the third panel for my toolbox project, which I am pretty pleased with. This pattern is based on the work of Peter Follansbee whom I owe a great debt of gratitude to for his blog, and his heavy emphasis on authenticity and style.  He has done a great video on this exact pattern, which I believe is based on a pattern from a William Savell box from sometime in his life 1590 – 1669 which you can see here: […]

  14. Peter,

    I built a Bible box similar to the one in this article, carved on three sides, with till, out of quartersawn red oak. I used hand forged nails and snipe (jimmels) hinges. I would like to know if you know a blacksmith that makes a lock for the Bible box.

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