This circa 1670 joint stool is from Wallace Nutting’s “Furniture Treasury.”
I’ve been reading a bit of Shakespeare lately (everyone should have a hobby, no?), and in several of his plays, the term “joint stool” appears, often in the service of a taunt. That’s piqued my interest in “moveables,” that is, early modern stuff such as furniture that shows up in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. (I’m hoping there’s a dissertation somewhere therein.)
Joint stools were ubiquitous in the late 16th and 17th centuries, and were the most common form of seating in households of all income levels. Examples have survived in a range of heights and sizes, which indicates the form, with turned legs joined to an apron and top, was used for tables as well as seating.
In the early modern period (a.k.a. the Renaissance), only a member of the Joiners’ Guild was allowed to make joined furniture, in contrast with turners who produced woodenware, simple turned stools and the like, and carpenters who made rough furniture and framed houses. Like all the craft guilds (which were formed in the Middle Ages), the woodworking guilds were highly specialized both to protect the economic interests of their members, and to protect customers by enforcing high standards of workmanship.
Fine workmanship or not, a stool was a utilitarian piece of furniture on which people placed their posteriors. Thus, in the mock trial scene of the quarto version of “King Lear” (3.4), when the Fool says, “Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool,” he’s indicating a range of possible insults toward the character in question. First, he’s saying that she’s so common that she’s easily overlooked. He’s also perhaps saying that she’s common, like a whore. And because early joint stools had un-upholstered wooden seats, he may also be comparing her hard heart to the wood of which the stool is comprised.
The humble joint stool makes a more salacious appearance in “The Taming of the Shrew” (2.1). When Katherine calls Petruchio a joint stool he responds, “Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me” (Monty Python fans may recall a certain song with the same basic thrust). The conversation quickly turns to asses and bearing, with not-so-subtle connotations of sex and childbirth.
Stools also show up in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “2 Henry IV” – and if I missed any Shakespearean stool references, please let me know. Next up, “Rude Mechanicals,” pre-Moxon.