Why is it called a Bible Box?
Here at the Popular Woodworking office, it doesn’t take much to get a lively discussion started. We are a curious bunch, and none of us like to take answers at face value. Ask a question around here and you’ll get at least as many opinions as there are people in the room, and theories from every possible direction. And when the conversation trails off the participants start Googling and digging through old books in order to be prepared when the bell rings for the start of round two. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, and matters that aren’t settled immediately can drag on for months. We may well have settled the question of William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu, but we don’t really know why a Bible Box bears that name.
The picture above is a Bible Box made by Senior Editor Glen D. Huey that will be featured in an upcoming issue. As we were preparing for the photo shoot, the question arose about the object’s name. It isn’t quite the right size or shape for storing a Bible, and why would one need to keep the Good Book under lock and key?
One of the theories put forth in the ensuing discussion, (from the editor who likes to use the longest possible word with the most obscure meaning while building large-scale furniture) was that perhaps Bible Box was a corruption of the French term bibelot. (I believe Biblelot could be a character from “The Hobbit”). My search to prove that theory led to a dead end.
This isn’t unusual; it happens to us a lot when we try to track down the history of some tool or woodworking technique. You never know if the first guy to write something down knew what he was talking about, or if he just made it up. The Bible Box issue bubbled to the surface this weekend when I was at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, teaching a class on SketchUp. Also teaching was Graham Blackburn.
As fate would have it, Graham was giving a workshop on building a Bible Box. Here was my chance to consult an in-the-flesh knowledgeable resource, and it would be a feather in my cap at our Monday morning meeting if I would be the one to settle this matter. So at lunch on Sunday I asked him what he knew, and proposed my pleonastic coworker’s theory of a corrupt French word.
I didn’t agree with Megan’s theory in the first place, but I felt a little sting as Blackburn dismissed it with a very British tut, tut. Then he reinforced the argument that the name is suspicious and concluded with, “I think Wallace Nutting just made it up.”
Blackburn’s research led him to believe that Nutting was likely the first to use the term “Bible Box” for this form of wooden container used to store valuable papers. On page 98 of Furniture of the Pilgrim Century Nutting uses the term then explains that it really isn’t accurate. But like the practice of ripping wide boards into narrow ones and gluing them back together, the term stuck, and to impose a better one would be a herculean task.
Nutting was a tastemaker of the early 20th century, practically the Martha Stewart of the era. His work carried an authority that remains to this day, and is largely responsible for the idealized Colonial Revival that followed World War I. So I urge my readers not to believe everything they read, and to consider the source.
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