Sifting Through History to Find the Facts

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.

, Bob Lang

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9 thoughts on “Sifting Through History to Find the Facts

  1. Bob Lang

    The explanation I’ve heard about that is the main reason the lock was there was to keep the servants out. They wouldn’t be willing to risk their job by taking the whole thing, but they might sneak a bit of the contents now and then. Makes sense for a liquor cabinet or sugar chest, not sure who would be sneaking bits of fennel or marjoram.

  2. Christopher Schwarz

    I’ve always been curious about small lockable boxes like this. Another example is the spice box. You’re worried about people stealing the contents, so you lock it up in a box that is easy to steal….

    Perhaps I don’t know enough about larceny.

    Chris

  3. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawmCAqadDoKNw6D0Pct_-inMRnA0lI8HcNE

    My mind immediately jumped to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" which references the Ark of the Covenant, described as carrying the ten commandments on their stone tablets. As an homage, a box of the right size for a Bible and nicely made would be a modernization of that idea: Bible Box. The first comment about the boxes storing the Koran made me wonder about the Jewish Torah. Torahs for the Jewish faith are written on scrolls which are apparently stored in cylindrical cases.

    Koran, Torah, Bible – appropriate containers for each, hence a Bible Box.

    Just my musings.

  4. Bob Lang

    These boxes were used to store the family Bible as a prized possession, but that was only after the family Bible become a common item. The problem is that this form of box was around for a few hundred years before keeping the family Bible for several generations became widespread. Somewhere along the line the original term was lost, and even though we’ve been calling it a Bible Box for the last hundred years or so, we’re not using the right term. If you call a mule a racehorse for a hundred years he won’t be able to run any faster and people a hundred years from now will wonder why we held racehorses up as valuable animals.

    I have an old family Bible that was a wedding gift to my great grandfather in the 1870s. It’s fragile and important so I keep it in a safe place. That place happens to be great granddad’s six-board chest, which is also a prized possession. If I start calling that chest a Bible chest, other people pick up on that term and a hundred years from now that is the common name, we’ve passed on bad information to upcoming generations.

    If you study much history you’ll likely find more examples of that than you will of valid information being passed along.

  5. Doug Fulkerson

    It could be that they just look like an old fashioned family bible; the big ones like Mike is talking about. If you held the example photo posted above like a book it would look like someone holding a bible. Of course, I don’t have any proof, but that hasn’t stopped me yet. :)

  6. Mike

    Isn’t it just very simple? Bibles were expensive and every family had one that was passed down through several generations. It was also a place where people kept their family trees/names as it was passed down.
    Where else would you honor and keep a prize possession?

  7. Steve

    I can’t speak for Bible boxes, but historically, copies of the Koran have been kept in boxes, sometimes quite large and elaborate. For example, there is a Koran box at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul that’s roughly 18" square and about four feet tall, including the pedestal. It dates from the 16th Century. I’ve posted a rather blurry photo at http://www.dendroica.com/Scratch/koranBox.jpg (can’t use flash inside the museum). There’s another, less blurry, photo of the box at http://www.azriona.net/istanbul/koran_box.jpg, but it doesn’t show as much detail. (I didn’t take the latter photo.)

    While the box is intended to protect, the main purpose is to honor.

    [Sorry for the plaintext links, but hyperlinking doesn't seem to be working.]

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