The Joint Stool as Hiding Place
It would be nigh-on impossible to find a house in the early modern* period that didn’t have a “joynt stool,” “joyned table” or “joyned forme.” What’s a “joynt stool?” Randle Holme, in the fascinating (and massive) tome “Academy of Armory and Blazon” (1688), writes, “It is so called because all made and finished by the Joyner, haueing a wood couer: In most places in Cheshire it is termed a Buffit stool.”
I’ve written before on our blog about the joint-stool in Shakespeare (click the link if you’re in the mood for a little ribaldry), but this passage, from “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Chapter 1,” is a far-more serious unexpected use for this venerable and one-time ubiquitous piece of furniture. Ben Franklin’s ancestors used it to keep their dangerous beliefs hidden during the religious upheavals in 16th-century England:
“Dear son: I have ever had pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors. You may remember the inquiries I made among the remains of my relations when you were with me in England, and the journey I undertook for that purpose. Imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the circumstances of my life, many of which you are yet unacquainted with, and expecting the enjoyment of a week’s uninterrupted leisure in my present country retirement, I sit down to write them for you… .
“This obscure family of ours was early in the Reformation, and continued Protestants through the reign of Queen Mary, when they were sometimes in danger of trouble on account of their zeal against popery. They had got an English Bible, and to conceal and secure it, it was fastened open with tapes under and within the cover of a joint-stool. When my great-great-grandfather read it to his family, he turned up the joint-stool upon his knees, turning over the leaves then under the tapes. One of the children stood at the door to give notice if he saw the apparitor coming, who was an officer of the spiritual court. In that case the stool was turned down again upon its feet, when the Bible remained concealed under it as before. This anecdote I had from my uncle Benjamin. The family continued all of the Church of England till about the end of Charles the Second’s reign, when some of the ministers that had been outed for nonconformity holding conventicles in Northamptonshire, Benjamin and Josiah adhered to them, and so continued all their lives: the rest of the family remained with the Episcopal Church.”
Now I don’t own any books that might result in my being burned at the stake, so I’m unlikely to use the joint stool I built (OK…the joint stool with which I’m almost finished) as a hiding place. But I do think it’s a lovely form and a useful piece of furniture for the modern home as well as the early modern manse. And building one will teach you a number of excellent lessons in hand-tool woodworking (not the least of which is drawbored mortise-and-tenon joints) that can be put to good use in any number of projects – especially if you want your work to last for hundreds of years.
To make your own joint stool (whether or not you need a hiding place for a dangerous book), read “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-century Joinery,” by Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee. It ships free from our store.
* “Early modern” is what literature students call the period that non-literature-inculcated people typically call the Renaissance… for a host of reasons that no one cares to read about on a woodworking blog.