The Joint Stool and Banned Books

The Joint Stool as Hiding Place

 In Shop Blog, Woodworking Blogs

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.

– Megan Fitzpatrick

* “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.

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Showing 12 comments
  • Fred West

    It seems that even with the very minor accomplishment last night, that we the people could claim to be living through an interregnum right now with our Congress. It is not that we are between Parliaments but we are between accomplishments by the Congress with no end in sight. Yes, it is a new and slightly tweaked definition but what the heck. 😮 I too do not have anything to hide under my joynt stool but the act of building it and other projects can help keep my mind off of the current interregnum. 😮

  • Sawduster

    Wow! You bloggers are so well read and formally educated. It’s a pleasure fo learn from y’all on all subjects including woodworking. Please keep such knowledge flowing. Russell

  • John Cashman

    “The girl is a witch.”
    “Yeah, but she’s our witch. So cut her the hell down.”

    • Megan Fitzpatrick
      Megan Fitzpatrick

      “It’s a fair cop.”

    • JWatriss

      So… If she weighs the same… as a duck…

      • Megan Fitzpatrick
        Megan Fitzpatrick


        • chopnhack

          It’s just a flesh wound. 😛

  • rwyoung

    No, admit it, that is where you keep your copy of “1001 More Craftshow Crap Projects – Revenge of the Hot Glue Gun” hidden…

    • Megan Fitzpatrick
      Megan Fitzpatrick

      Nope – that one’s on the coffee table!

  • Bowyerboy

    Historians use the term Early Modern, too. To them it usually means the period following the High Middle ages when governments and economies start to function in ways different from the Middle Ages. The date range is approximately 1500 to 1800, though both ends of that time span are often debated.

    • Megan Fitzpatrick
      Megan Fitzpatrick

      True – and the period is roughly the same for literature studies – though I’d argue in English literature that it ends at the Interregnum (I was just avoiding too much on the academic front on this blog).

      • lastwordsmith

        It should end at the Interregnum (more specifically at the closing of the theatres), even though all the anthologies split it at about the Glorious Revolution. Either way, Milton is the watershed, right?

        But, back to joint stools. Now you mention it, I remember seeing a replica of the Franklin’s contraband-concealing joint stool in a museum exhibit of rare Bibles and related artifacts. That was well before I knew what a joint stool was. Perhaps when I make my joint stool, I’ll put book-holding straps underneath the top, too. It would be a good place to put my copy of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.

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