Chest Handles

This post was originally published in the paper International Routier in 2007. This is what happens when you unleash OCD Man on an obscure detail. I’ll do an update some day, I have photos from a lot more sites now but it doesn’t alter the findings. If you want really obscure, have a look at my Pike Armour Rivet Patterns 1640-45.


This report combines the findings of two fact-finding missions to the UK in 2003 and 2006 with the results of a survey of the available archaeological and antique furniture publications on the question of handles or other lift-facilitating chest fittings. Due to the longevity of these pieces of furniture, considerable latitude has been allowed in the timeframe leading up to AD1640 and to allow for possible conservative dating, this has been continued up to AD1699. Emphasis has been placed on the 100 year period from 1542 to 1642.

A brief discussion on definitions is probably in order at this point: for the purpose of this study, a chest is a free-standing box which is designed to sit on the floor or a low stand, regardless of whether it also is part of a table or bench/settle; this ensures the widest possible assessment of portable items of furniture. A small box designed to go on another piece of furniture (such as a table, dresser or cupboard) is a coffer or simply a box, depending on the shape.

The choice of the periods is deliberate; 1100-1541 covers the medieval period of English furniture; the 100-year period from 1542 to 1642 was chosen to cover the majority of the Tudor/Stuart period without taking the more medieval earlier part of Henry VIII’s reign. This period was chosen to include the Mary Rose finds to avoid a stylistic/design overlap, most of which would be dated 100-years later if it wasn’t for the find context. The upper cut-off of 1699 was chosen, as it appears to be the end of the evolution of the chest, via the mule chest, into the modern chest of drawers.


The first fact-finding mission took place between 7 September and 6 October 2003 and visited a total of 124 historical sites, of which 39 are directly relevant to, or house items or reproductions of items belonging to the period in question. The second odyssey, from April 13 to May 14 2006, visited 104 locations, 34 relating to the period in question as above, of which 14 were return visits to places we had been able to photograph before. Of these, six either had new artefacts or we visited different parts of the site to our previous visit and so add new information to the subject in question, care has been taken so that items from these sites have not been counted twice.

These sites were sufficiently furnished with a representative sample of furniture types to count other items of furniture to show the relative scarcity of chests when compared with other furnishings.


Thus, from a total of 59 furnished sites we are able to observe:

Period chests with handles chests without handles Boxes with handles Boxes without handles other furniture with handles other furniture without
1100-1541 1* 6 0 1 0 21
1542-1642 0 5 1 7 0 26
1643-1699 0 1 1 0 1 11

*fitted with lifting-rings rather than handles and continued in use through the period in question

From the booklets and publications about these sites, we get an additional series, excluding those pieces of furniture already counted above.

Period chests with handles Chests without handles Boxes with handles Boxes without handles other furniture with handles other furniture without
1100-1541 0 3 0 0 0 0
1542-1642 0 0* 2 0 0 0
1643-1699 0 1 0 0 0 0

*the Mary Rose database shows 98 complete or part complete chests from the ship. These have been omitted from the table above, as they would otherwise swamp the results. None are shown on the database as having evidence of metal handles, most show some form of hinge or latch attachment so if handles had been fitted, they would have been reported in the database. In particular, the first of the carpenter’s, apothecary’s and master gunner’s chests have no attachment points for handles. The second and third carpenter’s chest and the barber-surgeon’s, of much better construction had vertical wooden eyes, suitable for hoisting onto the ship with ropes. The longbow cases, at 2m long were also sans handles.

From the publications of the MoLAS and YAS, together with other furniture books on my bookshelves, again, discounting those already counted. Items other than chests or boxes have also been omitted as the topical nature of these books skews the relation between the number of chests/boxes and other items of furniture.

UK Continental Europe
Period chests with handles Chests without handles Boxes with handles Boxes without handles Chests with handles Chests without handles
1100-1541 0 27 5 0 0 3
1542-1642 0 18 0 1 8 8
1643-1700 5 8 2 5 1 2

Finally, from art books featuring the great domestic artists of this period, Holbein, Bruegel, Caravaggio, Steen, Vermeer, Hollar and Rembrandt. Vast numbers of items other than chests or boxes have also been omitted and an attempt has been made not to count the same piece more than once if it appears in multiple pictures. It wasn’t difficult… there were more bath tubs than boxes.

UK Continental Europe
Artist chests with handles Chests without handles chests with handles Chests without handles
0 0 0 1
0 0 0 0
0 0 1 0
0 0 0 0
Hollar 0 0 0 0

Observations and Comments

Frequently, and in particular, during the period before 1642, the piece of furniture considered by this committee as a “chest” is higher than it is wide, and is universally mounted on legs of some kind. Sea chests, from the Mary Rose experience, at least, often have wooden eyes attached for fastening to lifting ropes on a hoist. Where a chest is too heavy to lift without handles, it is usually for reasons of security. The classic case of this is the processional chest/evidence box, designed to be carried, suspended between poles, in some solemn procession into a court or guild meeting.

The modern concept of a chest as a box wider than it is tall, standing flat upon the floor, with handles for ease of lifting appears to have started in Eastern Europe at some time before the early 16th century as an extravagant use of expensive materials as part of the decoration of a high-class item of furniture and migrated west, appearing in Italy in the late 15th century.

They reached England and finally became fashionable at some time towards the end of the Commonwealth, or more probably, early in the excesses of the Restoration. Functional metal handles on “munitions quality” chests used by “base mechanicals” followed some considerable time later.

We appear to have a fundamental misunderstanding of both the chest and its role in early modern society.

… It is important to acknowledge that most ordinary [people]… were unlikely to have possessed anything more than the clothes they wore or meagre items they carried on their person. Only men with wealth or status in the … hierarchy would have owned enough possessions to warrant storage or afford the manufacture or transport of a personal chest.

David Gamester, British Archaeology Issue 71, July 2003. Great sites: The Mary Rose.

To early 17th century people, a chest was an item of house furniture, far less common than cupboards or table boxes and was considered no more portable than a tall-boy is to us today. Even portable chests, such as sea-chests, tool chests and medical chests were designed to be moved infrequently, and show little evidence of provision of handles. Where metal handles were used, the handle attached to one or a pair of metal loops that were anchored to the inside board, much like a split pin.

My other suspicion is that the fasteners that could take the job on hadn’t become common. The wooden eyes are dowelled on to the number 2 and 3 carpenter’s chests, they held lighter things. His tool chest, when found, was still full of tools and would have snapped any handles off, had they been used to lift. Georgius Agricola, in 1565 discusses the use of fasteners in the high-load use of bellows:

Some people do not fix the hide to the bellows-boards and bows by iron nails, but by iron screws, screwed at the same time through strips laid over the hide. This method of fastening the hide is less used than the other, although there is no doubt that it surpasses it in excellence.

Alternatives for Re-enactment

For chests requiring frequent lifting, either more servants need to be used to carry the chest, (handles would limit the number of people who could lift); or the load is spread between more, smaller chests so each is manageable.

Baskets appear frequently in paintings and woodcuts, and are under-represented in our interpretation. Clothes-sacks of leather are mentioned as early as 1373 (John Lydgate, A Lytel Treatyse of the Horse, the Seep and the Ghoos), and fabric bags are frequently depicted in baggage trains for armies on the move.

Barrels for storing fruit, grain, salt meat and other dry and wet goods are also neglected in our equipage.

Evidence Chest, 1400s
Evidence Chest, 1340s, Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York. Acquired in the early 1400s. Oak bound with iron with iron handles, strap hinges and hasps.

Close stool (reproduction), 1680, Argyll’s Lodging, Stirling.

I’m not sure of the quality of the reproduction, particularly about the detail items like the handles and latches. Even if the handles are accurate, I feel the backing plate on the handle is wrong. An original close stool of the same period in Plas Mawr, Wales does not have handles; although that of Henry VIII in the V&A does.

English travelling trunk of pine wood covered with cowhide, ornamented with brass studs and with small handles. Second half of the 17th century. Waterer

Travelling trunk of wood covered with hide, dated 1649. The projection in the lid is to fit the traditional “Puritan” hat.  The handles are almost identical to those on the chest above. Waterer

Ornamental trunk of wood covered with hide dated 1666. The stand is modern. Waterer

The first carpenter’s chest, Mary Rose, 1545. Of nailed plank construction, this is just an open box full of tools.

The Second Carpenter’s Chest, Mary Rose, 1545.

This chest has a lid and wooden handles. There is a hole at the front for a lock and the lid was held on with strap hinges.

Found inside the carpenter’s cabin, this was probably his clothes chest, it contained traces of cloth and bits of braid and thread in it. There was also a small knife handle and two whetstones

The Third Carpenter’s Chest, Mary Rose, 1545.

Made of walnut, it had a lock and loop hinges, and a shelf inside. Inside were four pewter plates, a leather book cover, silver coins and rings.

16th century chest with lifting rings to slide a pole through.

14th C. English Ironbound Muniment or Treasure Chest of typical form with a dome top, iron lock and carrying handles, iron binding; copious traces of old coloured paint. 680 mm wide x 430 mm high x 320mm deep

Hungarian Marriage Chest dated 1629. Hungarian National Museum, Budapest Inv No 61.91.C
H: 670mm, W: 1600mm, D: 730mm

Guild Chest, northern Hungary, first half of the 17th century. Hungarian National Museum, Budapest Inv No 61.89.C
H: 545mm, W: 935mm, D: 560mm

Detail from The Drawing Lesson by Jan Steen, c. 1663-1665.

Portable English strongbox, 1600-1650.
A portable English strongbox, 1600-1650.
Victoria & Albert Museum, Col. G Stovell Collection. Museum number M.209-1928.

This has a more English style of handle than the ones above; ignore the backing, as in this case it is a functional part of the locking mechanism.

Appendix 1

Furnished sites covered by the review. Unfurnished sites are not included in this list.


The Merchant Adventurers Hall, Fossgate, York

Barley Hall, Coffee Yard, York

York Castle Museum, Tower St, York

York Minster, York

Medieval Merchant’s House, 58 French Street, Southampton

Portsmouth City Museum, Museum Road, Portsmouth

Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Dockyard, cnr Queen St and The Hard, Portsmouth

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey

Tower of London, London

Windsor Castle, Windsor

Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London


Gladstone’s Land, 477B Lawnmarket, Edinburgh

Doune Castle, Castle Rd, Doune

Stirling Castle, Castle Wynd, Stirling


Plas Mawr, cnr High St and Crown Lane, Conwy

Llancaiach Fawr Manor, Nelson, Treharris

Caerphilly Castle, Caerphilly

Appendix 2

Publications covered by this review. Historic site souvenir guides cited in table 2 aren’t included in this list in a vain attempt to save some trees.

Aricola, G., De Re Metallica. (Hoover, H. C.,  and Hoover, L. H., translators.) Dover, New York, 1950

Butler, R., The Arthur Negus Guide to English Furniture, Hamlyn, London, 1978

Carter’s Price Guide to Antiques in Australia, AAT, 1985 Edition

Carter’s Price Guide to Antiques in Australia, AAT, 1986 Edition

Carter’s Price Guide to Antiques in Australia, AAT, 1988 Edition

Carter’s Price Guide to Antiques in Australia, AAT, 1989 Edition

Egan, G., Material culture in London in an age of transition. Tudor and Stuart period finds from excavations at waterfront sites in Southwark, Monograph Series 19, MoLAS, London, 2005.

Egan, G., Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: The Medieval Household : Daily Living 1150-1450. HMSO, London, 1998

Huntington Antiques Limited, First Quarter 2006 Catalogue, Stow-on-the-Wold, 2006

MacQuoid, P., A History of English Furniture, Bracken Books, London 1988

Mercer, E., Furniture 700-1700, New York, Meredith Press, 1969

Roe, F., A History of Oak Furniture, London: The Connoisseur, 1920

Trustees of the V & A Museum, English Medieval Furniture & Woodwork, London, 1998

Waterer, J., Leather in Life, Art and Industry. Faber & Faber, London 1946

Zlinszky-Sternegg, M., Renaissance Inlay in Old Hungary, Corvina Press, Budapest, 1966.


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