I Heart Coffin Hardware (Especially Thumbscrews)

By Alexandra Bybee
Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc.

So, I’ve excavated a few historic graves in the last 20 or so years… Most historic cemeteries in the eastern United States that are relocated by archaeologists have a few things in common: unmarked graves and coffin hardware. If a cemetery has 10 headstones, very often there will be a few, or more than a few, additional unmarked graves (case in point: a cemetery in White County, Illinois, with 7 headstones, but 199 [199!] historic graves). When a cemetery has so many unmarked graves, the range of the interment sequence can often be observed through analysis and interpretation of the mortuary materials associated with coffins and caskets.

In both urban and rural settings, the earliest coffins were probably made locally by someone with woodworking skills, such as a cabinet maker (side note: based on census records, it was fairly common for someone who was listed as a cabinet maker in the 1850–1870 censuses to later be listed as an undertaker, showing the transition in occupation, but that’s a whole other story…) These locally made or homemade coffins would have been constructed with utilitarian items present in most homes and on most farmsteads, which would have included nails and wood screws. Nails were used for almost all wood coffins and caskets constructed prior to circa 1900, and this type of hardware is found in most graves. They were used for joining wood pieces on the coffin box and lid, and to secure the coffin lid to the coffin box. Generally, if wrought nails are present, it suggests an interment prior to circa the 1840s; if cut nails are present, circa 1815–1890; if a mixture of cut and wire nails, perhaps circa 1890–1900; if only wire nails, probably circa 1890+. Wood screws were also fairly common, but they were typically used to secure the coffin lid to the coffin box, rather than in joinery for the coffin box. The patent for the tapered-end wood screw that is common today dated to circa 1846; therefore, if tapered-end wood screws are present, the grave dates after 1846.

It was not long after the tapered-end wood screw was patented that “coffin screws” were introduced (Figure 1). These screws are one of the first known types of hardware made specifically for mortuary use in the United States. They featured an iron screw body with a “white metal” or “German silver” (lead-based) head that contained a slot for a flat-head screwdriver (Philips head screws were not introduced until well into the twentieth century). The coffin screw heads could be domed or straight, and they often held a flange decorated with filigree. Also available were matching coffin tacks. The decorative coffin screws and tacks were typically used on the coffin lid. To my knowledge, there are no known patents for this type of hardware, but archaeological evidence from dated graves suggests they were introduced circa 1850.

Improvements to screws used to secure coffin lids to coffin boxes occurred circa the 1860s, but the exact timing is a little messy. At some point during that decade, the traditional coffin screw head was elongated and became cylindrical (to allow for tightening with thumb and forefinger, hence the term “thumbscrew”), but it also retained the screwdriver slot on the top. This “first generation thumbscrew” type with an elongated knob-style head with a screwdriver slot was probably introduced circa 1866–1869 (Pye 2014:105). Figure 2 presents the full variety of thumbscrews available by circa the 1870s, with the first generation type depicted on the bottom row.

The first generation thumbscrew style quickly transitioned into a full knob that lacked a screwdriver slot by circa 1871 (see Figure 2). This second generation thumbscrew could only be fastened to the coffin lid with thumb and forefinger, and these were commonly used with escutcheons (decorative screw plates).

Advances in technology and stylistic changes in mortuary hardware led to the introduction of the third (and final!) thumbscrew type in 1874. The main difference between the second and third generation thumbscrew was that the heads for the third generation thumbscrews were flat, which allowed for easier attachment by hand to the coffin lid (see Figure 2).

Although the form of the third generation thumbscrew did not really change throughout its period of use, a variety of styles were developed (Figure 3). Third generation thumbscrews were commonly highly elaborate and exhibited geometric, floral, or other designs, and the designs were often matched to other hardware items, such as handles, escutcheons, and caplifters, so that they could be sold as sets to undertakers or hardware stores. There are numerous coffin hardware catalogs dating from the 1870s through the early twentieth century that depict all three generations of the thumbscrew, but this is especially true for the third generation (flat thumbscrew), which was available much longer and was used far more often than the two earlier iterations.

As for the chronology of coffin screws and thumbscrews, coffin screws have been identified in graves dating after 1850 through circa 1900, which was well past the time when first, second, and third generation thumbscrews were available. First generation thumbscrews may have been used as early as circa 1866, and second generation as early as 1871. Flat thumbscrews date after 1874, and specific stylistic patents and images in dated catalogs can provide even more detailed information about chronology for graves that contain flat thumbscrews.

All three thumbscrew generations could be present in graves that date until circa 1920. After that time, it was far more common for caskets to be commercially produced (even in rural areas), and commercially produced caskets after circa 1920 were typically similar to modern caskets, which feature hinged lids and internal catches/latches. The need for flat thumbscrews died out with the widespread use of hinged lids and internal hardware for securing the casket lids to the casket boxes.

Figure 1. Coffin screws from an 1865 catalog (Association for Preservation Technology 1980:332).
Figure 2. First generation thumbscrews (bottom row), second generation thumbscrews (top row, first three from left to right), and third generation thumbscrew (top row, right end) from a circa 1870s catalog (C. Sidney Norris and Company n.d., in Pye 2014:Figure 5.32)
Figure 3. Third generation thumbscrews and associated escutcheons in an 1883 catalog (Sargent & Company 1883:137).

References Cited:

C. Sidney Norris and Company
n.d. Illustrated Catalogue of Coffin Handles and Undertaker’s Trimmings. Baltimore, Maryland.

Pye, Jeremy
2014 Typology and Analysis of Decorative Hardware, pp. 97-108, in Bioarchaeological Investigations of the Mosley Cemetery (15Fd101) on the Minnie-Harold Connector in Floyd County, Kentucky (Item No. 12-301.1), by Alexandra D. Bybee. Contract Publication Series 14-243. Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc., Lexington, Kentucky.

Sargent & Company
1883 Coffin and Casket Trimmings, 1883 Appendix. Sargent & Company, New Haven, Connecticut, and New York City.


One comment

  1. Hi i have some interesting coffin hardware finds that im trying to find more information on with no luck. I believe the pieces are from 1900-1910s. Could you please contact me so I can send you pictures?


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