The Mythology of the Coffin Nook

The Mythology of the Coffin Nook

It’s maybe comprehensible that the time period coffin nook has continued as a little bit of previous home lore. “Stair area of interest” would not fairly have the identical zing. A recess discovered on the flip of a decent staircase within the homes of the mid Nineteenth century, the ornamental element has a a lot much less somber use than its nickname implies.

The mythology asserts that the shallow, round-headed niches have been a sensible necessity, permitting area for coffins to make the activate their manner down a slender, curved staircase from the bedrooms of the higher tales to the parlor under for a proper viewing. Creator William Thackeray attributed the identical use to arched home windows present in English curved staircases in his e book “Self-importance Honest,” revealed in 1847. Whereas he did not explicitly use the time period “coffin nook,” he wrote that “somewhat arch within the wall” of the staircase gave mild to a stair and allowed the undertakers “to relaxation the coffins upon that arch, or go them by it in order to not disturb in any unseemly method the chilly tenant.”

A staircase and area of interest at 61 Washington Sq. South in Greenwich Village drawn in 1936 for the Historic American Constructing Survey. Drawing by George C. Lynch through Library of Congress

This story, whereas a piece of fiction, was taken up in “Victoria Royal: The Flowering of a Type” by Rita Wellman in 1939 when referring to the niches. The casual historical past, whereas acknowledging that the ornamental characteristic historically held a sculpture or urn, referred to it as a “coffin area of interest” and repeated the notion that the characteristic is allowed for the motion of a coffin.

Whereas the shape itself is historic and there are visible connections with the arched openings (arcosolium) discovered within the catacombs, in the end Thackeray wove an evocative fictional story. No up to date Nineteenth century nonfiction mentions of a stair area of interest or window in a house particularly for a funereal objective seem to exist. On a sensible stage, the reason falls quick: Why carry a heavy coffin up a slender staircase after which again down once more?

What does seem in up to date accounts are wall niches as an ornamental element, impressed by classical examples. Sample books of the early and mid Nineteenth century reminiscent of these by Minard Lafever offered directions on the geometry and constructing of a distinct segment. An 1840 sample e book by Baltimore architect John Corridor features a plan for a three-story home with an outline noting that the “round a part of the wall of the principal stairs has niches shaped in it to comprise vases, or some other applicable decoration.” An 1851 Night Submit advert for the public sale of “fancy items” particularly mentions the provision of sculptures “applicable for stair niches.”

The coffin nook mythology appears to have actually taken off within the mid twentieth century, significantly as historic home excursions and curiosity in Victoriana flourished. A tour information may inject a frisson of ghoulish pleasure with a tidy historic “reality.” It was pervasive sufficient that John Maass, creator of quite a few articles and books on Victorian-era structure within the Seventies, dubbed it the “absurd coffin canard.”

coffin corners

Left: The entryway of a New York home photographed in 1876 reveals a glimpse of a distinct segment stuffed with a floral association. Photograph by BJ Smith through the J. Paul Getty Museum. Proper: A gaggle of sculptures present in India enliven a stair area of interest in artist and designer Malene Barnett’s circa 1870s Mattress Stuy home. Photograph by Lesley Unruh

Tellingly, the time period was already in use elsewhere. In what should be a uncommon occasion of sports activities, overlapping navy and architectural phrases, coffin nook was in use all through the twentieth century to explain having to maneuver in a difficult nook or from a troublesome place, whether or not throughout a soccer sport or battle.

In that context, the task of the nickname is sensible. As trendy Brooklynites can try, making an attempt to maneuver furnishings up a curved, slender staircase in a mid-Nineteenth century brownstone is certainly making an attempt to maneuver in a difficult spot.

Due to the scale of the shallow recess, its use in Brooklyn properties hasn’t modified a lot over the centuries. Whether or not painted, papered or in any other case highlighted, in the end the stair area of interest continues to be a spot the place vases, sculptures and flowers are displayed and never the place coffins come to relaxation.

Editor’s observe: A model of this story appeared within the Fall/Vacation 2022 situation of Brownstoner journal.

Associated Tales

E-mail [email protected] with additional feedback, questions or suggestions. Observe Brownstoner on Twitter and Instagram, and like us on Fb.