A Brief History of Coffin Screws

By on October 26, 2015

These antique thumbscrews from the Cult of Weird collection were used to secure the lids of coffins prior to burial.
Antique decorative coffin screws
Antique coffin screws from the Cult of Weird collection c.1880

Over the weekend I shared a photo of a pair of coffin screws (pictured above) from my personal collection on Instagram and Facebook. It sparked some interesting questions, so I decided to dig into the archives (which here means the vast Google library) to find some specific references detailing how these screws were used.

Decorative thumbscrews like these were clearly meant more for the purpose of form rather than function. In the comments, one Cult reader suggests they were part of a funerary ritual wherein family members would screw the lid down after the coffin was closed. The final act of closure before the deceased were committed to the dirt.

These funerary customs, as well as the lavish coffin hardware, were the results of the 19th century Cult of the Dead, or the Beautification of Death movement.

The International Handbook of Historical Archaeology describes these new views on death as the result of Romanticism that began in the late 1700s. With its reverence for nature and emotions, as well as interest in the esoteric, the Romantic movement increased sentimentalism surrounding death and afterlife, leading to more elaborate mourning behaviors, monuments, and coffins.

Plain pine boxes gave way to finely crafted coffins with white metal, often silver-plated hinges, handles, tacks, caplifters, screws, escutcheons (thumbscrew plates), and ornamental plaques. According to Coffin Hardware in Nineteenth Century America, thumbscrews with decorative heads had entirely replaced nails and builder’s screws to secure lids, coffin plates and viewing window panels by the 1880s.

coffin-screws-catalog-1880
Silver-plated coffin screws and tacks in the Stolts, Russell & Co. special coffin hardware catalog c.1880.

In this ebay listing for a 19th century child’s coffin, you can see similar thumbscrews and other hardware in place:

Antique child's coffin from the 19th century

Coffin viewing window

Coffin viewing window closed

Coffin thumbscrew

Coffin screws and escutcheons

Though these types of thumbscrews are no longer used on coffins, they continued to be advertised in catalogs until the 1960s.

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Rebecca Summers Justis

    April 21, 2019 at 2:29 am

    I just saw a pair of these used on a plain pine box in a series called ‘The Riches,’ about Travelers in the US, where they burned the dead person. In that case, would the screws be reused, or kept by a loved one in memoriam?

  2. Avatar

    N8theCowboy

    January 15, 2019 at 8:44 am

    I’ve always wanted a coffin screw,… but I’ve yet to find the right girl…

    • Avatar

      Alissa

      January 15, 2019 at 2:15 pm

      Love it.. people just don’t appreciate black humor the way they should..

  3. Avatar

    Bonnie L Beamish

    January 13, 2019 at 1:25 am

    Very interesting.

  4. Avatar

    Louis Hemmings

    November 3, 2018 at 6:00 am

    “Decorative thumbscrews like these were clearly meant more for the purpose of form rather than function. In the comments, one Cult reader suggests they were part of a funerary ritual wherein family members would screw the lid down after the coffin was closed. The final act of closure before the deceased were committed to the dirt….”

    Absolutely correct observation, as noted in my stillborn poem:

    Broken-hearted, drowning in grief,
    this our last lingering look ?at you,
    in your padded white ark,
    the lid clicks shut, locked tight.
    We hand-tighten stubborn screws
    we almost snap with grief’s strain….

    https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/goodbye-au-revoir-slan/

  5. Avatar

    Lorraine Temple

    June 13, 2018 at 9:26 pm

    Interesting read. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Avatar

    Wayne Morris

    April 17, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    We used similar screws to secure the lid on my fathers coffin in 2014. my family including my young nephew (10) & niece (8) visited him everyday from his death until his burial we sat and chatted to him and about him. on the day of the funeral we placed the lid on the coffin and we all helped screw down the lid. this is very common practice in the New Zealand Maori culture which my brother in law is and we accepted it as quite normal.

    • Avatar

      KAT

      January 12, 2019 at 2:52 pm

      Yes, I just saw a show about this on Netflix. I had never seen them before seeing this show about New Zealand funerary practices. It was called casketeers

  7. Avatar

    Ken Meaux

    March 6, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    are replicas available?

  8. Avatar

    Byron Sherborne

    November 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

    They were used in the UK for also hanging wreaths from on the coffins. I have a photograph of this practice and I’m also an Undertaker.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.