A Brief History of Coffin Screws

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.

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.