Coffee - Coffin square

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820. Originally published by University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, 2007.

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Nancy Cox. Karin Dannehl, 'Coffee - Coffin square', Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007), British History Online [accessed 16 June 2024].

Nancy Cox. Karin Dannehl. "Coffee - Coffin square", in Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007) . British History Online, accessed June 16, 2024,

Cox, Nancy. Dannehl, Karin. "Coffee - Coffin square", Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007). . British History Online. Web. 16 June 2024,

In this section


[coffy; coffey; coffe; cofee]

The term is believed to have derived from a Turkish word meaning 'beverage'. Coffee is a drink made by infusion or decoction from the roasted and ground BEANs or 'berries' (the term most commonly used) of the shrub, Coffea arabica. The fruit is cherry like and the glutinous pulp has inside two beans, occasionally only one, surrounded by a tough membrane, hence the names bean and berry. Up until this century the old method of processing was employed in which the whole fruits were dried and the desiccated exterior removed by milling. Prior to use the beans needed roasting, which could be done simply in a DRIPPING PAN.

Although coffee apparently originated in Arabia, the various species used were not wild there, though they are widespread in most parts of tropical Africa. It is argued that Coffea arabica was introduced to Yemen from Ethiopia by travelling merchants through the trade routes across the Gulf of Aden [Coffee history online). One of the first literary references to coffee in a European text was that of the German traveller, Leonhart Rauwulf. During a trip through Aleppo and Bagdad in 1580 he noted 'the Arabian habit ... of drinking a good beverage called 'chaube' as black as ink and very healthy and useful in the case of stomach infirmities. The Arabs will drink it early in the morning, also in public places without any diffidence, from earthenware and porcelain cups. They sip it as hot as possible, and pass the cup around whilst sitting in a ring' [Brown (1995)].

As with TEA there was a delay in the introduction of coffee into European markets, until the bitter quality of coffee was counteracted with the addition of SUGAR. Merchants throughout Europe met this new demand. In the early modern period the Middle East dominated the coffee trade, although in the 1760s it appears that it was already being grown and imported from Asia, Africa and America [Acts (1765)]. The act stipulated that coffee could only be imported in CASK, CHEST, CASE or BAG containing at least 112 LB net. Unlike TEA, coffee was not noted and specified by variety except by such terms as 'Finest'. Presumably this was a distinct advantage for retailers who could buy in bulk, whereas with tea they needed to buy a number of different varieties to cater for the various palates of their customers. Another distinct advantage over tea in trading terms was that coffee retained freshness longer than tea because the coffee beans were imported whole and unprocessed [Brown (1995)]. The roasting and grinding that limits the shelf life of the beans was carried out by consumers, using the accompanying equipage of COFFEE MILL, COFFEE ROASTER, COFFEE POT, and COFFEE TRAY.

From the Restoration coffee came into vogue as a beverage and as a moderate stimulant. According to one commentator, it could be used 'in a Physical way, by them that are troubled with Fumes and dulling Vapours that fly into their heads; it is likewise good after hard Drinking, Weariness, Labour and Fasting, but for others I think it best to forbear it.' Whilst some credited coffee with quasi-magical qualities and 'thought it to be the Elixir of life', other were more than sceptical, considering 'it a poison which could cause impotence, barrenness and sterility' [Brown (1995)]. More generally coffee was part of a wider debate on the virtues of so-called 'hot liquors' that included other drinks such as tea and CHOCOLATE.

Coffee was not merely a physical stimulant, it was also a social and economic one. In order to exploit the market new retailing outlets, known as Coffee Houses, though also selling tea and chocolate, were established in London and all large provincial towns: York, for instance, had as many as sixty [Brown (1995)]. These were respectable alternatives to alehouses. As well as providing a convivial location of social discourse, for both men and women, coffee houses educated and amused by providing entertainment and displays of curiosities. The introduction of coffee stimulated the economy in other ways. John Houghton was particularly enthusiastic, for example, about the way coffee consumption in coffee houses encouraged the consumption of a range of other consumer goods: 'coffee has greatly increased the trade of TOBACCO and PIPEs, EARTHEN-dishes, TIN wares, newspapers, COALs, CANDLEs, sugar, tea, chocolate, and what not?' To demonstrate the importance of coffee, Houghton discussed the 'political uses of coffee', noting that 'our three kingdoms spend about one hundred ton a year, whereof England spends about seventy ton, which at fourteen pounds a ton will amount to twenty thousand five hundred and eighty pounds sterling; and if it were all to be sold in coffee-houses, twould treble...' [Houghton]. The significance of coffee within the goods market is also reflected in the level of government regulation, concerning the addition of cheap adulterants and substitutes. Houghton had already noted that common adulterants included HORSE BEANs and WHEAT [Houghton], but an act of 1718 banned the addition of GREASE, BUTTER and water [Acts (1718)]. The same statute also standardised the packaging of imported coffee to discourage smuggling: it was to be imported by the BALE, or PACKAGE containing no less than 4 CWT. The problem of adulteration certainly did not go away. In 1820 Frederick Accum recorded the prosecution of several retailers for 'manufacturing spurious, and adulteerating genuine, coffee', the favoured adulterant being 'pigeons' beans and peas' [Accum (1820)].

OED earliest date of use: 1598 under Coffee

Simone Clarke

Found described as RAW, Finest

Sources: Acts, Diaries, Houghton, Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Rates, Tradecards.
References: Accum (1820), Brown (1995) , Coffee History (online), Simmonds (1906), II/59-87, Toussaint-Samat (1987), 581, 587-8.

Coffee tray


A tray from which COFFEE is served. There are no specific references to suggest they differered in any way or form from the TEA TRAY.

OED earliest date of use: 1843

Margaret Ponsonby

Found described by LACQUERED, PAPER

Sources: Diaries.


The term ultimately derives from the Greek word for a BASKET. Although this meaning was in English use during the Middle Ages, it seems largely to have died out during the sixteenth century and has not been identified in the Dictionary Archive. It was replaced by the modern use of the term as a BOX or CHEST, particularly one in which a corpse was placed for burial.

One style of coffin still in vogue in the early seventeenth century was the anthrodoid LEAD sheath made to fit the body, well wrapped in layers of CERE CLOTH. This type of shell was used mainly for interment in a vault rather than in the ground. It may or may not have been given a wooden case.

Conventional wooden coffins in the modern sense, were simply constructed so that they were within the capacity of a local carpenter. Usually made of ELM, which is durable when wet and resistant to splitting, coffins were made of planks wide enough to extend from base to top, unless it was intended to cover the shell with fabric in which case narrower planks could be used. The pieces were joined without joints, with the ends screwed to the sides, as was the base. In order to reduce the risk of the base being displaced by the weight of the body inside, it was fitted within the shell of the four walls through which the screws were inserted into its edge. However the construction of some coffins was more complex; they could for example, be given a lead lining, while others were even triple cased, with a wooden inner, a lead shell, and a decorative outer wooden case. Where lead was involved in the making of the coffin, it required the services of a plumber as well as a woodworker. Lead was particularly important if interment was delayed or took place above ground as the soft metal could provide an airtight seal. Even so, Cressy suggests that the practices of disposal left much to be desired so that many churches must have had a pervading odour of decompostion [Cressy (1997, pb 1999)].

By the end of the seventeenth century coffins were already READY MADE in various sizes ready for any corpse except the quite abnormal. For example, in 1694 Edward Smith of Newnham, Gloucestershire had 20 coffins 'bigg and small' in stock, although he was clearly not the maker of them [Inventories (1694)]. Perhaps he purchased them from someone like Robert Green of Southwark, who sixty years later offered to supply 'Country Chapmen and others ... in the most Expeditious Manner, on the least Notice' [Tradecards (1752)].

So called COFFIN FURNITURE afforded an important component of the funeral display. All coffins needed COFFIN HANDLEs on either side and, if covered with fabric, then decorative COFFIN NAILs also. These were required as well to fix the inner lining if there was one. Other items like COFFIN HINGEs were for decoration only, but the COFFIN PLATE giving the name of the deceased and the date of burial was necessary for all but the parish coffin. This was not an uncommon parish possession in the early part of the period when burials of the poor in a SHROUD only were the norm. The parish coffin allowed the corpse to be carried respectfully from the place of death to the churchyard and then to be lifted out and placed in the ground, with the coffin ready for its next occupant [Gittings (1984)]; [Llewellin (1991)]. Burials in shrouds only also required a careful regard to depth - not always accorded, so that churchyards, too, could become unpleasant and unhealthy places [Gittings (1984)]. The burial of uncoffined corpses became increasingly uncommon during the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth [Litten (1991, pb 1992)].

OED earliest date of use in this sense: 1525

The meaning of the term came to be used in cookery for a pastry case, presumably of the appropriate shape, in which meat was cooked or the DISH in which it was baked.

OED earliest date of use in this sense: 1420 as a pastry, but 1580 as the dish

Other meanings abound, though not noted in the Dictionary Archive. For example Randle Holme so called the 'the cases in which the powder is rammed to make the fireworkes' [Holme (1688)].

Found described as BIG, CHILDREN, LITTLE, MEN, SMALL Found describing BOX, lid, WOOD Found made of ELM

Sources: Acts, Diaries, Houghton, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Patents, Tradecards.
References: Cressy (1997, pb 1999), Gittings (1984), Holme (1905), Litten (1991, pb 1992), Llewellyn (1991).

Coffin furniture

COFFIN FURNITURE afforded an important component of the funeral display. All coffins needed COFFIN HANDLEs on either side and, if covered with fabric, then decorative COFFIN LACE or COFFIN NAILs as well. These were also required to fix the inner lining if there was one. Other items like COFFIN HINGEs and COFFIN SQUAREs were for decoration only as were the many decorative motifs advertised, for example in the 1780s catalogue of Tuesby and Cooper [Litten (1991, pb 1992)] now in the Victoria and Albert Museum [Department of Design, Prints and Drawings, Acc. No. E. 997 to E. 1011 - 1903 (M 63e)]. It was deemed important that the deceased should be identified even in the grave so either a COFFIN PLATE giving the name of the deceased and the date of burial was affixed, or the same information was spelled out using COFFIN LETTERS or even COFFIN NAILs.

[Newspapers (1770)] indicates that some coffin furniture was made of pure TIN, but most from less expensive metals like IRON and BRASS often tinned or even SILVERed. [Tradecards (1752)] affords a full list of what was included in the term 'coffin furniture' although the term itself was not used.

The manufacture of coffin furniture established itself in Southwark during the eighteenth century, if not earlier. In 1769 a TIN PLATE manufacturer of Southwark, John Pickering (not Thomas as related in Litten [Litten (1991, pb 1992)], invented a method of chasing coffin furniture, that is raising patterns in sheet iron, which could then be tinned or otherwise given an ornamental surface if required. In the early nineteenth century the industry migrated to BIRMINGHAM, where there was already a well-established trade in decorative, and functional, IRON WARE.

Not found in the OED online

Sources: Inventories (late), Newspapers, Patents.
References: Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin handle

[coffyn handle; coffin-handle]

During this period most COFFINs were made by the local carpenter or joiner who thus needed to buy coffin furniture such as Coffin handles. These could be quite simple, in the form, for example, a mere COFFIN RING, fixed with a staple, or elaborate with a back plate much ornamented, as illustrated in [Litten (1991, pb 1992)] and [Llewellin (1991)]. Coffins are usually provided with several handles down each side to assist in carriage and handling.

Found described as CHILDREN, filed, LARGE, SMALL, t'ned Found made of BRASS, LEAD, TIN
Found in units of DOZEN, PAIR

Sources: Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Tradecards.
References: Litten (1991, pb 1992), Llewellyn (1991).

Coffin hinge

[coffyn handles and hinges]

Not a HINGE in the normal sense of the word, but a decorative angled bracket stamped or cut from thin sheet iron or other metal and placed about six inches apart along the top angle of the COFFIN [Litten (1991, pb 1992)].

Found in units of PAPER

Sources: Inventories (late).
References: Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin lace

This term has not been located in the Dictionary Archive but has been noted in some trade directories offering COFFIN FURNITURE and is found in use on eighteenth-century COFFINs. It was not an item of HABERDASHERY, but TIN-dipped filigree STAMPED iron available in rolls, each sufficient to outline the lid, sides and ends of one coffin in place of rows of decorative COFFIN NAILs. It was also used to decorate items of FURNITURE like the LOOKING GLASS [Litten (1991, pb 1992)].

Not found in the OED

References: Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin letters

Coffin letters could be used to spell out the name of the deceased and the date of burial, being fixed directly to the COFFIN lid.

Found in units of DOZEN, GROSS

Sources: Inventories (late).
References: Tawney & Power (1924b), 192.

Coffin lid

The wooden lid of a COFFIN, in the early part of the period sometimes gabled [Litten (1991, pb 1992)], though few examples, if any, survive. This type was superseded by the flat lid made and shaped from a single plank. Like the COFFIN itself, coffin lids were apparently made in standard sizes ready for use. For example Richard Rickards of Ludlow had 12 lids and another two small ones each valued at less than 12d in 1735 [Inventories (1735)].

OED earliest date of use:1816

Found described as SMALL

See also COFFIN.
Sources: Inventories (late).
References: Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin lock

A coffin lock was presumably intended to make a coffin more secure against the depredations of thieves, but more importantly against the body snatchers or 'resurrection men' as they were called. These men were attempting to supply the huge demand for cadavers for dissection in medical schools, provision by the law being most inadequate. The use of a mere four bodies of criminals 'for anatomies' was allowed by an act of 1540, and those of all murderers executed within London or Middlesex by the so-called Murder Act of 1752 (25 GEO II c37) [Gittings (1984)]. Litten does not refer to coffin locks, though he does refer to a lockable coffin offered by Messrs Jarvis in 1810. The firm claimed that the coffin was patented, but if that were true it was not under his own name [Litten (1991, pb 1992)]. There were however two patents before 1800 [Patents (1781)] and [Patents (1796)], the former to make a coffin of CAST IRON, and several for improving COFFIN FURNITURE, which suggests that the funeral trade attracted the attention of innovators.

Found in units of DOZEN, PAIR

Sources: Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late).
References: Gittings (1984), Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin nail

[coffin tack]

Also 'Coffin Tack'. It is not clear whether the coffins nails and tacks were distinct, but it seems probable since both were sometimes mentioned together as in [Patents (1769)] for 'casting and tinning coffin nails and tacks'. However both seem to have been used to tack on either the lining or an outer covering of LEATHER or fabric, which was sometimes affixed to disguise a roughly made COFFIN. A magnificent example of the use of decorative tacks to hold and to pattern a VELVET covered outer case, is the coffin of the third Earl of Warre, ob. 1777 [Litten (1991, pb 1992)]. Nails were also used decoratively, as shown for example in the will of Elizabeth Hare of Stow Bardolph, who died in 1743 after requesting in her will that her COFFIN was 'not to have a nail or any ornament that is not absolutely necessary ...' [Litten (1991, pb 1992)]. Coffin nails were also used, particularly in the earlier part of the period, to spell out on the coffin lid the name of the deceased and the date of burial [Litten (1991, pb 1992)].

OED earliest date of use: 1865, but with no definition

Found made of IRON

Sources: Inventories (late), Patents, Tradecards.
References: Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin pin

It was apparently sometimes an alternative name for the COFFIN NAIL [Litten (1991, pb 1992)], but facing the frontispiece of the catalogue of Tuesby and Cooper (1783), in a list of COFFIN FURNITURE, 'pins' were said to be for fixing the COFFIN HANDLEs to the coffin [Litten (1991, pb 1992)]. This suggests they were not necessarily decorative, but merely functional and unobtrusive.

Found made of IRON

Sources: Tradecards.
References: Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin plate


A metal plate set in a COFFIN LID, bearing the name of the deceased person, usually with dates of birth and death. They were also known as 'depositum plates' or 'breast plates' [Litten (1991, pb 1992)].

OED earliest date of use: 1763

Found made of BRASS, LEAD, TIN

Sources: Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Tradecards.
References: Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin ring

It is not clear what COFFIN rings were for, or even what they looked like. They were cheaper than COFFIN HANDLEs, and found in different units, but it is most likely that they were a simple form of handle possibly without a back plate. If this supposition is correct, one example can be found on the surviving parish coffin at Howden Minster, Yorkshire, illustrated in [Litten (1991, pb 1992)].

Found in units of number, LB

Sources: Inventories (late).
References: Litten (1991, pb 1992).

Coffin square

It is not clear what these were used for or what they looked like. Possibly they were ornamental metal plates designed to decorate the coffin, or else this is an alternative name for the COFFIN HINGE.

Not found in the OED

Found in units of DOZEN

Sources: Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late).