Jenna Peterson, the assistant curator and educator at Schenectady County Historical Society, wrote, “I’ve recently started working at a museum, and heard my docents telling visitors about our “coffin door.” According to my docents, who have no idea where the idea came from originally but were told it by another docent who was told by another docent, the door was built as wide as it was so that a coffin could fit through it. Is this a complete myth, or something I’m just not aware of? I’ve not done a tremendous amount of research into historic architecture, but what I have done has made no mention of coffin doors. I’d love to see it validated or busted!”
The easiest thing to do, when confronted by a suspicious statement, is to ask, “What is the documentation for that?” Then you might suggest that, until they can prove the authenticity of the statement, they should leave it out of their tour commentary.
I checked with a couple of my favorite architectural historians on this one, even though I was all but certain a “coffin door” was related to the “coffin corner” myth (see Myth #58: Niches called coffin corners were built into staircases to allow people to carry a casket downstairs and turn the corner.”) Ed Chappell, an architectural historian who is Director of Architectural Research at Colonial Williamsburg, says succinctly, “I think the idea is dreamed up.”
Senior Architectural Historian and author Carl Lounsbury goes into more detail, calling this myth one of those “foolish things that gets passed along.” And he explains why.
“As to wide doors in houses, most were primary entrance doors–either double doors and slightly wider single-leaf doors ranging from around 3 feel 2 inches to about 5 or 5 1/2 feet . . . Their size–height and width were symbolic of their importance as main entrances. However, few doors inside the house were wider than three feet—usually 2 feet 8-10 inches into main rooms, smaller for closets. Now, if the tellers of tales would only think about it, the only place especially wide coffins could go would be through the main doors, which perhaps led into a room, but often into a passage. If the coffins were especially wide, they would not fit through secondary doors leading into parlors where most of the dead were laid out. What little I know about early wooden coffins suggests that they were no wider the width of a person’s shoulders. I am fairly large–my shoulders measure about two feet in width. Add an inch here or there for fitting the body in the box and the inch on each side for the board width and you get a coffin about 2 ½ feet in width at its widest. But the point is, nobody ever designed houses with funereal prospects in mind. They were designed for the ease and comfort of someone entering and leaving a room (upright) and, as noted above, in just proportion to the hierarchical significance of the space being entered: exterior doors, public room doors, secondary room door, and subsidiary space doors. I am not sure why otherwise intelligent people seem to embrace these preposterous notions. I have heard it hundreds of times in descriptions of various features in buildings: like cross and bible doors—Really? on Moses Myers [a Jewish merchant] House in Norfolk? I rarely try to correct them anymore, but simply ignore the blather.”
Historic house administrators can’t just ignore the blather (much as they’d like to!), because they have to deal with docents and guides who may be passing along myths like this one. Letting these things slide only gives them credibility.
Previously posted comments:
Hammond-Harwood House says:
January 17, 2013 at 10:14 am (Edit)
I think that one of the reasons myths about coffins remain so prevalent is that they’re a good segue into stories about ghosts, which are always popular.
January 17, 2013 at 12:41 pm (Edit)
Booyah! LOVE your blog! It’s always so helpful. 🙂
Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:01 pm (Edit)
Thanks for the compliment!
Janet K. Seapker says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:28 pm (Edit)
Wilmington, NC horse-drawn carriage drivers claim that double doors were used to allow women with hoop skirts to get easily through the front door. Carl’s argument could be used to respond to this one too.
Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Horse-drawn carriage drivers are BIG myth spreaders! So are ghost tour conductors and bus tour guides. They are not really in the education business; they are in the entertainment business where anything goes. The sexier, scarier, funnier, or cuter it is, the better.
PJ Curran says:
January 17, 2013 at 3:21 pm (Edit)
Beg your pardon Mary, but as a Tour Guide I take my responsibility for historical accuracy, education, and entertainment very seriously. I have heard but not used the coffin theory. I have also heard but not used the width of women’s dresses as a reason for the wide doorways. This one would probably not stand up either. Obviously women also found it necessary to navigate interior doorways.
Greater Boston Tour Guide
Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 3:45 pm (Edit)
That’s terrific. There are certainly many conscientious tour guides out there, but in general, the purpose of carriage ride tours and ghost tours and those city bus tours where you hop on and off and hear the patter between stops is not education but entertainment. Those “guides” aren’t given much training and little supervision; in many cases the script they are handed is little more than a string of jokes and myths. I’m sorry if you thought I was slandering all bus tour guides! Keep up the good work.
January 17, 2013 at 8:29 pm (Edit)
Having trained tour guides for 14 years, followed by training docents and part time staff…nothing succeeds like….not success…but REPEATED myth. (and one of the most popular had to do with the Hammond Harwood House above!!!) The “hand me down” information is constant battle. We used to send new tour guides out with old ones….sure way to perpetuate this kind of stuff. I’m not sure about the segue, Allison…I think it’s that some things are deemed to be “the inside scoop.” But…hey…they were shorter back then, yes?!? They seem to have been narrower, too!!!!!
Daud Alzayer says:
January 19, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
One of the classic red flags to a history myth is any story that emphasizes the “nasty, brutish and short” vision of the past.
The idea that houses would be designed with coffins in mind is really hinting at a larger narrative- that constant death was a fact of life in (insert any time period here).
PS- I was quite tickled to see the Boston Massacre coffins, since I work at the Boston Massacre site (Old State House)
Robert Hansen says:
January 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm (Edit)
I once owned a house in Bridgewater, CT., bulit in 1812, that had a side door, not the main entrance door, that led directly into the living room. It was wider than the principal entrance door and did not have steps entering into it that would make it useful as a day to day entrance. In addition all the accessory buildings were on the other side of the house. And of course it was referred to as a coffin door. Go figure.
Mary Jean Adams says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:45 am (Edit)
My guess is that someone once said in passing, “I’m so glad we can fit Uncle Charlie’s coffin through the front door!” (or around the bend in the stairs.) Perhaps it happened with several Uncle Charlies. Eventually that got passed on to be the myth that we know today. (Or at least we know it now thanks to your blog!)
Jenna Peterson says:
April 26, 2013 at 12:51 pm (Edit)
Thanks so much for answering my question, sorry I wasn’t able to get you a photo of the doors!
Ginger Mattingly says:
April 12, 2015 at 5:55 pm (Edit)
If you research “casket door” and Victorian house or 1800s there are several stories about it. I don’t know if it is true or not. I have heard of “casket doors,” but never called “coffin” doors. Funerals were held in the home back in the 1800s.
Mary Miley says:
April 12, 2015 at 9:14 pm (Edit)
Casket . . . coffin . . . must be the same thing.
Jennifer Taylor says:
August 21, 2015 at 7:28 am (Edit)
So what if they referred to them as coffin doors? I mean it doesn’t make the home it’s attached to haunted. Many people died at home in olden days. The front door was taken off its henge (very easily removed with a whack at the metal rod between) . I heard this before, even mentioned on HGTV specifically “American Renovation”. Why would you attempt to
Cover up or lessen credit to history? Using a door to carry a coffin doesn’t glamorize a home nor demoralize the people that lived there either. People are people. Often using what they had and “making do” was what this country was built on. You can’t change history or cover it up.
Paul Boat-Kuharic says:
July 31, 2016 at 6:50 pm (Edit)
Just show proof that coffin, or casket, doors are real and the post would be pointless, Jeniffer Taylor. False, baseless history should always be debunked.