Myth #104: Front doors were built extra wide so that a coffin could fit through. These were called “coffin doors.”
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.”
Boston Gazette 1770 detail showing coffins
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.