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  • Writer's pictureNancy Rogers

Pew Art

You may not be an authority on pews, the benches you sit on in church, but you might be interested to know that over the years they haven’t changed, much, with one exception.

In historic English churches and many American colonial-era churches, pews were enclosed inside boxes made of wooden panelling. Entry into the pew box was made through a small door that was open to the church’s center aisle.

The pew boxes served several purposes. For one thing, they belonged to individual families, who had to either buy the enclosures or rent them. Surprisingly, the boxes near the front of the church cost the least; the ones nearer the back, cost the most.

During the mid-1800s, a pew box could cost the equivalent of $200 a month to rent—that’s $50 a week just to have a place to sit! But families were forced to do it because the only public seating was usually in the galleries above the sanctuary and it would have be humiliating to force your family to sit there.

Other than being a money-maker for the church, the box pews also served practical purposes. Churches weren’t heated 200 years ago. The box pews went to the floor, so they cut down on drafts and kept in the heat generated by the foot warmers we talked about last time.

I have another theory, although it’s only a theory. Pregnancy was a fact of life. Women were always pregnant or recovering from a pregnancy, but for colonial-era Anglicans and others, pregnancy was too earthy, too base, too vulgar to openly display in church. I believe that pew boxes offered those women a well-deserved dose of privacy.

The pew boxes also helped families corral their children, but they also provided a canvas for their penknives. The result could be called: pew graffiti. Visit an historic church and you might see all kinds of things carved into the pews, including this beautiful schooner carved into a pew at Prince George Winyah Parish Church in Georgetown, SC.

Colonial Georgetown was an enormously important South Carolina port, shipping out vast quantities of rice and cotton. Late 18th-century and 19th-century schooners like the ones here, would have been a source of wonder for the land-bound children of Georgetown.

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