Box pews in King's Chapel, photographed by Sarah Farkas in 2018
Box pews, church seating with walls and a door, were common in English Protestant churches from the 1500s-1800s. The privacy and luxury of a box pew distinguished its occupants, and the number of private pews in a church might depend on how many elite families worshipped there.
The King’s Chapel pews were purchased as family property, with each interior arranged to suit that family’s needs and tastes. Some have a single bench along the length, while others have double benches, U-shaped benches, or small extra seats in corners. Pews may also have armrests or hidden compartments. Owners would have brought their own cushions and accessories, and there would have been no upholstery, as there is today, to hide the fine, hand-carved panels now only visible on the outside pew walls. A person of average height would be private up to the sternum, but still able to look around. Of course, many occupants would have sat facing otherwise than front, but that was acceptable: everyone could hear, and families could face one another as they worshiped. Pew walls created extra warmth in winter and fostered family closeness, but, as expensive objects, they were also status symbols.
A King’s Chapel box pew can help us think about a particular 18th-century relationship to material goods, one that became more complicated after the split between England and the colonists. In a sense, a person’s presence in their box pew provided as much identity as being with family members. Identity was created through self-presentation, in how the self was “performed” to other people, and fine possessions played a role in that performance.
A dilemma during and after the Revolution, especially for men, was how to self-fashion as a refined person while still rejecting the decadence of European styles. An attractively furnished box pew may have been an acceptable way to generate that elite identity because, although a luxury item, a box pew was practically and morally valuable, too.