In Chris’ recent post, “We Are Equally Crappy,” a few readers asked about marriage marks, also known as a cabinetmaker’s triangle. Above is Monsieur Roubo’s version. Why have boring straight edges on your triangle when you can have curvy, sexy and French?
(Editor’s note: Roubo offers up about 10 of these useful marks in Plate 5. The full translation will be in the forthcoming “Roubo on Furniture.”)
Timber framers used a different marking and matching system. Roman numerals were most often used but there are other variations.
As European carpenters found their way to the New World they brought these marking systems with them. Examples can be seen in 17th and 18th century roof timbers, especially along the East Coast. The top example (right) is from Delaware, the bottom one is from England. I found only one example from South America.
The third kind of marking that might be found up in the rafters, around doors, windows and fireplaces is an apotropaios (meaning to turn away), also known as a witches mark.
In 17th centry Britain witchcraft was a real concern. In 1604 King James I wrote, “…for some they sayeth that being transformed in the likeness of a beast or fowl, they will come and pierce through whatsoever house or church, though all ordinary passages be closed, by whatsoever open air may enter in at.” I’m leaving out the bit about women being more frail and more susceptible to…nevermind.
Typical marks to ward off witches were two overlapped Vs (Virgin of Virgins), M (Virgin Mary), MR (Maria Regina), daisy circles, a series of circles and circles attached to letters. You might see all of these letters and symbols combined.
Researchers in Britain are cataloging these symbols in churches. Both the overlapping V and the M symbols have been found integrated into carvings on pews, choir stalls and misericords.
The next time you find yourself in an old building look closely and you might see some of these signatures of past woodworkers.