Traditional churches and cathedrals are well known for their impeccable architecture, and they feature impressive examples of furniture that exhibit expert historic craftsmanship. Antique church pews are one of the many examples of historic furniture that have become synonymous with the religious experience, and they make for a great collector's item because of the wide varieties of design styles they've been crafted out of. Take a look at these decorated seating arrangements' history and see why collectors go after these massive pieces of religious ceremony.
Church Pews Throughout History
The custom of having pews as the main form of seating within a church's sanctuary first developed during the Medieval Period, though the practice didn't gain any significant popularity until the Reformation in the 14th century, where the physical structure of the church moved away from worshiping while standing to worshiping while sitting due to the interior organization shifting to giving testimony from the pulpit. By the 16th century, strict social customs surrounding class distinctions were introduced into the church; thus, the pew system became a tool for stratifying people by social class within the church. The social elite sat the closest to the pulpit, and those belonging to the lowest class were relegated to the back of the church. As time passed and religion remained an important part of daily life, these wooden benches were more and more elaborately designed, displaying the artistic techniques that were considered cutting edge for each period. By the 1930s, these customs had begun to fade away, and people were able to sit more freely about the church, although racial segregation was still enforced within the pew system, coming to an end in the mid-20th century.
Antique Church Pew Styles
For each shifting aesthetic period in which new churches were erected, new church pews had to be constructed to accompany them. Thus, a church's age can help you determine the age of the pew that came out of it. Thankfully, historic architectural trends are quite well-documented, and you can easily identify characteristics within furniture design that are unique to each period. Here are a few of the different styles that antique church pews were crafted out of:
- Art Nouveau
- Arts & Crafts/School-House
Antique Church Pew Characteristics
In general, antique church pews share a certain bench-like shape, though they do differ in other defining attributes. For example, some pews include kneeling pads while others are completely enclosed from the sides. To help you better assess antique church pews, here are a few of the individual characteristics that might differ from pew to pew:
- Pew Length - Most of the pews have a standard length of either 6 feet or 12 feet long, depending on the size of the sanctuary in which they were built, but some can be built to hold only one or two patrons.
- High-Backed vs. Low-Backed - High-backed pews are constructed to settle incredibly high upon the shoulders and are often less comfortable (due to their rigidity) than low-backed ones are.
- Connected vs. Railway Styles - The older examples of antique church pews have seats and backrests that are entirely connected, while more contemporary examples, such as those from the Victorian era, began to be split into two pieces as the world move into the 20th century.
- Quality of wood - Nearly every antique church pew was created out of wood, and a vast majority of them were either made out of pine or oak, though you can find more expensive or regional woods in some examples.
Antique Church Pew Values
Since these antiques are both practical and made out of desirable natural materials, they can fetch an impressive, though not outrageous, sum at auction or through third-party retailers. The more ornate the designs are and the state of the wood's condition both have a significant impact on pew values, with most average pews ranging between $500-$3,500. For instance, this smaller French Gothic church pew sold for nearly $3,000 in one online auction, while this late 19th or early 20th century simple church pew only sold for a little under $1,000 in a separate auction. Ultimately, there's a rather small collectors' market for antique church pews, meaning that buyer demand is the preeminent factor in determining these items' values. You're at the mercy of the historic restorationists and preservationists to dictate the type of styles that are most popular, and therefore, the most valuable at any given moment.
Where to Find Antique Church Pews
Although the market isn't as high-traffic as those of other kinds of collectibles, there's a significant number of businesses out there dedicated to providing customers with quality historic pieces to use in their businesses, homes, or places of worship. Since historic preservation and historic-inspired style is such a central fixture within the construction and interior design world, it only makes sense that there would be a number of reputable people to collect and sell these functional furniture pieces to interested parties. If you're thinking about buying an antique church pew, you can visit Church Antiques to see what they have available or, if you live in the United States, you can visit the Architectural Salvage Directory to see what salvage businesses are nearby.
The Past and the Present Collide
Whether you're thinking about adding a pew to one side of your dining room table to create an interestingly baroque aesthetic or you're restoring an older church in your community and want to find period accurate pews to add to the sanctuary, you can't go wrong with finding a stable and expertly crafted antique pew. Turn your worship experience, whatever that might look like, into something for the ages by finding the antique church pew of your dreams.