99% Sure | Ep 10: How Much Did a Pew Cost?
How much did it cost to buy a box pew at Old North Church? The answer to this simple question is not so simple! In this new episode of 99% Sure, our researcher T.J. Todd takes a deep dive into the economics of owning a pew at Old North.
See below for the video, episode transcript, extra information, and sources!
Without a doubt, the most frequent question Old North’s educators get from visitors is something along the lines of “What is the deal with the weird seating here?”
These are called “box pews,” and if you lived in the 1700s this seating style would have been pretty unremarkable. Though today box pews are relatively rare – that makes them look a little bizarre compared to what people are expecting to see in a church. Most churches removed box pews over time to open up more seating. But this seating arrangement offered a few benefits. And even the history of the most ordinary things, like church seating, can offer interesting insights into history.
From the church’s standpoint, box pews were a way to raise funds – pews actually had to be purchased here all the way up to 1912, and these boxed-in units are an organized way to sell them. Churches and ministers require funds. Money for the building, church staff, and services had to come from somewhere, and selling pew space was one way to do that.
From the individual member’s point of view, box pews had benefits as well. Tall walls and enclosed space offered better insulation during winter services. Pew owners now also had a guaranteed seat within the church. And since you literally bought the pew, that meant you owned it and could customize it as you wanted — decorating the inside, adding more comfortable seating. Buying a pew also gave you a vote in all church business. Owning a box pew made you a church proprietor: in a sense, a part-owner of the church.
That’s the “why” of box pews. But what I find even more interesting is how much these pews would have cost. You might have thought that for once there would be a simple answer, but… alas, not so much. Their system was surprisingly complicated.
Let’s ignore that the question forgets the changes in price that would take place over 300 years, and also ignore the changes from pounds to dollars after Independence, and focus on just the earliest years of the church. A pew on the ground floor at that time cost 30 pounds, while a pew in the gallery was slightly cheaper at 20 pounds. But even that answer varies: that was simply the initial price to buy a pew. Like buying a car or house today, there were significant expenses beyond the initial purchase. Each pew owner had to pay a yearly tax, as well as regular weekly “contributions”, which was basically like passing the plate around today – except if you fell behind on these contributions, the church reserved the right to take your pew and sell it to someone else. All told, it is hard to quantify how much a pew actually cost.
There were also plenty of exceptions. If a pew was sold midway through the year, that also changed the price – because as everyone knows, a new pew loses value the moment you drive it off the lot. Rarely, some were even able to negotiate knocking a few pounds off the cost: for instance one person argued that their pew was behind a pillar and blocked their view. Sometimes pews were cheaper if you worked for the church as well.
The cost of a pew was surprisingly complicated: and I haven’t even begun to get into the complications around how currency and credit worked in the colonies! But just the standard 30 pounds alone was well beyond what the average person could afford in the 1720s. Adding in the extra costs meant that, in Old North’s early years, this was a church designed for the wealthy. If you could not afford a pew, there were free seats and standing room available, but you lost your vote in church business and also would struggle to see or participate in church services – essentially, you became a second-class congregant. Boston was still a hierarchical society at this time, and Old North’s arrangement would not have even been noteworthy.
Most visitors today are surprised by this system; they object to the idea of a church treating the wealthiest members preferentially. Old North did eventually lower the cost and became less exclusive over time. But I think we often take it for granted how much the Revolution has altered our ways of thinking. Change didn’t always happen overnight; Old North itself still sold pews up until the early 1900s. But change nonetheless happened, and I think often it’s the simplest concepts, like the history of seating in a church, that help us see those changes in action.
Purchasing pews: exceptions and end-arounds
In the 1700s, there were numerous ways to attend services at Old North “on a budget,” but each included drawbacks.
Sometimes congregants combined their money with friends or neighbors in order to buy a pew. This made the pew much more affordable, but the congregants would lose their vote in church business (or at best, had one vote to represent the entire pew).
In 1726, the vestry voted: “That seventy pounds be paid to Mr. Bennet for building of twenty four pews in the North and South Gallerys [sic] of said Church, Together with the back seats 86 benches.” (emphasis added). The “back seats” referenced here ran along the walls and were probably plain benches offered to those who could not afford a pew. The expectation would have been for some small, nominal donation to the church. Standing room would also be available for any extraordinarily busy services. These individuals who stood or used free seats would not be considered proprietors but they could at least take part in communion or other services as members of the church. Their seating, though, would have been cramped and uncomfortable, and those in the back of the gallery had no view of the service.
In the center aisle there is a pew that was for “Strangers and Wardens,” strangers meaning non-members of the church. It seems that the church owned a few of its own pews that it could offer for visitors to Boston or non-members that they were hoping to entice into joining the congregation. Of course, “strangers” had no vote either and could not use the strangers pew indefinitely.
The carpenters who helped build Old North, Thomas Bennett and Thomas Tippin, both purchased pews for the exact same price, at a discount from some others on the ground floor – this suggests that the lower price was due to their work for the church. Though their pews were also not the absolute cheapest on the ground floor, so there may have been a desire on Bennett and Tippin’s part to not appear “unseemly” and still contribute to the congregation.
Could you pay more for a better seat?
Outwardly, at least, better seating did not seem to be based on price – 30 pounds seems to be the max; though a few pews on the ground floor sold for slightly less. Instead, it seems that wealthier and more prominent members had the first choice of a pew. Other considerations were made as well: in 1726, the vestry voted to “allow those persons who have given toward building the Church their first choice” of pews in the gallery. It is possible that an informal arrangement could have been arranged in some circumstances, such as paying a little extra in other donations to move up a bit, but so far no record of that has been found.
How “weekly contributions” worked
The church wrote in the pew titles that regular contributions were expected from each pew’s owner. These were smaller amounts that were collected at Sunday services. And while the church would usually “look the other way” if you missed a week or two, they still technically reserved the right to take a pew back and sell it to someone else if you fell behind for too long. How frequently that occurred is difficult to tell. In one instance, Amey Jackson took over the family’s pew after her infamous husband, Newark, was murdered by members of his crew during a smuggling run. But Amey eventually was found to have provided “deficient contribution” for quite some time, and the vestry finally voted in 1769 to re-sell the pew.
Adding to the confusion, sometimes the church used “tax” and “contributions” interchangeably. It is not always clear whether someone forfeited a pew because of the weekly contributions, or because they decided to pass on it the following year when pew taxes were collected.
An example of the church negotiating on price
There were frequent instances where the church negotiated on or altered the price. A much later example exists where the church agreed to reduce the weekly contributions due to a particularly poor view in pew #42: “At a Proprietors meeting at Christ Church on Easter Monday, 23 April 1764” the church voted “That the tax on pew no.42 be reduced to eight pence LM [lawful money] a week in consideration of the Pillar in it…”
Seating changes over the centuries
In the early 1800s, Old North was experiencing a revival in church membership, so the box pews were removed in 1806 and replaced with slip pews (enclosed benches, similar to the pews commonly used today) to allow more seating. Slip pews were still purchased at this point, but it allowed for a much larger congregation.
In 1912, a massive restoration process for the church was completed, and the box pews were re-installed – according to legend, at least, the wooden material of the old box pews was found piled up in the crypt and was re-installed by matching the nail holes in the ground to the nail holes in the bottom of the pew walls. If true, only a portion of the wooden material was serviceable so not all pews are exactly the same as they would have been in the 1700s.
After 1912, Old North ended the practice of selling pews – sort of. It seems that they grand-fathered in any former pew owners who wanted to keep purchasing theirs, and gradually shifted to open seating over time. There was still a congregant stubbornly “buying” their pew until the 1950s! After the few holdouts either passed away or eventually chose to stop, Old North finally ended the practice altogether and now seating is first come, first served – and open to all.
Some pews were added or altered over time. Also, periodically the church numbered the pews differently, so it can be challenging to know exactly where a pew would have been at times!
What are the brass plaques on each pew?
In 1912, when the box pews were re-installed the church honored the first recorded purchaser of each pew with a brass plaque. The pews would not have been labeled in the 1700s, congregants simply knew where their pew was. It should also be noted that the plaques are not the most famous owner of each pew, just the first owner. The more famous (or infamous) pew owners like Robert Newman, John Pulling, Joseph Warren Revere (Paul Revere’s son), Captain Thomas Gruchy, Captain Daniel Malcolm, Captain Newark Jackson, or General Thomas Gage are covered in other ways. See our This Old Pew page for more information on the many noteworthy congregants who called Old North their home church!
The archives of the Old North Church: pew records, vestry notes. Originals held at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Select scanned copies held at the Old North Foundation offices.
Babcock, Mary Kent Davey. Christ Church, Salem Street Boston-The Old North Church of Paul Revere Fame: Historical Sketches (Colonial Period, 1723-1775). Boston: Thomas Todd Company. 1947.
For more on Anglican pews in England (a system that was even more complicated), see:
Bennett, J.C. “Informal Pew-Renting and Pew-Openers in English Anglican Churches.” Church History and Religious Culture 100 (2-3) (September 2020): 364–82. https://doi.org/10.1163/18712428-bja10004.
Newton, Ross A. “Patrons, Politics, and Pews: Boston Anglicans and the Shaping of the Anglo-Atlantic, 1686-1805.” PhD diss., Northeastern University, 2016.
“The Restoration of the Old North Church” and “The Re-opening of Christ Church,” The Church Militant, January 1913, 10-15.