17th and 18th century coffin burial in america l.
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17th and 18th century coffin burial in america2
  • The Egyptians 5000 years ago buried their dead in simple graves at the east end of their villages. Thousand of years later they used most of their energies up in the care, preservation and disposal of the dead.
  • The mere passage of time or the geographic location guarantees nothing about the burial customs of certain cultures or people.
17th and 18th century coffin burial in america3
  • In society today we as Americans spend more money on funerals than do most of our neighboring countries.
  • It is interesting to note that our neighboring cultures spend more time observing morning customs and ceremonies than we in America do.
17th and 18th century coffin burial in america4
  • It must be admitted that the precise nature of ceremonies, goods and equipment incorporated into behavior toward the dead is always subject to the circumstances of a particular culture.

War Natural Resources Poverty

Famine National Disasters Wealth


17th and 18th century coffin burial in america5
  • It is highly doubtful that coffins were imported at any time during the colonial period. Why?

Ocean voyage was costly and slow and the length of time was to long in a society that did not practice embalming. They couldn’t wait for the order to be filled abroad and shipped to them.

17th and 18th century coffin burial in america6
  • During this time the colonist did not stockpile coffins. Why?

Because there were coffinmakers available locally who could make the coffins on demand and they turned out pretty respectable coffins.

  • Coffin furniture- trimmings and fittings- were imported during the 18th century.
Coffin furniture began to take hold in America after the 1800’s.
  • Early American coffins were made of wood.
  • The different varieties of wood revealed the economic status of the person buried.
  • The shape was nearly always octagonal with all the sides flat.
When the trade of coffin making became a full-time occupation, coffin-shops emerged followed by coffin warehouses and furnishings undertakers.(remember from the previous chapters)
early coffin shops and coffin warehouses
  • Following the war of 1812, there was rapid growth and spread of coffin shops. Why?
  • With the productive enterprise of coffin making, the emphasis in funerals began to shift in the direction of the coffin, especially with regard to price, quality and diversity of purpose.
  • In 1825 John Dillon made a “Mahogany Coffin”, lined, trimmed, hinged, and mounted for $24.
Remember (from chapter 4) that in 1678 David Porter’s casket was only 12s, which was less than 1/4 of the total cost of the liquor alone. In 1825 the casket was almost 2/3 of the funeral bill.
  • The most significant development in funeral business in the 19th century was the growth of coffin shops and the increased attention to the casket as a major item in the burial.
variation in early function and type
  • Throughout the 19th century in America, by means of experimentation carried out by a considerable number of people, the old fashioned coffin slowly became transformed into the modern casket.
variation in early function and type12
  • Around 1800 there was a determined effort to improve the function, style, and composition of the coffin.
  • They wanted to improve by:
    • increasing utility
    • better indicate the importance of the deceased and their family
provide protection against grave robbers
    • protect against the elements
    • should be more artistic and beautiful in order to influence an aesthetic movement in burials.
  • Lead lined coffins were used to help prevent decay of the body.
The American Naval hero of the Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones was buried in 1792 in a lead coffin and his limbs wrapped in tin foil.
    • In 1905 his body was recovered and was still recognizable because of the preservation ability of the lead and tin foil.
  • That being said, why do you think we don’t just wrap people in tin foil and bury them today?
With the growth of medical science in England and the increased need for cadavers to be used in anatomical studies the practice of graverobbing and body snatching became common enough to cause alarm over the safety of the dead.
  • British trade undertakers were the first to utilize coffins made of iron that were advertised as ghoul-proof. (improved coffins pg. 162)
Before 1850 the primary claim of caskets was that is was beautiful and therefore suitable for use in a public funeral. This started the gradual drift in mood of the funeral to from gloomy to beautiful.
  • A corresponding development is to be found in the current emphasis on restorative art as one of the most valued aspects of the embalming process.
Five major themes in defining and fulfilling the proper function of the coffin.
    • Utility
    • Status indication
    • Preservation of the body
    • Protection
    • Aesthetic representation
stone and metal coffins
  • Coffins of material other than wood made their appearance in the first half of the 19th century.
  • In 1836 patents were granted for coffins made of stone or marble and hydraulic cement.
    • These patents were allowed to expire in 1849 because the coffins were hard to manufacture and or too heavy to be handled and were not very nice looking.
stone and metal coffins19
  • By 1860 coffin patents included iron, cement, marble and artificial stone, potter’s clay…
Cement and wood, zinc, iron and glass.
  • Before the turn of the century the list was extended to include elastic material including: vulcanized rubber, fabricated metals, papier-mache, aluminum, cloth and wood, wood and glass, and coffins with inner-coffins.
fisk metallic coffin
Fisk Metallic Coffin
  • It was perhaps the most remarkable coffin ever patented and put into widespread use in America.
fisk metallic coffin22
Fisk Metallic Coffin
  • “An Air-tight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal.”
  • It resembled an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus with a glass plate to allow the face to be visible (like a divers helmet).
  • It was made by Almond D. Fisk.
  • It claimed to be air-tight, used the least amount of metal possible, so it was lightweight.
It could either take all of the air out of the casket or if you wanted to you could add any gas or fluid you wanted.
    • What could they have filled the coffin with?
  • They sold for $7.00 to $40.00.
  • During the Civil War advertisements, the Fisk coffins were sold by other manufacturing companies so we could believe the patent expired or Almond D. Fisk had died.
Advertisement pg. 165
    • In the burial of The Honorable John C. Calhoun at the Congressional Cemetery the other congressmen were impressed to write- “…We witnessed the utility of your ornamental burial case. It impressed us with the belief that it is the best article known by us for transporting the dead to their final resting place.”
    • President James K. Polk was buried in a similar case after being wrapped in a silk winding sheet, his coffin was lined in copper and sealed. (Titanic unknown baby boy)
large scale manufacture of metallic burial cases
Large Scale Manufacture of Metallic Burial Cases
  • By the mid-1800’s the small coffin shops were no longer dominating the market.
  • Stove manufacturers began to make burial cases out of metal.
  • Their advantages were:
    • protection from plagues and epidemics
    • protection against water seepage and vermin
    • easy to move for re-burial
Re-burial was important because it was not uncommon for urban cemetery’s to be moved frequently. Also, bodies could be transported easily with the steamboat and the rail in the metal coffins.
  • The large scale shipment of bodies back to family homesteads or family vaults no doubt received its greatest impetus with the mass return of the Civil War soldiers killed in battle.
In 1854 the wholesale price of a six foot “Ornamental Bronzed Case” was $20.50.
  • In 1854 a “Cloth Covered Case” was an additional $21.00
  • The cloth covered casket were a European design…they constituted the luxury level of burial receptacles.

How do we now view cloth covered caskets?

metallic burial casket
Metallic Burial Casket
  • In 1859, A.C. Barstow of Rhode Island developed the “ogee” design, a system of overlapping ribs.
metallic burial casket29
Metallic Burial Casket
  • The curves of the “ogee” design served a specific purpose, what do you thing the purpose was?

To remove as much of the excess material as possible. It goes without saying the less material used the lighter the casket becomes and the less material wasted therefore the lower the cost of the casket.

metallic burial casket30
Metallic Burial Casket
  • The term casket suggests a jewel box or a container for something valuable (a Cask).
  • Iron Casketts on the import list of articles in the Colonies referenced an iron box or container not a burial receptacle.

Therefore the term evolved as an American term from the two origins.

metallic burial casket31
Metallic Burial Casket
  • In 1862 there was a change in the burial cases. The advertisements spoke of its advantages:
    • it was simple in design
    • not ornate
    • air-tight
    • it claimed it would stop the spread of contagion and for a time would arrest the process of decomposition.
The most radical change was that they were now building the casket so it consisted of two large sections of plate glass.

Why do you think they wanted to start using plate glass?

  • The decision was based on the presentation of the dead in a receptacle designed to provide an aesthetically pleasing setting for the visually prominent and dramatically centered object of attention.
In the early 1870’s the first true sheet metal caskets were made by Crane, Breed, and Co.
  • This was the beginning of the lighter sheet metal caskets gradually replacing the heavier cast iron caskets.
In the 1890’s the term casket was starting to be use more frequently than coffin.
  • The caskets were square in form and the octagonal coffin was no longer used.
  • Still today the wedge shaped octagonal “coffin,” rarely appears in America, and the American “casket” has yet to be popularly accepted in England and Europe.

Why do you think that is?

cloth burial cases
Cloth Burial Cases
  • An actual line of cloth covered caskets began in 1871 with the Samuel Stein Patent Burial Casket.
  • They were made of wood with metal reinforcements and were cloth covered.
  • It was his idea to make a casket that was light strong and aesthetically pleasing.
cloth burial cases36
Cloth Burial Cases
  • Stein was a showcase builder and tried to carry his “showcase” idea over to the casket design with a casket that was built with all glass sides and showcase in style.
  • It was later determined that it was too “innovational for the time.”
  • Stein first triumph was his securing of the order for a casket to be used for the funeral of James Gordon Bennett…proprietor and editor of the New York Herald. (pg. 174)
Stein merged with National Casket Co. in 1890 and they made 600 cloth covered caskets a week.
  • His second triumph was his display at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. His permission to show his caskets was revoked and he built a building finishing only hours before the Exposition opened.
This success put Stein Manufacturing Company on the map and
  • Reinforced the fashion of placing coffins and caskets on display in coffin shops and in undertaking establishments where such receptacles were.
His third milestone was the order received for the Ex-President Ulysses S. Grant.
  • In 1855 Stein made the casket for President Grant. It was called the “Style E State Casket”
Made with the finest black broadcloth, heavy silver metal mountings, flat top, with full French plate glass. Its inner metallic case was especially finished on the interior and set off by a pillow on which the General’s initials were embroidered. The result, claimed by a company brochure, was a “real triumph.”
also rans
Also rans
  • The 3 types of burial receptacles commonly used during the 19th century were:
    • the metallic “mummy case”
    • the cloth-covered metal reinforced burial case
    • the traditional wooden coffin
    • All were gradually modified in an effort to improve their appearances.
    • Many other receptacles were dreamed up, but never gained popular acceptance…The Also Rans.
also rans42
Also Rans
  • Two influences were at cross purposes in the experimentation of the The Also Rans:
    • Potential market for more artistic or more serviceable funeral recepticle.
    • Second was the “hard facts” of production and distribution. Many of the inventors and the innovators never managed to get their proposals beyond the idea stage.

Money, Patents, Limited Manufacturing Ability

The also rans were:
    • terra cotta
    • wood and cement
    • glass and iron
    • cross shaped
  • The designs were box like, long and narrow, and octagon
also rans44
Also Rans
  • Terra Cotta Coffin, 1855:
    • David Sholl, 1855
    • Composed of Terra Cotta or pottery ware
    • Lighter than the earlier cement types
also rans45
Also Rans
  • Wood and Cement, 1839:
    • William H. Bachtel of Canton, Ohio
    • An Intermediate step between the cement coffin and its eventual form as a burial vault
    • Became to heavy to transport efficiently
also rans46
Also Rans
  • Coffin of Glass Plates and Iron Bands, 1859:
    • John R. Cannon of New Albany, Indiana.
    • Long and narrow, hexagonal, with all sides made in sections of glass.
    • Cement was used to keep unit air tight with iron bands to hold the lid secure.
    • Removed a portion of the air inside. Thought to make the body look more life-like.
also rans47
Also Rans
  • Glass Coffin, Air Tight, with Rib-Flange, 1860:
    • George W. Scollay of St. Louis, Missouri
    • More along rectangle casket lines
    • Not to be filled with “poisonous liquor” to destroy the animalcula, but remove the air for same effect
also rans48
Also Rans
  • “Showcase-cakset:”
    • Samuel Stein, about 1870
    • Built to display the body in its physical entirety
    • To enhance the handsome setting part of which was comprised by the casket
also rans49
Also Rans
  • Cruciform or Cross-shaped Casket:
    • Oswego Cruciform Casket Co. Oswego, N.Y., 1877
    • Shaped like the crucifix
    • Marketed to the Christian minded
    • “the Common Sense Casket”
life signals
Life Signals
  • Purpose- fear of live burial and grave robbers.
  • What were the grave robbers nicknamed?

Resurrectionists (body snatchers)

They stole bodies from graves to sell to anatomists

life signals51
Life Signals
  • Christian Eisenbrandt, Baltimore, MD, 1843
    • A new and useful improvements to coffins
    • Life preserving coffins in case of doubtful death
    • Designed with wires and pins and a spring lid to enable the occupant of the coffin, by the slightest movement of the hand or head to have the coffin lid spring open.

How would that work if it were buried?

life signals53
Life Signals
  • The next life preserving coffins were designed to operate after burial.
  • Franz Vester of Newark, NJ
    • Square tube, containing a ladder and a cord, one end of which was to be placed in the hand of the person laid in the coffin, while the other extended up to a bell on the top of the tube which was attached to the head end of the coffin
life signals55
Life Signals
  • Theodore Schroeder and Herman Wuest of Hoboken, NJ in 1871
    • A narrow round tube , similar to a speaking tube, attached to the head end of the coffin in such a manner that a rope within might be pulled by the buried person, releasing an air opening in the mouth of the tube and simultaneously setting off an electrical alarm.
life signals57
Life Signals
  • Albert Fearnaught, Indianapolis, Indiana in 1882
    • Contraption that released a flag through the end of a tube which projected up from the foot of the grave, if its occupant were to move a hand.
life signals59
Life Signals
  • John Krichbaum of Youngstown, Ohio in 1882
    • Consisted of pipes, bars, tubes and cross-pins, which would upon movement of the hands of “persons buried in a trance,” open an air vent and at the same time give indication that there was life in the coffin below.
life signals61
Life Signals
  • Another creation of the inventive mind applied to the problem of protecting the graves from the ressurectionists-
    • The coffin Torpedo-a device, made of iron, about an inch in diameter and six inches long, contained a charge of explosive and a mechanism set to go off with the tampering of any coffin which had properly been prepared.

What other problems would have been brought about by the torpedo?

burial vaults and outside boxes
Burial Vaults and Outside Boxes
  • The idea started from the desire of permanent protection of the body from ghouls and the elements.
  • Original material used during the 19th century were grave liners of rock, stone, and brick. Later concrete slabs were used in sectionals sealed with sand-cement mortar.
  • The were called burial safes and mort-safes.
The concrete vault as we know it today was not common until after 1900.
  • During 1900-1920 the number of vault patents granted were the greatest in history.
  • People started wanting protection for the casket because it was so beautiful.
The terminology starting in the late 1840’s was:
    • mummy-case
    • burial-case
    • coffin-case
    • casket-burial case
    • grave vault (1870’s)
George Boyd made the metal grave vault which is used today in the same form and function.
    • He developed the burglar proof vault unknowingly however, the principal of the vault was the air seal. Thus the Boyd vault was originally made to sell for protection against grave robbing, but developed into the present air sealed burial vault.
The Champion Company and the Springfield Metallic Casket Company made most of the vaults in the 1890’s.
  • By 1915, 5% to 10% of all funerals included a vault, nearly all metal.
  • They became used for protection of the casket and the remains.
furnished outside boxes
Furnished Outside Boxes
  • The Stein Manufacturing Company made boxes of cedar, chestnut, oak, and mahogany.
  • They were $25 to $23 for adult sizes.

What is another reason that we use vaults today?

outer burial containers vaults72
Outer Burial Containers/Vaults
  • Protection of

Casket &


  • Protect

Continuity of