THE LAST SHOW: A COMMERCIAL CATALOG FOR FUNERAL “PROPS” IN THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION

Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of Kelly Smythe, a FIU student who has been working as an intern here at the Wolfsonian’s rare book and special collection library. This semester, she has been creating metadata to prepare for the digitization of many of the rare commercial and trade catalogs in our collection. In the course of those activities, she came across the following irresistible catalog for caskets. Here is her report:  

While the National Casket Company may not have lain claim to putting the “fun in funerals,” their 1921 catalog certainly straddled the line between theatrical and somber spiritual rites. The sales catalog’s introduction assured the customer that the illustrations of their caskets were both “accurate and artistic reproductions” and that “discriminating” and “desirable designs” could be found to appeal to all members of the community. The catalog was arranged so that the highest quality, most appealing—(and most expensive!)—product designs were showcased first. The first caskets are bronze and copper monuments with obvious sculptural references to ancient Grecian and Roman architectural details that have endured from classical antiquity to today. If funerals are for the living, one wonders which market the manufacturers were serving, and whether the National Casket Company was promoting the idea of longevity or immortality with these designs.

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 Offering the finest obtainable materials in its tufted interior, this acme model—produced decades before Wile E. proved the brand with the same name to be faulty and failure-prone—claimed to have been constructed of the finest and most enduring materials possible. It was intended to underscore the idea that we don’t know how long before the guest-of-honor might wake after his or her wake!

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 The profusion of the actual padding provided in the coffins is phenomenal; hospitals, hotels and high-end bedding never see this much luxurious and opulent embroidered silk treatments. It is enough to make one wonder if the seamstress’ union and funeral home industry were in collusion. Perhaps itching ends with the onset of immortality since it would seem impossible to take a nap of any duration on the embossed, tufted, crushed, shirred, rippled, waved or pleated treatment sewn into any of the twenty-two types of silk- and satin-covered mattresses available for the grand slumber. This same upholstery thoughtfully covers the lid to avoid injuries during any potential jolting, or disoriented awakenings.

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 It is only fitting that the catalog employs interior design terminology to describe its products since caskets had traditionally been fashioned by furniture makers. Casket manufacture as a separate industry would have been a relatively new business phenomenon when this catalog was published. This might explain the preponderance of cloth in regal shades of purple, silver, grey, burgundy and cream, and the hardwood used for the outer shell in a number of models. This does not, however, necessarily explain the large number of casket “couches” and “half-couch” models!

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 The fine selection of hardwood models allowed the customer to choose from a number of different aesthetic styles including Streamline Moderne, Beaux-Arts, Art Nouveau, and Austere Church Pew selections. Additionally, the caskets could be fashioned out of a medley of solid mahogany, Circassian, oak, chestnut, and walnut woods. A number of imitation hardwood finishes were also offered for the more “thoughtful, considerate and artistic”—and budget-minded—consumer.

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 Many of the half-couch models made by the company gave the illusion that the occupant could easily wake up and roll gracefully out of the coffin without having to climb over the side. Some of these models were curiously equipped with a silk-tasseled pull cord, placed only within logical reach off the person “napping” on the plush mattress. Presumably this pull cord enabled the guest of honor to shut out the celebration and get started early on his or her eternal rest.

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 For an audience in denial, the National Casket Company created the Davenport model, a casket that could be folded down to create a complete approximation of a sofa one might expect to see in a typical Victorian boudoir sitting room. The casket had no raised lid or sides, but sported a back rest like any proper divan. For those intent on denying the finality of the “big sleep,” the Davenport casket was completely disguisable and might serve a dual purpose should the dearly departed shock everyone and wake from his or her nap! The model features full velvet upholstery on all surfaces, a tufted seat cushion and back, and two matching end pillows.

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 As there may have been quite a gathering of friends, family, and associates for a client’s final send off, National aimed to provide designs that would satisfy even the most dramatic requirements in furniture repose design. To remind everyone of the angelic life the departed had presumably led, or, conversely to imply a “He is Risen” message, the company offered one model which when open created the dazzling effect of a Sunburst Design in Radiant Silk. One expects the blare of trumpets and ethereal choral accompaniment.

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 The thespian of the family naturally would want to resurrect with a big Ta-da! The stunning backdrop of shirring, draping and dramatic needle worked silk overflowing the half-couch and pom-pom fringed curtains raised in anticipation of a dramatic encore. The coffin-as-stage theme appears in a few variations of the product, as is befitting different tastes of customers approaching that final curtain.

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 Unobtrusively included at the end of the catalog—(after the delicate and thoughtful children’s line!)—was a selection of heavy, sealed vaults with a curious end-loading, quick-locking fortress version. As the locks are on the outside, perhaps some of the company’s clientele warranted forced eternal rest. Evidently the National Casket Company was prepared to provide for all manner of eventualities.

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Editor’s note: the last casket looks to me to be a perfect design for postal workers! All of this reminds me of a ludicrous funeral scene from the cult classic 1971 film Harold and Maude and its ridicule of the somber tone of a funeral complete with a “Permaseal” casket!

~ by "The Chief" on May 25, 2013.

One Response to “THE LAST SHOW: A COMMERCIAL CATALOG FOR FUNERAL “PROPS” IN THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION”

  1. The following are excerpts from a comment left by a viewer who took issue with the humorous and whimsical treatment by our student intern of the serious matter of coffins, caskets, and funeral customs. Our posts are intended to be entertaining as well as scholarly and if we have in this instance erred on the side of whimsy we can rightly be taken to task. I have included excerpts from our blogger’s comment that provide a much appreciated scholarly interpretation and appreciation of the materials and a more serious assessment of their cultural significance.

    This catalog reflects the culture and social norms in the early 1900’s. The Victorian decor of that period is also evident in the highly stylized casket interiors. Indeed, every aspect of life in the United States at the turn of that century was vastly different from today. Do those differences warrant such ridicule and sarcasm? Ms. Smythe’s post fails to recognize these differences…

    The National Casket Company was a pioneer in the mass production of caskets and funeral supplies to professional undertakers. Prior to the foundation of the company, undertakers (term coming from merchants who “undertook” many tasks) operated retail stores, made furniture and, caskets and coffins (yes, … there is a difference between a coffin and a casket…).

    Most families “waked” the body of the deceased in the home. Over two or three days, the community called upon the family at the primary residence (the modern day equivalent of calling hours, or visitation, at the funeral home). Callers also undertook every chore of the day, epically [sic] cooking, relieving the family so they could grieve.

    The advent of embalming dead bodies was a technological advance of the Civil War, allowing bodies to be transported from the fields of war, back to their home so the family could see their loved one and hold a funeral. Embalming was also an advance in hygiene and sanitation, as the onset of decomposition presented problems in the funerary process. In addition to this new procedure, the sealer casket or coffin was another modern marvel. As evident in the National catalog, “full couch, instead of a bed or “chamber board” provided by the undertaker. This new furnishing had the appearance of customary furniture, but then folded and closed into the burial casket — a “two-in-one”. Prior to this, the local undertaker brought the casket or coffin to the home, placing the body in it, [on] the day of the funeral. So, these new caskets provided welcomed convince [sic] and hygiene over earlier practices.

    That “mailbox”, which “The Chief” though[t] appropriate for Postal workers (how disrespectful), is actually one of the first metal burial vaults. Wood containers, called grave liners, were commonly used to support the earth load above the casket, to prevent grave collapse. The metal vault was another advance of the day.

    That “pull cord” Ms. Smythe suggested was available for the deceased, was used to pull the casket lid forward with ease and, looked more dignified than lifting the lid from behind. There was a meaningful purpose to everything and, it all looked and felt appropriate for that period….

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