While They’re “At Rest,” We’re at Work: Identifying Nineteenth-Century Coffin Hardware

By Melissa Butler

In death, as in life, mass-marketed applied ornaments allow individuals to customize their belongings. This month’s artifact is one such decoration. Dovetail Cultural Resource Group (Dovetail) recently completed an archaeological excavation and associated reinterment of several unmarked, late-nineteenth-century graves in Virginia, and coffin hardware provided clues to the identity of the interred individuals. While fancy coffins embellished with silver and lined with plush fabrics were offered to wealthy families of the 1870s–1900s, customizable prefabricated coffins were a more affordable option (Taylor & Co. 1872). Plain customizable coffins built of pine or “white wood” could be individualized with different handles and removable panels (or viewing windows) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Customizable Coffins Using Prefabricated Coffin (Taylor & Co. 1872).

Custom coffin or casket options in the late-nineteenth century were abundant. Decorative ornaments down to the last details could be selected from catalogs by the undertaker or family members, including handles, studs, thumbscrews and coffin plates (also known as name plates). Common themes among these symbolic decorations and coffin plates include wishes for the occupant’s rest and peace and expressions of familial relationships. They could also include religious motifs, express brotherhood in a fraternal organization, like the International Order of Odd Fellows, or be engraved with the occupant’s name or date of death (Springate 2016:43).

In our recent excavation, one such coffin plate helped to provide a date range for the deceased’s burial (Photo 1).  The “At Rest” plate shown below is actually two separate pieces; the text sits atop a universal base (Figure 2). The same piece was available in the Columbus Casket Company’s 1882 catalog (Columbus Coffin Company 1882). While no price is listed for the plate in the Columbus Casket Company catalog, a similarly sized, white metal plate cost $1.90 in another contemporary catalog (W. S. Carr & Company 1880–1910). Though the plate is featured in an 1882 catalog, it was likely that this style was in use for several years before and after the publication of the catalog. Matching an artifact such as this plate to a catalog helps to narrow down the date of burial, and therefore give archaeologists and researchers a better chance to identify those interred in unmarked graves—giving a name to the unknown.

Photo 1: “At Rest” Coffin Plate.

Figure 2: Interchangeable Coffin Plates (Columbus Coffin Company 1882).

References
Columbus Coffin Company
1882 Illustrated Catalogue of Wood and Cloth Covered Coffins and Caskets, Undertakers’ Hardware and Sundries, Robes, Linings, and General Supplies. Columbus Coffin Company. Columbus, Ohio..

Springate, Megan E.
2016 Coffin Hardware in Nineteenth-Century America. Routledge. Electronic document, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=59VmDAAAQBAJ&pg=GBS.SA2-PA7.w.1.0.173, accessed June 2020.

Taylor & Co.
1872 Illustrated Catalogue of Coffins, Caskets, Etc. Taylor & Co., New York, New York.

W. S. Carr & Company The
1880–1910 Price List of Undertakers’ Hardware. W. S. Carr & Company, Baltimore, Maryland.

Coming Unglued: The Importance of Reversibility in Artifact Conservation

By Reagan Andersen

In this month’s blog, we are highlighting a whiteware basin with a flow blue Scinde pattern from the mid-nineteenth century. The object was brought to the Dovetail lab by a curious owner from Stafford County.  The vessel had once been broken into several large pieces that someone had attempted to glue back together (Photo 1). With permission from the owner, the archaeology lab at Dovetail conserved the bowl in a more appropriate and safe manner. Through a step-by-step analysis, this blog will discuss the conservation methods utilized to preserve the bowl’s integrity.

Photo 1: The Basin Before Conservation Efforts Began. Notice the giant glob of glue put in place of a missing sherd!

The first step was to remove the adhesive that had been used to refit the bowl when it originally broke. In order to do this, we had to first determine what type of glue was used and how, or if, it could be removed. With its black color, we believed the adhesive to be JB Weld—a high-temperature epoxy adhesive that is not removable. In order to get a clearer answer, we took the bowl to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) in Richmond and with the help of Katherine Ridgway, a conservator at DHR, we received great news. It was not JB Weld, but just a normal, removable, adhesive that had been painted over with either black paint or sharpie in an attempt to blend in with the dark blue pattern.  We quickly got to work removing the black paint and as much of the glue as possible with just cotton balls and acetone. However, the adhesive was not budging. The next step was to put the bowl into an acetone chamber, where the bowl is placed in a bag or container along with acetone-filled jars so that the acetone vapors can break down the adhesive and allow for separation (Photo 2). After a few weeks of being in the acetone chamber, the pieces had finally fallen apart and it was time to start removing the leftover residue and begin re-mending. In order to remove the excess residue we soaked the sherds in acetone and then used scalpels to peel the adhesive off of the fragments.

Photo 2: The Basin After Removal of Adhesive, But Before Acetone Chamber.

To re-mend the basin, we used Paraloid B-72: a clear, thermoplastic resin that is commonly used in conservation and restoration. It is more flexible than most other adhesives and, most importantly, it is dissolvable in acetone! It is highly important that whatever was done to the basin must be reversible; this is true with all conservation and restoration work. In the lab at Dovetail, we regularly use B-72 for labeling artifacts and mending ceramics or glass.

After several months of work, the bowl was finally finished (Photo 3). We hope to continue restoration by filling in the damaged, colorless areas with compatible paint colors. So, next time you break your grandmother’s favorite dinner plate, ask an archaeologist to repair it for you!

Photo 3: The Finished Basin.

 

 

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