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.