Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

Journal of early southern decorative arts [serial] (Volume 16, 1 (1990)) online

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FUNERALS ... The novelty of the UNDERTAKER'S
Business, in Charleston, having excited much enquiry by
some as to what is meant by the term ' ' UNDERTAKERS' ' ,
and by others, (who have only a partial idea of its meaning)
how far extends the supplies of one — In order, therefore,
to explain to both, and to the public generally, the follow-

May, 1990 29

ing plan is submitted, viz. To any written or personal
application, He will instantly attend at the house of the
deceased, and arrange with a friend of the family, every
thing necessary for the funeral. Every article of mourn-
ing, such as Scarfs, Hoods, Hat Bands, &c. &c. that may
be ordered, will be sent to the house of the deceased, at
an early hour, all ready made up. A coffin, substantially
and neatly made, oi any description, will be furnished,
and sent m proper time . Dress furnished, of all sizes, ready
made, or made to order, as the notice will admit of. Any
articles ordered and not made use of, will be received back,
and deducted from the bill. Either the whole, or any part
of the articles necessary for a funeral, will be furnished.
To a family labouring under every affliction of grief for
the loss of one of its members, it must be evident an
establishment of this kind is desirable; it not only prevents
the feelings of the surviving relatives from being harrased
by the unavoidable hurry and confusion in providing for
a funeral, (particularly when the nesessary articles are to
be procured with much difficulty) but also impositions
from being practiced, by having every thing prepared
elsewhere, and brought all ready made up to be distributed
to those intended for. The most rigid punctuality may be
relied on in any thing promised, and every delicacy that
the solem occasion of a Funeral requires by the "UNDER-
TAKER' ' . N. B. The bill for any funeral expences will be
presented a few days after the interment, when it will be
expected to be punctually paid, as customary.

Another announcement from the same firm appeared the follow-
ing December and was of a shorter nature: "FUNERALS . . .
Furnished complete or in part with coffins, scarves, hoods,
hat-bands, hankerchiefs, gloves. . . . There are constantly
mourning dresses on hand, and making of all sizes, for gentlemen;
such as coats, waistcoats, breeches and pantaloons. "^^ The 11 July
1804 death of Mrs. Rachel DuPree Miles of Mount Pleasant, South
Carolina, left a family whose sorrow was put to canvas (fig. 6)
in 1805 by the itinerant artist Cephas Thompson. ^^ Represented
in the portrait are Mrs. Miles's survivors. Captain James Miles,
their son James Saunders Miles and daughter Elizabeth McPherson
Miles. The urn and open window are symbolic portrayals of the
deceased. The subjects' somber expressions, the two funeral hats


Figure 6. James Miles and Children, o// on cjnvas, Cephas Thompson, 1805.
HOA 40 3/4". WVA 40 3/4". MRF S-8723. The painting is signed at the
lower left: "C. Thompson pinx 1805."

for Mr. Miles and his son, the black mourning clothes, and his
daughter's black jewelry complete the mourning scene.

The use of such mourning items as scarves and crepe in
Charleston after 1810 was recorded in an April 1816 letter from
Catherine Waties to Frances Caroline Mayrant, and perhaps
reflected the effect Jefferson's embargo had on the items used
by South Carolinians for their funerals: "but my dear Frances
it really is shocking to see in Charleston how much indifference
persons show at the death of their friends, their mourning is
ridiculous, canton crepe frock trimmed with crepe, & a scarlet
hat & shawl. "^^ Coffins were also apparently still stock items for
merchants in the first and second decade of the nineteenth
century. In July 1808 Thomas Hill's warehouse inventory listed
"2 full trimmed Mahogany Coffins 15. $30. "^^

May, 1990



Figure 7. Gold mourning ring with black enamel inset mounted with clear stone
and amethyst, inscribed "ROBT MACKEIFN OB: 16 DEC 1764 AET 38, "
South Carolina? Diameter: 7/8". MRF S-8334.



Although it appears that mercantile firms were a major source
of funeral trappings, some items could also be had from
silversmiths. For example, Charleston silversmith John Paul
Grimke, on 30 December 1760, had for sale "Mourning swords,
buckles, necklaces, rings with or without diamonds, and other
articles used on such occasions. "^^ More northern mourning
jewelry has been recorded than southern; however, the survival
of two rings with Charleston histories illustrates the custom of
giving rings as funeral gifts to very close friends, relatives and,
at times, ministers. One of these rings (fig. 7) was made for Robert
Mackewn, Jr. It has a single amethyst and two clear stones
mounted on a scrolled gold band filled with black enamel which
provides a ground for gold letters that read: "ROBT. MACKEWN
OB: 16 DEC 1764 AET 38." The other (fig. 8), honoring
Elizabeth Manigault has a gold band edged with beading. It is
filled in the center with black enamel and inscribed in gold:
YEARS"; on the interior is an "EP" touch mark. Robert Mackewn
was a planter who died in 1764. Elizabeth Manigault, nee Wragg,
died in 1773; she was the wife of Peter Manigault and the mother
of Gabriel Manigault, the architect. Grimke's sales of such

Figure 8. Gold mourning ring marked ' 'EP", inscribed ' 'ELIZA: MANIGAULT
DYED. 19 . FEBry . AGED . 36. YEARS, "South Carolina? 1773. Diameter:
13/16". MRF S-8334.

May, 1990


mourning items as part of his trade forecast the Charleston
silversmith's transition from smith to jeweler, a change that
occurred in the late eighteenth century and dominated the early

The role that upholsterers, carpenters, silversmiths, and even
Venetian blind makers played in supplying the Charleston public
with funeral dressing was, as a rule, more that of the contributor
or decorator than actual cofFm maker. Even those merchants such
as Poyas and Hill who sold coffins hired woodworkers such as
McGillivray to make them. Cabinetmakers were most likely to
make coffins and furnish them with the necessary equipage for
burial; The Cabinet-Makers Philadelphia and London Book of
Prices of 1796 even contained descriptions and charges for coffin
work. Such information is rare, so the following has been

COFFINS. A coffin two feet long in the bottom[£] 0.6.6.

Ditto two feet six inches long 0.8.0.

Ditto three feet long 0.9.6.

Ditto three feet six inches long 0.10.6.

Ditto four feet long 0.12.0.

Ditto four feet six inches long 0.13.6.

Ditto five feet long 0.15.0.

All above five feet long 0.18.0.

All coffins made of poplar above five feet long

to deduct 0.3.0.

Putting on handles to ditto 0.1.0.

Ditto the breast plate 0.0.6.

Full trimming with lace 0.1.6.^^

One of the first considerations Charleston coffin makers had
to contend with in building a coffin was the wood he should use.
Cedar, mahogany, pine, and cypress were their choices; no other
coffin woods have been recorded in Charleston documents. Cedar
apparently was used the most. Evidently it was considered to be
the most durable of the coffin woods. In 1809 David Ramsay
wrote: "Red cedar, juniperus virginiana, makes durable furniture,
posts, and coffins. On the plantation of Thomas Drayton, in St.
Andrews, an inscription on wood of this species in 1706, indicates
the grave of Stephen Fox [a tanner]. There is no tombstone in
Charleston equally old on which time has made so little
impression. "^9 In fact, the earliest coffin found in Charleston was

34 • MESDA

of cedar. During the repair of the foundations of St. Michael's
Church after the 1886 earthquake, a cedar coffin with the initials
"J O B" and "1678" nailed in brass was uncovered. ^'^

Cedar was also requested by eighteenth-century testators in
their wills when they mentioned the making of their coffins. For
example, in March 1741 Joseph Fidler, a Charleston upholsterer,
asked for "a plain coffin of cedar." In their wills of September
1758 and October 1759, respectively, Michael Jeans, a painter
and glazier, and Joseph Arden also specified cedar as the wood
they wished to be used for their coffins. ^^ Charleston cabinet-
makers' eighteenth century accounts also refer to the popularity
of cedar as a coffin wood. Abraham Roulain, a cabinetmaker,
made Thomas Sanders a "full trimmed cedar coffin" for £35 in
September 1765.^^ Throughout Elfe's account book there are
records of charges, from 1772 to 1775, for cedar coffins which
range in price from £2.10 "for a child" to £90 for a "full trimmed
black cov'd Cedar Coffin. "^^ The latter charge was more than
the greatest charge for a mahogany coffin.

Cedar was used in Charleston in the nineteenth century as
well. The February 1802 shop inventory of Nicholas Silberg,
cabinetmaker, mentioned "2 Setts Cedar Coffin Stuff $4" which
undoubtedly represents coffins that were not yet constructed. A
similar listing was found in Michael Muckenfuss's September 1808
shop appraisal which included: "2 Setts Cedar Coffin Boards
$12." Jacob Sass's February 1836 inventory listed: "23 Cedar
Coffins $115 ... 37 Small do. [cedar] Coffins $18.50. "^^

There is also documentary evidence that pine was commonly
used in Charleston to make coffins, although it does not seem
to have come into fashion until the end of the eighteenth century.
On 24 June 1793 James Burns charged £14 for "1 Pine Stain'd
Coffin. "^^ This account appears to be the first recorded use of
pine for coffins, and as it was in 1793 the pine could have been
either yellow or white, although the latter is the most probable.
White pine coffins were used in Charleston in the nineteenth
century; for example, in his will of 12 March 1822, William
Rutledge requested that his coffin be "of Northward pine covered
with black baise." In May 1821 cabinetmaker Thomas Charnock
was paid $5 for "a pine Coffin Stain'd." Sass's 1836 inventory
also listed "3 Pme Coffins $3 [and] 25 do. $6."^^

With these discoveries in mind, a search of Elfe's account book
for pine coffins was made, but to no avail. He did use cypress,
however. Cypress appeared occasionally in accounts such as that

May, 1990 35

of 21 February 1773 which mentioned a charge of £5 for a "Black
Cypress Coffin for a Negro Boy " and "a cypress coffin blackened
for a child £3.10" recorded on 10 August 1774. The majority
of Elfe's cypress coffins were made for slaves and ordered by
owners, which implies that cypress was considered inferior to cedar.
This theory is also supported by the price of cedar coffins in Elfe's
accounts, which ranged from £3.10 to £10. ^"^ On 3 May 1850
Charles Warham was paid £11 for "making coffins for Indians' '
in February of that year.^^ The low cost of these coffins suggests
that Warham had made them from cypress.

Mahogany generally was the highest-priced coffin material in
Charleston. Elfe charged from £35 to £60 for several coffins of
mahogany, while his mahogany bedsteads were only priced from
£8 to £50. In September 1793 Jacob Sass was owed £8 for "a
Mahogy Coffin with Handles and Plates" and only £5 for a
mahogany bedstead. In his 1836 inventory there were "49 Pieces
of Coffin Mahog [and] 9 mahy. Coffin tops $9."^^

After the wood was chosen and the coffin was built, the matter
of furnishing the product arose. Apparently this was done
according to the current mode. Bedon's mention of coffin furni-
ture in the newest fashion is also probably what Warham had
in mind when he advertised in November 1734 that he made:
"Coffins of the newest fashion, never as yet made in Charles-
town.""^" Coffin furniture was described for the public in March
1739/40 by Josiah Claypoole, from Philadelphia, when he
announced his arrival in Charleston and stated that he had:
"Coffin Furniture of all sorts, either fiour'd, silver'd or plain. "^^
This reference to the range of furniture for coffins suggests that
the selection could be made by the deceased's family. Shop
accounts usually indicated that the quality of coffins sold ranged
from plain to fully trimmed. "Plain" indicated that the hard-
ware might have been iron. If this was the case, it is possible that
it was painted or close-plated and lacquered to simulate gold.'^^
Inventories at times included coffin furniture. Some were general
in description such as "parcel of coffin furniture" or brief, as
in the case of John Leay, a joiner, turner, chairmaker and house
carpenter, whose 24 February 1742/3 inventory included "7
Dozen Coffin handls and 2 Grose of Sqares." Others were very
informative. For example, the inventory of Samuel Kennaston,
a Charleston merchant, taken about 1754 listed: "10 Sets of
Lacqd. Coffined Work 2.5:7 Dozn. Squares 10/6 3 M Small Do
5/ 5 Sets Silvered Coffin Work & 5 Dozn. Squares 1.8.6 10 Sets


of Childs Squares & Nails 1.8.7." Merchant John Jones's April
1764 inventory also contained references to coffin furniture. These
included: "3 Setts Silver' d Coffin furniture 5/ -15- 1 Sett
Lackquered Furniture Do .4.6 2 Setts Childs Do [coffin furniture]
2/6 -5- 1 Sett Do .3.6 3 Setts Do Head Plates 5/6 .16.6 3 Setts
Silvered Do 4/ -12-."^-^

Just what amount or forms constituted a set is not known,
despite the frequency of the term's use. The April 1768 inven-
tory of William Hall, carpenter, contained "1 Broken Sett of Gilt
Coffin furniture." Further, in merchant Thomas Corker's shop
inventory of June 1771, seventy-five sets of coffin furniture
totalling £12.10 were listed.'*'* It is unfortunate that it is not known
how these sets varied, although descriptive advertisements such
as Weyman and Carne's notice in the South Carolina Gazette
on 6 April 1765 provide some insight:

[Imported from London] A compleat assortment of Coffin
furniture, consisting of contrast gilt, compartment ditto,
lacquered and plain ditto, mens, youths and childrens
handles, squares [for corners of coffins], lacing, large and
small letters and figures, brass nails and tacks, gilt, silver'd
and lacquer'd, black broad cloth, with swan-skin and
tassels for full trimm'd coffins.

Charles Watts's account books contain an enumeration of
"Goods purchased [in] Liverpool" in September 1805, amongst
which was "Coffin Furniture" with a description of what was
acquired. At this writing, the early-nineteenth century account
is the most extensive delineation alluding to all the goods that
made up coffin furniture. Unfortunately, his list is confusing and
too full of abbreviations for a reproduction in this study. It appears
that he mainly was purchasing metal coffin plates, described
variously as white, white and black, gilt, gilt and black, as well
as handles, nails, lace, and white "Angels & flowers."'*^ Watts,
a Charleston cabinetmaker, travelled in Britain from 1803 to 1804,
and 1805 to 1806. After that, he was rarely in Charleston and
he died in New York City. Thus, it is not clear just where the
goods listed in his accounts were stored. However, since Jacob
Sass was purchasing coffin furniture from the Watts firm in 1810
and as Robert Walker, another Charleston cabinetmaker and
Watts's former partner, was appointed attorney for his accounts

May, 1990 37

while he was travelling, it can be assumed that any goods being
sold by Watts were available in Charleston.

The meaning of some of the terms used in conjunction with
coffin furniture such as sets and fully trimmed, already discussed,
may never be completely defined. The exact nature of the lacing
mentioned in Weyman and Carne's 1765 notice and Watts's
accounts also is not known. That it was connected to the "Full
trimming with lace," from the previously cited Cabinet-makers
Philadelphia and London Book of Prices there is little doubt, but
what that meant is difficult to determine. The term appeared
again in Muckenfuss's 1808 inventory as "1 Lott Coffin Lace

$4. "46

There are some phrases and terms used by coffin makers and
undertakers working before 1820 that have been defined or whose
meanings have been gleaned in context. For example, part of the
task of furnishing coffins was putting a finish on the coffin
furniture. In June 1768 Isaac Motte and Company charged George
Wilkes, cabinetmaker, £2.14.0 for "Lacquering 6 Coffin Setts."
Finish was probably being referred to in May 1743 when the
inventory of John Bee, a Charleston carpenter, listed "A Parcel
of Coffin Furniture £20" and "3 Setts Coffin Stuff Prepared £8."
"Prepared" probably meant lacquered. Pine and cypress coffins
were occasionally stained and painted. Fife's account book
frequently mentioned "black'd" coffins, and in 1821 Thomas
Charnock described "a pine Coffin Stained" in one of his bills.
The only color of paint used that was indicated in documents
was black.'*''

For a more finished appearance and a higher price, coffins
apparently were both lined and covered with fabric. Farquhar
McGillivray, in 1762, charged Dr. Cholmondely Dering for "1
Full trim'd bik do [coffin] for Mrs. Dering 82 [and] 1 Full trim'd
lind Coffin yr [your] Son £16." Fife's account book reveals that
flannel was one of the fabrics used for this purpose. In July 1771
he charged £47 for: "a full trim'd cedar coffin lined with flannel";
for two such coffins, the price was £90.'*^ The Snipes account
recorded in the Poyas daybook cited earlier also indicated that
swanskin was used for lining coffins. The lining and covering of
the coffin was not always left up to the estate administrators or
coffin furnishers. Frances Legare, in November 1800, specified
in her will, already cited, that she wanted her coffin covered with
black broad cloth and lined with white flannel.

38 . MESDA

Finished brass and other metals were also part of the defi-
nition of coffin furniture. The "2 Yellow Ditto [Sets of Coffin
Furniture] $4 [and] 21 Single Yellow Plates" listed in Mucken-
fuss's estate appraisal probably referred to finished brass. The
estate of Ellicott Storey, a Beaufort, South Carolina, cabinetmaker,
contained "white coffin Furniture" in May 1755; in all likelihood
this was bright finished steel or tinned steel. Tinned steel also
was mentioned in William Randall's estate inventory of October
1755 as: "Some tin[ned] Rusty Coffin Work lO/."^^

Coffin nails also were included among the sets of coffin
furniture. In January 1758 Joseph Ward's estate inventory listed:
"25 Bundles of coffin & chair nails £25."^° Apparently, there
was a visual difference between coffin and chair nails. Edward
Weyman was one of the appraisers of Ward's estate and, as an
upholsterer, he probably was familiar with the types. This
separation of nails appeared in other inventories such as that of
John Jones taken in 1 764 : " 3 M white coffin nails 7 / 21/. 2 1/2
M Brass Do GIG.'' were listed after "1 Sett Desk Furnr. 3/6. 1
1/2 M Brass chair nails 8/8 -13-. 3 M Do GIG 19/6 1 1/2 M Do
5/6 8/3 1.7.9."^^ These coffin nails, then, were made of, or
perhaps headed with, white steel, tin, or brass. An entry in Fife's
account book indicates that coffin nails had decorative purposes
as well. In July 1772 he charged £8 for "a cedar coffin small with
handles I. M. in nails £8."^^ These were undoubtedly the initials
of the deceased.

Buttons were other decorative items used by coffin makers.
In Thomas Stocks's 1760 inventory they were listed as "to Coffen
Furn: To a m Buttons £3.12.6" and "to a parcel of Bullins
£2.2.6." The 14 April 1777 store inventory of James Milligan,
merchant, was somewhat more explicit: "8 Dozn Small Death
Head Buttons 2/ per doz -16- 16 Large Do Do 4/ pr doz 3.4.
1 3/4 Dozn Large Silver Death Head Do 3/9 .6.6 3/4." In 1785
George Cobham's store contained: "52 Bags of Death Head &
Cold [gold?] Buttons 2/ [£]5.4.."" An early nineteenth century
trade catalogue in the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur libraries
depicts a design for a coffin handle, which may have been metal
or brass. On the handle are two heads (fig. 9) that could be
interpreted as "death heads." Unfortunately, it is not clear how
buttons were used on coffins, and none have survived. It is possible
that they were sewn on the coffin lining as decoration.

The most descriptive coffin cited in Fife's account book was

May, 1990 39

made in 1775: "A mahog coffin lined with flannels gilt plates
and handle & mould[ings] at top and bottom £60."^'^ These plates
may have been head plates inscribed with the deceased's name
or initials for the lid of the coffin, such as those mentioned in
John Jones's 1764 inventory. There were various types of head
plates. Watts bought a number of varieties in Liverpool. Edward
G. Sass advertised in November 1818 that he had: "About 19
doz. gilt and white single coffin Plates" in his warehouse. Jacob
Sass, Edward's father, stated virtually the same thing in a
newspaper notice of the same year, but enumerated a little more:
"a few dozen gilt and white single Coffin Breast Plates." Jacob
Sass's 1836 inventory was even more descriptive: "34 large Coffin
Plates $8. 32 White Plates $4. 47 small plates $3.""


Figure 9, Detail of a page from a nineteenth century trade catalogue, showing
a design for a coffin handle with death heads. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library :
Pnnted Book and Penodtcal Collection, Trade Catalogue TS 575 B6lf* T. C.

Metal head plates were costly. In 1808, according to Mucken-
fuss's inventory, twenty-one brass plates were valued at $10 and
nine finished steel plates cost $4.40.^^ Evidence for less expensive
plates, which probably were wooden, was found in Alexander



Crawford's day book of 1787-90 which included charges made
to WiUiam Jones, cabinetmaker, in October and November of
1788 for: "Painting a coffin 0.4.8. Ditto do Marken plate 0.4.8.
painting a coffin plate 0.4.8." For two years Crawford painted
coffin plates for Jones. He also painted them for George Watson,
another cabinetmaker, in 1787 and Fowler and Brodie, carpenters,
in 1791, charging 4^.9^/. for two plates." Another painter, James
Badger, advertised in 1789: "Coffin plates neatly lettered, at two
shillings each, cash."^^ The least expensive way of placing a name
on a coffin was to form the deceased's initials with nails. For
example, the 1678 cedar coffin uncovered at St. Michael's Church
in Charleston after the 1886 earthquake was marked "J O B"
and "1678" with brass nails. Elfe also used nails to letter a coffin
he made for John Miles in 1772.

The remarkable survival of coffin furniture from a very
important Williamsburg funeral illustrates some of the pieces
discussed above; it is likely that the Williamsburg versions of these
components did not differ much from their Charleston counter-
parts. The 15 October 1770 death of Norborne Berkeley, Baron
de Botetourt (Lord Botetourt), shortly after he became the
governor-general and commander in chief of the Virginia colony
in 1763, precipitated such a response from his constituents that
£700 was spent on his funeral. Among these costs were
Williamsburg silversmith William Wadill's 19 October 1770
charges to Botetourt's estate, namely: "To 8 Silver handles and
16 escutcheons for his Lordships Coffin £12. To 1 Large Silver
plate engrav'd [£] 8."^^ Despite a turbulent past, the silver coffin
plate (fig. 10) has survived, as have twelve of the silver handles
and escutcheons with their posts (figs. 11, 12).*^° Although
Botetourt's coffin furniture was most likely more elaborate than
most, it is possible that some of the wealthier and more impor-
tant Charlestonians would have had coffins furnished similarly.

After the coffin was constructed and furnished and the body
laid in state, the coffin had to be conveyed to the burial ground.
An 1805 Charleston city ordinance revealed that all bodies were
not treated with care and consideration regarding the funeral
procession. This ordinance "to prevent the throwing of dead
human bodies into the rivers, creeks, or marshes, within limits
of the harbor of Charleston" was in April 1807 so "shamefully
violated, in a manner shocking to humanity, outrageous to
common decency, and greatly endangering the health of the
citizens" that a reward of $200 was offered for the apprehension

May, 1990 4l




a: d: mdcclxx


Figure 10. Silver coffin plate, attributed to William Wadill, inscribed
MDCCLXX/ AET LIII/' Williamsburg, 1770. HO A 10", WO A 3 1/4".
Collection of the College of William and Mary, photograph courtesy of the

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