Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

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

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Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.



Figure 11. Silver coffin handles and escutcheons, attributed to William Wadill
Williamsburg, 1770. Escutcheon: HO A 2%". WO A I'h". Courtesy of Univer-
sity Archives, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

May, 1990


Figure 12. Silver coffin handles, escutcheons, and posts, attributed to William
Wadtll, Williamsburg 1770. Bales: LOA 4'/4." Posts: LOA P/s." Courtesy of
University Archives. Swem Library, College of William and Mary.



of offenders."^' However, for the most part, the coffin was solemnly
and carefully transported in some manner to the burial ground.
It can be assumed that the artisan performing the role of under-
taker was involved in this process; however, Charleston records
are not forthcoming on the matter. Charleston nineteenth century
newspapers abound with notices similar to the following, which
ran in the Southern Patriot and Commercial Advertiser on 3 June
1817: "The Friends and Acquaintances of Messrs. Jacob Sass and
John E. Schirmer, are requested to attend the Funeral of Mrs.
MARGARET H. SCHIRMER, This Afternoon, at 5 o'clock, from
No. 100, Queen Street." From this announcement it can be
inferred that, as the funeral was being held in a private home,
the coffin had to be carried in some way to the graveyard. In some
cases this would have been a good distance, and it is difficult
to envision human carriers bearing such a weight for such a time.
It is probable that some sort of hearse or carriage, even if it was
a simple wagon, was used. For example, the charges to Elizabeth
Sindrey's estate included payment made to Peter Manigault "for
his cart and horses and his own attendance to carry the Corps
up to his plantation." That document is the only Charleston
record that mentions any method of carrying a coffin or corpse.
A search of the advertisements, receipts, and effects of Charleston's
coachmakers, in hopes that they might have alluded to making
a hearse or related vehicle, came to naught. Such an expensive
item was made to order and undoubtedly would not be offered
for sale in an advertisement.

The final part of the burial sometimes required a woodworker's
further services, if a wooden marker was used to identify the grave
site rather than one made of stone. Obtaining a stone grave marker
in Charleston meant that a local stone carver depended upon the
importation of stone either as dressed slabs or partly finished
gravestones. The expense involved in the purchasing of an
imported stone could not be met by all families, and thus wooden
grave boards were a viable alternative. Probably the best-known
reference to a wooden grave marker is in Rip Van Winkle. When
Van Winkle awoke and returned to his village, he was told that
Nicholas Vedder was "'dead and gone these eighteen years! There
was a wooden tombstone in the church-yard that used to tell all
about him, but that's rotted and gone too.'"^^

Charleston records frequently mention wooden grave boards,
and a few actual examples have been recorded. In 1809 David
Ramsay mentioned the earliest Charleston wooden grave marker

May, 1990 45

(1706) when he discussed the attributes of red cedar. The design
of this cedar grave marker was not discussed, but it is likely that
it followed a traditional eighteenth century form that research
has revealed had precedents in Great Britain, and, according to
documents, was common in New England. This form, generally
referred to as "posts and rail," had its roots in the south-central
part of England where an abundance of wood and difficulties
transporting stone resulted in a preference for wooden grave
boards. A mid-seventeenth century example found in a graveyard
in Sussex consists of an inscribed rail mounted between two
upright posts, a design used well into the nineteenth century. ^^
Other examples of the posts and rail form of wooden grave boards
have been observed in the graveyard of St. Mary's and St.
Clement's Church (fig. 13) in Clavering, Essex, as well as in the
Hampstead area of London.

Figure 13. Grave board in the churchyard of St. Mary and St. Clement,
Clavenng, Essex, England, c. 1800. Oak. HO A (at posts) 40", WO A 77". MRF



Figure 14. Grave board in the churchyard of St. Michael's, inscnbed "[top
missing] of Mary Ann Luyten Wife ofWillm. luyteni Died Sept. 9th 1770
in the 27 th year of her Age, " Charleston. Cypress. HOA (at post) 30 1/2",
WOA 83". Photograph courtesy of Hillyer Rudisill. Historian, St. Michael's

The migration of seventeenth century woodworkers from the
southern English counties to New England, according to records,
brought the posts and rail style to New England, although no
actual examples have survived there. Suffolk and Middlesex
County, Massachusetts, probate records contained several charges
mentioning the form from 1658 to 1679, such as "a coffin &
Railes for the Grave" and "to Mr. Carter Joiner for the Coffine
posts. ' ' There was a variation in terminology in an Essex County,
Massachusetts, account for 1710 in which Samuel Symonds, a
joiner, was paid for "two fram[e]s set on fathers and mothers
grave." Benno Forman suggested that frames could be a descrip-
tion of posts and rails. '''^

Low Country records do not use the phrase posts and rail,
although the wording of certain documents suggests that the form
was used. However, two actual posts and rail grave boards have
survived, representing many that have long since disappeared from
the Low Country soil. Of the two, only one (fig. 14) exhibits a
legible inscription and date. This board, two posts with a single

May, 1990


cypress board, is inscribed "[top lost] of Mary Ann Luyten Wife
of Willm. Luyten/Died Sept 9th 1770 in the 27th year of her
Age"; Mrs. Luyten was buried in St. Michael's graveyard in
Charleston. Her husband was a Charleston cabinetmaker who was
active at the time of her death, and it is possible that he made
the grave board himself. It is missing a portion of its top,
undoubtedly a low curve which, when complete, resembled the
end of a bedstead. The two posts, of which only one is original,
were pointed and fluted on the front and rear. Tenoned into these
was the incised board which was filled with white paint. A
photograph of the board was published in 1906, and its descrip-
tion stated that it was "Formerly a much used form of memorial."
The author apparently was aware of others. ^^ This grave board
has now been replaced with a modern rendition of the original.
Another similar grave board has been placed on a circa 1775 child's
grave in St. Michael's graveyard, but it is modern and does not
necessarily represent an original.

Figure 15. Grave board, St. James Santee, South Carolina, late eighteenth
century. Cypress. HOA (at posts) 42", WVA 76 1/2". MRF-13,808.

The other example (fig. 15) of a surviving posts and rail grave
board was in the graveyard of the Old Parish Church of St. James
Santee, near Echaw Creek. Until it was removed in 1986, it was
the only other known example of its type in situ. Now in the
Charleston Museum, this grave board has lost one post, and its



remaining post and cypress inscription board have suffered the
ravages of a graveyard fire. The inscription on both sides was
painted, but not incised. Although the soft cypress board was
worn away, the inscription was protected from the elements.
Raised lettering now devoid of paint was the result. There is a
verse on each side; however, there is no name or death date. The
style of the lettering appears to be late eighteenth century, as
does the first verse which has been seen in similar literature

Remember man now passing by,
What you [are] now, so once was I.
As I am now, so must you be,
Therefore prepare to follow me.

The reverse reads:

Far distant from my [najtive Land:
O'er Neptunes W[ater] I've Cros'd
In[t]urr'd I am with S[trangers] here,
But with my K [illegible]

The inscription board is chamfered on its top and peaks in the
center. There appears to have been a nailed element, probably
of lead, which covered an inch of the top edge perhaps to protect
it from the elements. The smgle surviving top notched post
receives the board's tenon and is affixed with three pegs; like
the Luyten example, it also resembles the end of a bedstead.
Other evidence indicates the popularity of posts and rail grave
boards in Charleston. For example, two of several extant paintings
by the Charleston artist Francis C. Hill (1784-1857) depict a total
of eight posts and rail grave boards. Active in Charleston from
1799 to 1843 and a member of St. John's Lutheran Church and
the German Friendly Society, Hill painted, in oil, two views of
his church, one of which, entitled "Back View" (fig. 16), was
signed and dated in 1818. It can be assumed that the other,
"South View," (fig. 17) was done about the same time; the
wooden church was removed in 1818. The grave boards
represented in both paintings are the same peaked board style
as the St. James Santee board, and the posts have knob tops. The
grave boards painted in detail have black outlines that surround
the bold initials of the deceased. Two smaller representations
possibly depict children's graves.

May, 1990 49

Figure lb. St. John's Lutheran Church, East View, oil on canvas, Francis C.
Hi/l (1784-1857), Charleston, 1818. HOA 17", WO A 25 1/4". MRFS-9U1.
This painting is signed: ' 'F. C. Hill fecit 1818." The grave board is in the lower
left-hand corner under the tree.

Figure 16a. Detail of Figure 16.



Figure 17. St. John's Luthern Church, South View, oil on canvas. Francis C.
Hill. Charleston, c. 1818. HOA'' 18 1/2", WVA 24 1/4". MRFS-9155. Seven
grave boards are portrayed in the lower part of this view.


*.•*. *:■

v^'i "^ - ^

m '5 *-.

«*« -1=, fa ** -

Figure 1 7a. Detail of Figure 1 7.

May, 1990


Hill's sketchbook, which contains the original 1799 water-
color sketches of both paintings, also includes a watercolor of a
1784 single flat grave board (fig. 18), the other form of wooden
marker popular in Charleston in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries. ^^ A basket of flowers in a down-curved C-scroll
supported by paired S-scrolls was carved on its top, surmounting
a rope-bordered square that contains a verse inscription and a
1784 date. The name of the deceased was omitted. Hill iden-
tified the sketch as "Grave board in Lutheran Church Yard
Charleston So. Ca. Copied from the Original by Francis C. Hill,
June 1835." It is unfortunate that none of these boards have
survived, for their rococo carving and polychrome finish must have
added a startling warmth to segments of the graveyard. Henry
Hainsdorff, a Charleston carver and gilder, may have done the
type of work described above. When he died in February 1796,
his estate inventory listed the following trade related material:
"1 Lot carved Work [£] 8. ... 2 Chests of Carvers tools
100/ ... 1 lot carved Graves and Horses Heads 14/ [for a total
of] 15. 16." Alexander Crawford undoubtedly lettered such grave
boards. Among the 30 April 1790 charges recorded in his daybook
were "Mrs. Chambers . . . to 214 Letter[s] [of] writting on A
Grave board . . . £2.0.0. "^^

The use of grave boards as markers and their placement in
graveyards in Charleston before 1820 can be gleaned from church
records and city regulations. In the vestry minutes of St. Philip's
Church for 4 March 1773, the following notation was found:

Whereas it has been found that the erection of head &
foot stones & wooden monuments in the Churchyard is
attended with the same inconvenience in the erection of
Tomb Stones ... no person or persons be hereto allowed
to erect or [illegible] the same in the said Yard but that
he or they have liberty to place them even with the surface
of the earth or against the back of the Yard.

At a meeting the following month, the vestry of another
Charleston Church, St. Michael's, during a discussion of graveyard
space, resolved that: "no Inclosures should be put up in the said
Church Yard. Also that no Board extending the Length of the
Graves should be allo'd off — and that none but Board or Stone
at the Head & Feet of Graves should be permitted. "<^^ It would

52 ■ MESDA

'/t-'tac /^iy/,r^. i\x^vL-^. ^, j^ (/.,,<'/. '/,i ^a/








V%rf.^'\ttb t\lP, '■'t->t,^^


reiTiLEMBEK .aaw7, wifely TAse _ die


^,,,.^.>^w.-,^.> ^.-^_


Figure 18. Grave Board in Lutheran Church Yard, watercolor sketch, Francis
C. Hill. Charleston, 1833. Dimensions not recorded. MRF S-9314.

May, 1990


seem from the latter restriction that a style of grave identification
was being eliminated. If the vestry was not referring to fencing
or boarding around graves, it is possible that they were discussing
a type of posts and rail marking similar to the Luyten example
that was run lengthwise with the grave. It is no wonder that, with
space at a premium, the posts and rail form eventually became
inconvenient in Charleston. In the more spacious yards of the
smaller churches outside the city, which were not confined by
streets, this custom could continue, hence the later date of the
St. James Santee board.

Plain wooden grave boards remained in favor in the nineteenth
century long after the disappearance of posts and rails, for they
were inexpensive. A city ordinance ratified on 18 August 1802
outlined charges arising from burials. Among these were: "For
opening ditto [a grave], and attending to the erection of any form
over a grave, if of wood [$].25 . . . For ditto, ditto, ifof any other
materials than wood [Sjl."^^ Edward Hooker's 1805-1808 diary
included a description of the Columbia, South Carolina, public
burial ground that also supports the concept that any markers
other than plain wooden grave boards were too costly for those
interred within the grounds:

The public burying ground is in a pleasant and retired
spot, east of the town — surrounded on three sides by
copses of native pines which serve to render it suitably
solemn. It has however a neglected appearance, not being
enclosed by a fence, except in particular spots that have
palings around the graves of particular families. These
palings are almost the only monuments. A very few graves
have wooden ones carved and painted in resemblance of
stone, with inscriptions; and one or two have stones. I
suppose the scarcity of either of freestone or marble is the
reason of their using wood; for no part of the State that
I have yet seen gives the smallest indication of such
substances. Indeed regular stones of any quality are
extremly scarce here; so that even the foundations of houses
and the walls of wells, that have any walls at all, are made
of brick. "^0

Vacant spaces between surviving stone markers in Charleston
churchyards are also mute testimony to the popularity of plain
wooden grave markers. Although none survive in Charleston, in


Southern coastal and backcountry graveyards, a few plain grave
boards, now devoid of both inscription and paint have been
found. During the MESDA field research program, grave boards
were observed in rural graveyards from northern Virginia (fig.
19) to Beaufort, South Carolina (fig. 20). In Shenandoah County,
Virginia, the estate of Christian Stover, Jr., in 1813, contained
a voucher for cash "paid William Wright for making 2 tomb
boards for the grave of said deed. pr. rect [$]5.25."^' It

Figure 19- Grave boards, Old Providence Meetuig House, Spotswood, Virginia,
1793. Walnut. Headboard: HO A 25", WO A 16 112". MRF S- 9496B.

May, 1990


is also possible that these less decorative single boards could have
been interim markers placed at the burial site until marble or
stone markers could be cut.

Figure 20. Grave hoard. St. Helena 's Church, Beaufort. South Carolina, early
nineteenth century. Cypress. Dimensions not recorded. MRF S-l4,222.



A type of marker common in New England and related to
the grave board, a hatchment, apparently was not part of
Charleston burial traditions. Hatchments were defined by Samuel
Johnson as "Armorial escutchcon[s] placed over a door at a
funeral," and often were referred to as escutcheons or scutcheons
in New England documents. Samuel Sewell's diary, a record of
the daily details of a Massachusetts minister from 1674 to 1729,
included the following: "Mourning Coach also and Horses in
Mourning: Scutcheon on their sides and Deaths heads on their
foreheads. . . . Scutchesons on the Pall. . . . Scutchesons on the
Coffin." Apparently it was traditional to hang the hatchment
outside the deceased's house during the mourning period, usually
six months to a year, and then move it to the church." In
Charleston no such evidence has been found. In fact, the existence
of any southern-made hatchments is restricted to a sole surviving
example (fig. 21) found at the Huguenot church of St. James,
Goose Creek, South Carolina. ^^ This hatchment, representing the

Figure 21 . Hatchment, Izard family coat of arms, St. James Goose Creek Church.
South Carolina, 1745. Cypress. HOA 48 5/16": U'VA 47 1/2": DOA {outside
frame) 5". MRF S-98^9.

May, 1990


coat of arms of Ralph Izard, is painted on cypress boards and
bordered with a frame five inches deep. Unfortunately, records
for the church do not exist, so it is not known when the hatch-
ment was hung in the church. Izard died in 1743, and therefore
it is likely that the hatchment was made then.

A search of Charleston painters' and artists' advertisements
for the mention of hatchments also proved fruitless, although
Bishop Roberts, in 1735, did declare "that Portrait-painting and
engraving. Heraldry and House painting are undertaken and
performed expeditiously in a good manner." "Heraldry" could
have signified hatchments and painted coats of arms. A similar
reference was made by Jeremiah Theus in a September 1740 notice
that: "Gentlemen and Ladies may have their Pictures drawn,
likewise Landskips of all sizes, Crests and Coats of Arms for
Coaches or Chaises. ""^'^ It is apparent that Roberts and Theus had
the skills to paint hatchments if asked. Another, perhaps stronger
possibility for a Charleston hatchment painter was Daniel Badger
I, who moved to Charleston in 1735 from Boston, where there
was much evidence of hatchment artistry.

If hatchments were part of some Charleston funerals, it is not
likely that they were documented. Most hatchments were painted
after a death and therefore would not have been included in estate
inventories unless they were kept in a dwelling. It is possible that
ambiguous phrases in some appraisals, such as "family arms"
or "family piece," might have been alluding to hatchments;
however, these terms were just as likely describing other types
of heraldry. For example, the 1739 inventory of Hannah Gale's
estate listed "painted Smith's arms."^^ Mrs. Gale was the widow
of Charleston blacksmith Daniel Gale, and the listing probably
meant a coat of arms representing the blacksmith's trade. A
reference to a coat of arms also should not be misconstrued. In
New England the term generally signified a needlework family
crest. '''^ A Charleston record evincing the existence of such a piece
of needlework was found in a 1765 letter from Peter Manigault
in Charleston, to Major Edward Bromley in Pensacola, Florida,
informing him of the death of a Tom Bromley: "He desired I
would Keep for you the Family Coat of Arms, which I now have
by me & would send you by this Conveyance, But that I hope
for the Satisfaction of seeing you in Carolina, when I shall have
the pleasure of delivering it with my own hands.""

As suggested earlier, it is most likely that Charlestonians, as
a rule, did not adhere to any hatchment tradition. AH the evidence


found in England and New England indicates that hatchments
mainly were used from the seventeenth to the mid- eighteenth
centuries. Since the Low Country was settled later than New
England, hatchments probably never really came into vogue there.

It is unfortunate that only documents concerning the con-
struction of coffins in Charleston and their accompanying dressings
and traditions can be cited and not physical examples from either
crypt or archaeological investigation. The examination of actual
Charleston coffins is vital to the understanding of Low Country
burial customs. A British example of such investigation was the
1972 opening of a vault at the condemned Normanton Hall
church site near Leeds, Yorkshire, which revealed sixteen Georgian
period coffins, one of which, according to earlier research, had
been made by Thomas Chippendale. Seventeenth century coffin
design also is being investigated by some archaeologists from
remains in Virginia as well as tombs and vaults in England. ^^
Unfortunately, the eighteenth century burial process, particularly
in the Low Country, has been woefully neglected; there have been
no excavations of any Charleston eighteenth century graves. Late
nineteenth and twentieth century graves, however, are occasionally
moved, offering researchers the opportunity of examining the
evidence of that period. ''^

It can be seen from this study that the Charleston wood-
workers' roles in the undertaking process were varied. Unfor-
tunately, scanty documentation and the lack of actual coffins for
examination leave much of their involvement to conjecture and
hypothesis. As other research has shown, the average Charleston
cabinetmaker could not earn a living only making furniture, and
undertaking appears to have been his most natural recourse for
supplementing his income. However, only careful and supervised
archaeological investigation of actual grave sites and tombs can
shed light on the exact products and services he offered.

May, 1990 59


1 . Abraham LeSueur (d. 1740) was originally from Normandy. Although there
are records of him in Charleston as early as 1696, Mrs. Sindrey's accounts
are the first documents that mention his trade; he was active until about
1719. Agnes Leland Baldwin, First Settlers of South Carolina. 1670-1700
(Easley, S.C, 1986), l4l.

2. Elizabeth Sindrey Estate Account Book, 1705-20, 1, 3, 21. Collection of
the South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, S.C.

3. Wills, No. 9, 1760-64 [transcript], Charleston County, S.C, 278; all primary
sources cited hereafter, unless otherwise noted, are Charleston County.

4. Record of Wills, 1800-1807, 61; Mabel L. Webber, comp., "Dr. John
Rutjedge and His Descendants," South Carolina Histoncal & Genealogical
Magazine (hereafter cited as SCHGM) 31 (1930): 18.

5. Wills, etc., 6lB, 1726-27 [transcript], 439; Charleston South Carolina
Gazette, 11 and 14 Aug. 1736; Miscellaneous Records, 1743-46, 23.

6. S. C. Gazette, 4 Sept. 1736.

7. Inventories, 94A-B, 1771-74, 296.

8. Robert Latham, ed.. The Illustrated Pepys (Berkeley, Cal., 1978), 33-4.

9. Yvonne Brunhammer and Monique Dejayet, Meubles et Ensemble Epoque
Moyen Age et Renaissance (Paris, 1966), 16, 68.

10. Wills, etc., 77A-B, 1748-51, 270-2.

11. Wills, etc., 85B, 1758-61 [transcript], 524; Inventories, D, 1800-18, 476-7;
E, 1810-18, 270.

12. Charleston South Carolina Gazette and Timothy and Mason's Daily
Advertiser, 7 Oct. 1795; Ch-iA^^ton Strength of the People , 17 Aug. 1809.

13. Thomas Elfe Account Book, account 64, Charleston Library Society,
Charleston, S.C.

14. Charleston State Gazette of South Carolina, 5 July 1792; Charleston City
Gazette and Advertiser, 1 Jan. 1793.

15. Cash Received and Paid Away by the Treasurer of the Independent
Congregational Church, 31 Mar. 1800, Records of the Independent
Congregational Church, Charleston.

16. St. Michael's Account Book, 1798-1833, No. 17, 63, South Carolina
Historical Society; St. Michael's Calendar, 1751-1900, Treasurer's Vouchers,
7 Aug. 1817.

17. Poor House Journal, 1, 1801-10, 20 Dec. 1802, City of Charleston Archives;
Charleston Courier, 6 Nov. 1819.

18. Philip M. Hammer and George C. Rogers, Jr., eds.. The Papers of Henry
Laurens 2 (Columbia, S.C, 1977), 3-4.

19. James Poyas Day Book (rough copy), 1 Mar. 1764-June 1765, 99, 100, 102,
July 1765-Dec. 1766, 368, South Carolina Historical Society; James Poyas
Day Book (finished copy), 1 Feb. 1760-29 Dec. 1762, 128, 496, 1 January
1763-30 April 1765, 443, 496, Charleston Museum.

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