In the age before embalming and refrigerated storage, keeping bodies preserved and cool was a serious issue for undertakers and families alike.
If a body had to be sent across the country or was expected to be displayed for a longer period of time or in a particularly hot climate, keeping the deceased in a presentable form was a very real problem.
During the American Civil War (1861-65) the process of moving soldiers’ bodies across the country heralded the golden age of embalming. Before this, embalming was a rather simplistic process, used for the preservation of educational and scientific specimens. However, during the war, embalmers made their living, filling bodies with arsenic to preserve them as they made their way to their final resting place. While functional, embalmers were seen as vultures, taking advantage of the grieving and maiming bodies in the process.
When embalming made its way off the battlefield and into the western public consciousness, it was a very pricey process, reserved to the wealthy and privileged. It was also a skill to be found in cities, so those in outlying towns and villages had to find their own solutions. Subsequently, different alternatives were sought – whether they were designed to be cheaper or less invasive, Victorian ingenuity did not disappoint.
Solutions to death care problems in the 19th century were particularly creative, with coffin and corpse-monitoring patents flooding the patent office, if not the market. There were safety coffins, caskets with windows and elaborate bells and pulleys to be sure the deceased really was…deceased. In amongst these weird and wonderful solutions to the ever-changing world of death and preservation was the ice casket.
The true inventor of the ice casket is unclear as several similar patents were approved in the period of 1870-71. Within this 12 month period, John Gravenstine and Disbrow & Van Cleve submitted their inventions for approval, and all proved to be very popular to the American public. While such novelties as Fisk iron caskets had a relatively short time in the sun, ice caskets enjoyed a 30-year reign, undergoing various changes along the way.
As recorded by the Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America,
‘It wasn’t long before other casket makers jumped on the idea. J. C. Taylor in New York made their “celebrated” ice casket (see advertisement). As late as 1893, they turned the production of their ice caskets over to the Hornthal Company in New York. Hornthal was a large manufacturer of caskets at that time.’
While embalming remained out of reach, ice was the best option for families who wanted to hold on to their loved ones for several days.
The most striking example of ice caskets is arguably John Gravenstine’s ‘Corpse-Preserving Casket’ from 1871.
Gravenstine’s invention amounted to a smaller ice box attached to the main, sealed casket. The upper box was essentially a mobile refrigerator, which was advertised as being suitable for not simply caskets, but for ‘refrigerators, or to any closed vessel within which it is desired to maintain animal or vegetable matter in a cool condition.’ The first ice-cooled box car had been around since 1851, so was a newly established technology, primed for taking in new directions. For the ice casket to be truly functional, the lower casket had to be airtight, otherwise, the body would simply decay in a very cold environment.
Another ice casket incorporated a tilting/movable viewing window, which was already popular in many other coffin and casket companies. J.C Taylor’s casket (advert shown above) featured such a window, allowing family members to see the deceased’s face, moving the angle of the window to avoid glare. This would also protect the body from the warm air of the family’s breath and maintain the temperature controlled space of the casket.
The Disbrow and Van Cleve casket of 1876 labelled their work as the ‘Centennial’ preserver, cashing in on the ever-popular desire to preserve and protect the body, committing it to the earth, but without thought for the necessity of decay.
These early caskets were lined with felt, which was visually pleasant but could be impractical for leakages. By 1881, Van Cleve (now free from Disbrow) boasted of lining his caskets with asphaltum, which was a sticky, tar-like material that was found in the Gulf of Mexico. It had been widely used as an adhesive by Native Americans, but Van Cleve’s claims surpassed any seen before.
‘Van Cleve claimed that his asphaltum did everything from eliminating odours to disinfecting the casket and reducing the sweating on the outside of the caskets from the ice. He proudly proclaimed this version his “deodorized” corpse preserver.’ (cfsaa)
While on display in the home, the ice within the caskets would melt and drop against the base of the container, which, in a particularly quiet environment, could give a rather terrifying impression. Many caskets had small holes in the ice compartment, where water would run off into a bucket, signalling the need for ice to be replenished.
Ice caskets, or ‘corpse-preservers’ in their many forms, were ultimately a temporary solution to fulfil the mourning needs of a family or culture. While some groups may want to display their loved one for a day or two, families of Irish descent for example, may want to keep their loved one in the house for longer. After this period had ended, the deceased was transferred into a standard casket or coffin for burial.
While the ice casket was a lucrative field for many years, it soon faded into obscurity as the cost of embalming lowered and families spent less time with the deceased. There are few ice coffins remaining today, and those that do, sit in American museums such as at Heaton-Bowman-Smith and Sidenfaden funeral chapel, the Laurel Hill Cemetery, Connecticut Historical Society and in envied private collections.
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