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Great Glass Coffin Scam: When Hucksters Sold the Fantasy of Death Without Decay

Sealed with a tube of silicone that joined two glass halves, the casket was promised as an airtight and watertight vessel for the dead.

Collectors Weekly

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Still from Walt Disney's 'Snow White'

The glass coffin in the 1937 Walt Disney film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” bears no resemblance to actual glass caskets.

“One More Opportunity Knocks at Your Door,” declared an advertisement in the November 9, 1916, issue of the “Oklahoma City Times.” The tantalizing notice shared column space with sales pitches for hair tonics and headache cures and offered its own remedy for one of life’s mortal problems. The ad copy guaranteed that this business venture was fail-safe, with shares of stocks ready to be purchased. The demand for this wondrous new product would only increase, as there would always be new customers in need of such a service. It was “water and vermin proof,” it would “last in the earth forever,” and it would not “permit our loved ones to live in a pond of water as is usually the case.” It was a glass coffin.

The opportunity knocking was a solution to the rot of death; it would save the body from the grip of the grim reaper, which decayed flesh to bone. “There is no comparison between it and any other casket manufactured at the present time, and they will be put in competition with all other grades of burial caskets—even to the common wooden ones,” it continued. Unlike wooden caskets, it would not rot. It would preserve flesh from the elements; it would secure the departed from the dirt and worms. An accompanying photograph depicts the American Glass Casket Company Plant in Ada, Oklahoma. In a June 6, 1918, issue of the “North Carolina Christian Advocate,” the DeCamp Glass Casket Company in Chattanooga, Tennessee, similarly compared the opportunity to being an original investor in “Ford, Coca-Cola or Bell Telephone.”

Despite these numerous notices in early 1900s newspapers, and their incredible claims, it is doubtful more than a handful of glass caskets were made. Numerous glass-casket companies popped up around the country in the early 1900s, from the Modern Glass Company in Toledo, Ohio, to the Glass Casket Corporation in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Most of these companies were marketing caskets based on a design by James DeCamp of Blackwell, Oklahoma, who received the first of several glass-casket-related patents in 1915. Sealed with a tube of silicone that joined two glass halves, the casket was promised as an airtight and watertight vessel for the dead.

An authentic glass casket with a stand by DeCamp Consolidated Glass Casket Co., made in Muskogee, Oklahoma, circa 1920-’29. (Gift of Fred Hunter, courtesy Corning Museum of Glass)

Of those that were made, few survive, and not only because they were objects meant to be buried. Creating a glass casket large enough to hold an adult corpse was an incredible undertaking, so to speak. The American Glass Casket Company stated in 1921 that their huge casket press, which measured 13 feet tall and 25 feet long, was the biggest such press in the world. The lid and base that formed the casket would be some of the most massive pieces of pressed glass ever produced. The casket would weigh hundreds of pounds (and, being glass, would break if dropped by the burdened pallbearer).

Thus, the few that exist are mostly small. “We have a child’s glass casket as well as a salesman’s sample made by the American Glass Casket Company in the collection of the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Arts [in Millville, New Jersey],” said Dianne Wood, curatorial assistant at the museum. “One of our young visitors called the salesman’s sample a ‘Barbie Doll casket’ if that gives you a sense of the size.”

With this scaled-down casket, fit for a morbid child’s toy but not the burial of any humans, salesmen could travel the countryside, knock on doors, and sell shares in a new casket company to regular folk. Late 19th- and early 20th-century salesmen often carried miniatures of products, which operated just like full-size versions, to make customer pitches. This included items related to the burgeoning funerary business, supported by the expansion of industrialized manufacturing at the end of the 19th century, as well as the rise of funeral directors, embalming, for-profit cemeteries, and other developments that transformed death into a big business. A salesman might carry a case that revealed a tiny burial vault, with a granite top that could be lifted to show a grave lodged among some fake grass, or miniature coffins with removable lace pillows and working clasps. Traveling salesmen of this era also sold more intangible products, like stock and bonds, so that by the 1910s, states like Louisiana were passing blue-sky laws specifically aimed at these agents to protect consumers from fraud.

The Crystal Glass Casket Company storefront in Washington, D.C., circa 1920, at 605 15th Street N.W., “directly opposite U.S. Treasury.” (Courtesy the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division)

Both examples of glass caskets at the Museum of American Glass were gifted by Jean Wilson, who traveled across the country with her husband, Jim, collecting information on glass caskets. Gay LeCleire Taylor, former curator at the museum, and Jane Shadel Spillman, former American glass curator at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, published a pair of articles in the National American Glass Club’s 2002 “Glass Club Bulletin” based on these materials. They reveal the rapid rise of glass-casket speculation, and its quick descent into accusations of deception.

“Beginning in May 1916, ‘The Casket’ [a trade journal for funeral directors] made a point of investigating the companies which claimed to produce glass caskets and exposing them as frauds,” Spillman writes. “Most of these articles were directed at the various DeCamp companies, principally because their prospectuses and their salesmen (who targeted funeral directors) made such extravagant claims for the value of the stock when none of the companies had yet produced anything larger than a sample casket.”

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An engraved $10 stock certificate for the Crystal Glass Casket Company, issued in 1920. (Via Scripophily)

There are a couple of DeCamp-style full-size glass caskets in existence. One is at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas, another from the 1920s is in the Corning Museum of Glass. Curiously, both were decorated with linings that hide their material’s translucence.

“The coffin in our collection doesn’t look like it is made of glass,” explained Rebecca Hopman, Corning Museum outreach librarian. “The outside is covered in doeskin embossed with leaves and flowers and is reinforced by metal bands, and the inside is lined with more fabric. Many people—myself included—might expect something along the lines of Snow White’s coffin from the 1937 Disney film, but manufacturers were more interested in using glass to achieve a hermetic seal, rather than for its transparency.”

The development of the glass casket reflected wider shifts in burial trends in the United States. For centuries, most Americans were perfectly fine taking care of their dead at home, and burying them in plain pine boxes, if any casket at all. As the skulls and bones carved on Colonial-era tombstones show, the putrefaction of death was an accepted part of this transition. Then came the 19th century, and the Industrial Revolution that facilitated a new funerary industry and the new profession of funeral director.

The showroom at the Crystal Glass Casket Company in Washington, D.C., circa 1920. (Courtesy the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division)

Metal caskets in particular were heavily marketed and continue to dominate our contemporary funeral parlors. Some examples had glass panes to view the deceased, such as Almond D. Fisk’s “Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal” design, sometimes called the “Fisk Mummy” for its sarcophagus-like shape. As Jessica Mitford wrote in her influential 1963 book The American Way of Death, some “church wardens protested that if parishioners were to get into the habit of burying their dead in coffins made proof against normal decay, in a few generations there would be no burial space left.”

A 1920s catalog for the Crystal Glass Casket Company in Washington, D.C., now in the Corning Museum Rakow Library, describes their caskets as “hermetically sealed by applying a composition which renders the casket air-tight, water-tight, vermin-proof and absolutely sanitary, thus assuring a perfect burial receptacle.” Embalming, too, which emerged in the 19th century, contributed to this modern battle against decomposition. Dr. Thomas Holmes, considered the father of embalming for his work on hundreds of bodies during the Civil War, even got into the possibilities of glass coffins, although he was obsessed with their potential to offer an eternal window to the dead’s embalmed visage.

In an 1896 article from “New York Journal,” the Brooklyn-based Holmes recounts how a glass coffin placed underground, equipped with incandescent lights and connected to a metal pipe could allow the “faces of the dead” to be “at all times visible […] though six feet may separate the friends on the surface from the occupants of the grave.”

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Glass casket at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas. (Courtesy National Museum of Funeral History)

Holmes was then in his later years, and may have been slipping a bit. Local journalists seemed to delight in covering his latest grotesque innovation. In an 1895 report in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” he crows that bodies “can be petrified and that statues in future may be made without labor of the sculptor.” The author noted that the aging Holmes kept “many subjects for nightmares” in his anatomical collection, like a “petrified arm” that was “in his study under a glass bell” (the newspaper included an illustration). His wife, meanwhile, after a rant about glass caskets, reportedly “threw up her hands and with a horrified expression exclaimed: ‘My, gracious doctor! I never heard you go on so! As for me, I want to return to dust as God intended I should.’”

However, Holmes wasn’t the first to link glass with burials—in fact, the associations between glass and death dates back hundreds of years. Venetian glass, for instance, was so prized for its purity that it was believed in the 16th century to be a poison detector that would shatter if put in contact with any toxins. Glass was also employed in burials centuries before DeCamp envisioned his design.

A detail of a glass coffin made by DeCamp Consolidated Glass Casket Co., made in Muskogee, Oklahoma, circa 1920-’29. (Gift of Fred Hunter, courtesy Corning Museum of Glass)

“There is a long historiographic tradition describing the use of ‘hyalos’ to entomb people in the area of the upper Nile—modern Sudan—and the Roman author Strabo describes a ‘hyalos’ coffin used to bury Alexander the Great, who died in the late 4th century BCE,” explains Kate Larson, Corning Museum assistant curator for ancient and Islamic glass. “‘Hyalos’ probably refers to muscovite mica or selenite, since the sources describe it as being mined, but the word is indisputably also the Greek word for glass. Some scholars have suggested that Alexander’s hyalos coffin was in fact glass, not mica. A Roman-period glass coffin, apparently made from window panes, has been excavated in France, and Roman glass storage jars were reused as urns for cremated remains.”

Yet these objects did not have the same preservative goals as those in the early 20th century. And, ultimately, the DeCamp glass caskets were a failure. As Troy Smythe, Corning Museum education and interpretation supervisor, explored in a 2018 blog post, all those stocks advertised in American newspapers were sold before the companies could make a casket. Furthermore, the process of building a mold-cast casket, and cooling it without cracking, is incredibly difficult. A 1921 issue of United States Investor reported that stockholders for the Crystal Glass Casket Company were “still waiting for their profits” and that “doubt still exists as to the ability of the company to make good its claims to patents on an adult-sized casket.” Indeed, newspapers in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore opted to stop printing glass-casket advertisements until they could prove an adult-sized casket could be produced.

An image of J.W. DeCamp in the 1921 catalog for the American Glass Casket Company. (Via the Corning Museum of Glass)

Perhaps feeling the pressure, when the American Glass Casket Company released its 1921 catalog, featuring a photograph of DeCamp himself sporting a slightly twirled mustache and standing with several small caskets, it included a final page proclaiming “IT HAS BEEN SAID — ‘IT CAN’T BE DONE’ HERE IT IS!” In florid text, the company asserted that the “impossible continues to be accomplished” and that an adult-sized casket had been made, weighing a hefty 315 pounds.

Nevertheless, by 1923, glass-casket company representatives were being charged with conspiracy to sell stock with no plan of a return for investors. Little remains from the brief glass-casket frenzy, although stocks turn up on eBay, likely selling for more than the original investors ever earned. The glass casket is now an oddity in funerary history alongside such curiosities as the 1882 cross-shaped “Cruciform Casket” or the 1934 idea to electroplate corpses into statues. Yet, the promise to protect loved ones “permanently against defilement,” as the Crystal Glass Casket Company put it, reflects an impulse present today in American funerals. The dead are often still embalmed and interred inside metal caskets that are, in turn, secured in burial vaults. Even with a rising demand for green burials and other options, an unease with the inevitable decomposition of our bodies endures.

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“The impossible continues to be accomplished” brags the 1921 catalog for the American Glass Casket Company. (Via the Corning Museum of Glass)

(Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer on art, history, and culture. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide. Find her on Twitter here. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)

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This post originally appeared on Collectors Weekly and was published February 22, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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