Friday, July 17, 2009

Where to Buddy? Hospital or Graveyard?: Ambulance Hearses

Telling the difference between an ambulance and a hearse in contemporary times is not difficult. But from 1909 when gasoline powered hearses first appeared and for three score-and ten years thereafter the distinction might be entirely in whether passenger being conveyed had vital signs -- or not. This oddity is recognized by those who collect vintage paperweights bearing vehicle images of bygone days.

Funeral homes, liveries, and other businesses that operated coaches often found paperweights a discrete way to advertise. When Aunt Fanny was choking on her meatballs, the glass object on the desk would tell you whom to call. Shown here is a small sample of the genre, along with some brief facts about the issuing merchants.

A Chicago-based outfit, the Arntzen family were not only were a limousine service and undertakers, they actually built hearses and other coaches such as this “invalid conveyance.” The Arntzens claimed to design their vehicle so that it had “no appearance of an ambulance.” The camouflage apparently was intended to deceive the neighbors when someone was carted off with bubonic plague.

Like the Arntzens, Geo. Sharer and Son were undertakers, with a chapel and funeral home on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. Their “limousine invalid car” would take you anywhere in the city for $5. Even, I suppose, to the East Cleveland Cemetery. Putnam’s “invalid car” bears a strong resemblance to a hearse, but nowhere does the paperweight disclose that the Putnams also operated a funeral parlor in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Further evidence of being coy about their core business shows up on a paperweight from Ziegenhein Bros. of St. Louis, Missouri. It shows a vehicle that has many attributes of a hearse but gives its business only as “L. and U.” -- to be understood as livery and undertaker. The Ziegenhein family still runs a funeral home in St. Louis, but wisely have dropped the livery business.

By contrast, the Smith-Hoff-Jacobs Funeral Directors had no compunctions about making their principal occupation known to the people of Kokomo, Indiana, while advertising their “new invalid cab “ -- one that also looks suspiciously like a hearse. Gracing another weight, one made of celluloid not glass, the coach from Westcott’s of Sioux City, Iowa, likewise seems more fitted for a trip to boot hill than the emergency room.

For a non-expert like me, it is difficult to tell the make and model of these conveyances. Walter’s Funeral home in St. Petersburg, Florida, made it easy by advertising their ambulance/hearse as a Lincoln. It is reassuring that the riding with Walker meant being accompanied by a “graduate nurse.” She probably did not do the cemetery runs.

Although our final item, also celluloid, trumpets its ambulance as the “world’s finest, it says nothing about the make of the car or the name of the firm. With research it was possible to identify both. The paperweight was issued by the J. T. Hinton & Sons Funeral Home. Operating a busy mortuary in Memphis for many years, the Hintons were reported by contemporary sources as famous for their “ambitious ambulance tactics.” Might they have run over pedestrians in order to cart them away? Records indicate that their 1922 model ambulance was made especially for them by the Cunningham Motorcar Company of Rochester, New York.

The hearse/ambulance confusion lasted some 70 years. Until as late as 1979 hearses in the United States could be combination coaches that also served as ambulances. In the late 1970s, however, stricter Federal standards were decreed for ambulances. The hybrids were unable to meet them and after 1979 were discontinued. In many smaller communities even today, however, ambulances --in vehicles distinct from hearses--continue to be the business of the local undertaker. Thus, my earlier question may still be valid: “Where to Buddy?”

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