Friday, May 24, 2013

Chasing the Ambulance: But Wait!...Is It a Hearse?

In July 2009, under the title, “Where to Bud: The Hospital or the Grave?,” I authored a post featuring a number of paperweights from the late 19th and early 20th Century that displayed ambulance/hearse combinations.  Those vehicles were common in America up until they were outlawed by Congress in the 1970s.  The earlier article noted how common it was for funeral homes and others to advertise via their services and vehicles via glass weights.  Over the ensuing months I have been able to collect the images of an additional number of these artifacts and to learn something of the stories behind them.

The earliest ambulances were horse-drawn.  The goal was not on-the-spot medical attention, the objective was to get the sick and injured to the hospital or doctor as fast as possible.  Although emergency medicine has evolved in recent years, the old theory continued well into the 1970s.  Just how fast dobbin shown here could get someone to effective care is questionable, but the paperweight from Kaufmann Bros. of Milwaukee provides an illustration.  Note that the horse could be hitched up day or night. 

The next weight showing a horse-drawn vehicle was the product of  the Sievers & Erdman Co. of Detroit, Michigan.  Henry A. Sievers and Charles Erdman Sr. were immigrants from Germany both of whom spent a number of years working as carriage-makers.  By 1875 they had achieve sufficient skill and resources to form their own company and soon became well known for their elegant coaches, broughams and, yes, hearses.  With the dawning of the automobile age,  they were in the right town at the right time,  and became early producers of motor hearse/ambulances for Cadillac, Paige, Wills Ste. Claire,  Columbia and others car companies.  This firm survived for 60 years, finally closing during the Great Depression in 1935.

Not being expert in classic cars, I am not sure if Sievers & Erdman might have built the ambulance/hearse shown on the next paperweight.   Unlike most of the items shown here that are from undertaking establishments,  this one featured the Snavely Taxicab  Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Snavely advertised its ability to hire out a wide range of vehicles.  They included, according to their ads “...Vehicles specially constructed and adapted to funeral service, also funeral hearses, ambulances subject to pubic call and service at any time....”

Like the Snavely vehicle,  the ambulance from Sellegrens of Red Oak, Iowa, clearly is a converted sedan,  convenient for multiple uses.  The roots of this undertaking firm date back to 1922 when Authur and Walter Sellegren established a funeral home on Reed Street in Red Oak.  Over the years those undertakers have maintained the same site, expanding the facility and merging with additional partners.  Today they are the Sellegren-Lindell-DeMarce Funeral Home.   There is no indication they have maintained an ambulance service.

As shown in the following paperweight, many of these combination vehicles were painted white and featured a red cross in the window.  The white color symbolized crisp, clean and sterile.  The red cross conjured up the international rescue organization. The source here, the W. F. Mayberry Undertaking Company of Chicago, Illinois,  did not hide that fact that its vehicle could also take you to its funeral home on Linwood Blvd at Olive St.  Its facility is standing there waiting just behind the ambulance.  A similar white vehicle is shown on a weight from A. G. Mueller of Wichita, Kansas. This one makes no bones about its being an ambulance service from an undertaker.   I can find no indication this organization still exists but the Mueller Mortuary once published a pamphlet called “Rays of Sunshine” with a pastoral scene on the cover.  Probably chock full of pep talks for the bereaved.

James H. Marshall and William E. Harper operated out of a fancy three story building whose facade was four giant granite doric pillars. The business was founded in 1909.  A local historian reported that the Oklahoma City partners catered primarily to the families of the “carriage trade.”  In other words, the white buggy shown here would take you to the hospital or the morgue in fine style.  The partner’s chief embalmer, a man named Ed Hahn, lived in an apartment back of the mansion. After Marshall & Harper left downtown Oklahoma City for a more affluent neighborhood Hahn took over the building. Today his and other undertaking firms have merged into one large operation.

Perhaps the classiest looking ambulance to appear on the group of weights was the emergency vehicle from J. F. Grammier whose enterprise was located in Port Arthur, Texas.   It sported the red cross and some fancy side curtains to keep the curious public from peeking in at the stressed individual being transported.  A thoughtful touch.   Grammier founded his funeral home in 1915.  Now called the Grammier-Oberle Funeral Home, its ad claims:  “For almost a century, our commitment has remained unchanged and yet, our funeral home has always responded to the changing needs of the community.”

One of those changes has been the banning of the joint ambulance/hearse combination.  As medical care for the sick and injured evolved, medical care on the scene and in transit became,  thank goodness, the norm.  Combination vehicles no longer met the challenge, even if some outfits advertised a registered nurse aboard.  But Hennessey and Calloway existed in Spokane, Washington, during an era when an ambulance like theirs was the best thing to be had.  Moreover, its paperweight featured a fetching color image.

Our last weight celebrates a fancy and full-fledged hearse, in no way an ambulance.  Sam Hornthal was a New York City entrepreneur who ran a fleet of hearses and some limos that, according to an observer, he “conveniently rented out with chauffeurs to undertakers who were short on equipment and personnel.’” The hearse is said to have been built on a White Motors car chassis.

Hornthal also rented out what he called a “service chapel”  to independent funeral directors.  Many notables are said to have been buried from that chapel, including General Douglas MacArthur,  former New York Governor Herman Lehman, and most famous of all, Babe Ruth.   Fearing that fans eager for a souvenir would strip the chapel for souvenirs,  the Bronx Bomber’s wake was moved from Hornthal’s place and Ruth’s memorial was held, very fittingly, at Yankee Stadium.

There they are,  ten paperweights with vintage images of vehicles once used to transport the sick, the dying and the certifiably dead to their destination.   Noting the advanced emergency service vehicles operated by trained EMS specialists that are located just down the way from my home, I frankly have not a single moment of nostalgia for those “good old days.”  But I do like these vintage paperweights as reminders of how things used to be.

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