Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Coffin on the Desktop Was a Grave Reminder

Perhaps the most unusual industry to favor paperweights as a method of advertising their wares was the casket-makers.  While the idea of contemplating a sarcophagus as one goes about the desk work of the day may strike a millennial as very odd, at the turn of the last century it was not an uncommon sight for a clerk to hold his papers down with a miniature coffin. 

One company, Crane & Breed, principally may have been responsible for this phenomenon, creating a whole spectrum of paperweights to bring attention to its caskets.  The history of Crane & Breed can be traced to a New York inventor named Almond Dunbar Fisk who designed and patented a coffin that resembled an Egyptian sarcophagus with sculpted arms and a glass window for viewing the face of the deceased — and allowing the corpse to look out.
Holding the rights to the Fisk burial case, Martin Hale Crane joined with Abel Denison Breed to manufacture this beauty from their Cincinnati coffin works.  An early Crane & Breed paperweight replicated in miniature Fisk’s design.  A subsequent company weight, while keeping the Egyptian motif, eliminated the face cavity.

Crane & Breed Casket Co. went out of business in 1973, but, as one historian has put it:  “They’re mainly remembered for their bronze novelty paperweights which were produced as a side-line during the late 19th and early 20th Century.”   That may be because those weights are the company’s only products not currently below ground and out of sight.  Some C&B artifacts were in shapes other than coffins.   Among them were a camel, the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkeys, and other animals.  All had the company brand on the base.

This aggressive advertising by Crane & Breed appears tohave spurred many other coffin makers into a similar merchandising strategy.  The Orange Star Casket Company seems to have faded into the mists of history except for its paperweight.  Dating from the early 20th Century, its weight is a heavy metal lion that comes up or sale from time to time on auction sites.

By contrast, the Elgin Metal Casket Company, represented here by a coffin paperweight, was the resting place for many well known Americans.   Former President Calvin Coolidge was interred in one in Plymouth Notch Cemetery in North Hampton, Massachusetts.   The body of John F. Kennedy was transported from Dallas to Washington in an Elgin casket after his assassination in 1963. That firm, one that began as a division of the Elgin (Illinois) Silver Plate Company in 1892 is now owned by Gulf & Western and operates from a plant in Indiana.
Today the Boyertown Burial Casket Company is reputed as the second largest casket company in the world.   It was formed in the late 1800s after undertakers in the Pennsylvania city were having trouble getting caskets for burials.  Bodies were piling up without a decent place to lay them.  Boyertown businessmen joined together to establish the firm.   The Boyertown paperweight shown above doubles as a repository for business cards.  I for one would be somewhat disconcerted if a executive reached into a coffin to give me his card — maybe expecting a pirate “black spot” to come out of it.

Isaac A. Baum, the founder of the Ideal Couch & Casket Company of Rochester, New York, worked in a variety of occupations until in 1883 he found his true calling was manufacturing caskets.  Over time, he created and sold the National Casket Company and the National Couch & Casket Company before buying a major share of the Ideal Couch & Casket Company.   That firm created a fancy glass paperweight illustrating a couch upon which the embalmed could be laid as if on a bed.  Underneath was the coffin itself, providing an appropriate stand.  The reference of the weight to “Lautner” is to William Lautner who had patented both the cover for a casket and the box itself.

The Nunda Casket Company took an entirely different marketing strategy.  Instead of reminding its customers of their ultimate need for such a box, it emphasized the positive in providing customers with a real four leaf clover and the admonition, “Good Luck.”  The base of this object carries a note about what it terms a “Lucky Clover Executive Paperweight.”   It explains that the clover was grown in Balboa Heights, Panama Canal Zone by one C. T. Daniels.  Daniels, it claimed, “has solved Mother Nature’s secret of productivity, an achievement unparalleled in the history of horticulture.”  Just to grow four-leaf clovers?

Our last example is from the Gate City Coffin Company with a strange message.  It shows a bulldog standing on two coffins behind a display of what may be embalming fluid.  The slogan — and the reason for the presence of a canine — is “A ‘Dog-On’ Good Line.”  The origins and history of this firm also has been obscured over time.  Like Crane & Breed that opened his post, we must rely on the artifacts to remind us of the manufacturers who gave us such products.

There they are, ten examples of how the casket makers hoped to keep the attention of the public by gracing an office desk with a replica of a final resting place.  In the words of the poet Thomas Grey, these paperweights remind us that: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.


  1. I have a Crane & Breed sarcophagus which states on the bottom that it is a "model of the original Ever Seal made in 1853 By Crane & Breed". Should I keep it?

  2. This was very interesting. I work for the Town of Nunda and happen to have inherited on my desk a "Genuine Four-Leaf Clover" paperweight. I've worked here four years and just today got curious about it! I'm quite amused.