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Young Girl's Burial Dress

Burial dress for a young girl offered for sale
by the A.A. Schmidt & Sons Funeral Home, Menomonee Falls, c. 1900.

(Museum object #1983.267.7)

When a young girl passed away during the late nineteenth century, her parents could purchase special burial clothes for her from the local undertaker or funeral home. The A.A. Schmidt & Sons Funeral Home of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, provided such a service, having this dress in stock for grieving parents around 1900. Schmidt & Sons purchased the dress wholesale from the Buckstaff & Edwards Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which made furniture and caskets, and wholesaled other funeral necessities. The dress never sold and A.A. Schmidt Funeral Home eventually donated it to the Wisconsin Historical Society along with other unsold burial clothing in 1983.

Designed to be worn by a young girl who died between the ages of about four to eight, the dress, like most burial clothing, was coarsely and cheaply made with no buttons, ties, or hooks to fasten it, a paper-like lining, and many raw edges. Also the skirt is a simple tube of fabric, open at the back, with no decoration or trim. Only the bodice, the portion seen when the child lay in her coffin, has been nicely finished with a pleated silk satin insert bordered by embroidery and braided trim, and pleated gauze around the collar.

Mass-produced burial clothing, like the dress featured here, formed a part of the growing funeral industry that emerged in the United States after the Civil War. Embalming had become an acceptable practice during the war as families wanted their sons, brothers, and husbands who had been killed on the battlefield returned to their hometowns in a preserved state for burial. Until this time most undertakers had been furniture makers who made coffins as a side trade, but with the rapid increase in embalming a new profession emerged — the funeral director.

Unlike earlier undertakers, funeral directors made their living catering solely to the bereaved. They often lived on the same premises as their business and the "funeral home," as it came to be called, has been described as "a mélange of business, residence, religion and consumerism." The rise of funeral homes also corresponded with the dramatic increase of mass-manufactured goods available in the late 19th century as funeral directors began offering their clients new funeral products and services, such as burial clothing and upscale, custom coffins.

The history of A.A. Schmidt & Sons of Menomonee Falls illustrates this period of change in funeral customs. Brothers Albert A. and Edward Schmidt began their careers owning a furniture business, but in 1896 they began to offer funeral and ambulance services as well. During the 1910s, the Schmidts dropped the furniture and ambulance portions of business to focus primarily on mortuary services. Today it continues as a family-owned business.

Albert A. Schmidt purchased at least some of his undertaking supplies from Buckstaff & Edwards of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a firm that also had a furniture making business in its history. In 1865, the Buckstaff brothers formed a lumber company and built a shingle mill and saw mill. The company produced lumber supplies until the brothers joined with R. H. Edwards in 1882 and reorganized their business into a furniture manufacturing firm. The next year they added caskets to their repertoire of products. Buckstaff & Edwards quickly became one of the largest furniture manufacturers in the Midwest.

By the late 1880s, possibly because it already had a ready customer base of funeral directors for their coffin business, Buckstaff & Edwards began wholesaling funeral supplies. After Edwards left the business in 1912, the Buckstaff brothers renamed the business the Buckstaff Company, which continued to serve the funeral industry until the 1920s. Throughout the remainder of the 20th century and until its closure in 2011, the Buckstaff Company focused exclusively on making commercial and office furniture.

[Sources: Encylopedia of Death & Dying: Funeral Industry online at www.deathreference.com; Schmidt & Bartelt: A Proud History online at www.schmidtandbartelt.com; and Algoma Boulevard Historic District Landmarks Report online at www.ci.oshkosh.wi.us/Landmarks_Commission/ (see section 8, p. 14).]

LAB


Posted on May 15, 2008

This article appears in the following categories:

  • Clothing & Personal Items
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