The Trade Literature Collection gives us a small glimpse into the past. It includes catalogs on a variety of topics, including undertakers’ supplies. These catalogs illustrate coffins, grave guards, and even fashion for the deceased. One of these catalogs feature hearses for funerals from long ago.
The trade catalog is by Merts & Riddle and is untitled though the front cover points out they are “Coach and Hearse Builders.” Besides being untitled, the catalog is also undated. However, we believe it was published sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
As we learned from the front cover, Merts & Riddle built both hearses and coaches, or carriages. The introductory page also mentions they had “many years’ experience” in that particular field. All of the hearses in this catalog are horse-drawn with glass sides making the coffin clearly visible to all who passed by.
According to the catalog, Merts & Riddle regularly kept their factory stocked. It mentions they always had “all finished, ready for shipment, thirty thousand dollars’ worth of Hearses, and as many coaches…” Specific prices are not included, though it indicates savings for the customer, specifically the ability to save $200-$500 on the cost of a hearse. Customers were encouraged to visit the factory, peruse the selection, and choose direct from available stock. Below is an illustration of the works, or factory, of Merts & Riddle in Ravenna, Ohio.
The introductory page also mentions their aim, or goal. This was “constant improvement in style, durability, and elegance.” Many of the funeral cars pictured in this catalog are fitted with curtains around the glass as well as other decorative elements, such as urns or, like the hearse shown below, lamps and hand-carved pillars.
Improved No. 132, shown below, was fitted with sides made of polished French-plate glass along with circular glass at the front and back of the hearse. Black Lambrequin curtains elegantly hung on the windows above where the coffin would be placed. These curtains were trimmed with gold bullion or worsted fringe and tassels.
This particular hearse fit a coffin measuring seven feet five inches long. A roller at the end of the hearse aided attendants in positioning the coffin. Inside the hearse, a hexagon-shaped rail with bouquet holders for flowers surrounded the coffin. Another hexagon-shaped rail adorned the top of the hearse along with six carved wood urns. A decorative, geometric pattern with what appears to be sun rays adorned the side of the hearse. The driver sat on a “dickey,” or exterior, seat.
Hearse No. 216, shown below, was also built with French plate glass sides along with glass in the front and back. It included many of the same embellishments, such as wood carved urns, interior rails around the coffin, and black curtains finished with gold bullion fringe and tassels. However, this one was described as a “light” hearse. It weighed 950 to 1050 pounds in contrast to Improved No. 132 which weighed a bit more at 1100 to 1200 pounds.
Besides hearses, Merts & Riddle also built coaches, or carriages. One of these carriages, No. 236, is shown below. Perhaps it was used for the family of a loved one during a funeral procession to the cemetery. Its interior was decorated with green Morocco or green cloth and included a “silver toilet set” for its occupants to freshen up during travel. The windows were made of crystal plate or beveled-edge glass, and the carriage driver sat in an exterior “dickey seat” just like the hearse drivers.
This untitled and undated Merts & Riddle trade catalog, possibly published in the late 1800s or early 1900s, illustrating hearses and coaches is located in the Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History Library.
Catalog is 1891 or earlier. In 1891, Merts sold his share of the business to Henry Warner Riddle and the name changed to Riddle Coach and Hearse.