Thursday, October 17, 2013

Would You Walk Into My Parlor?

     We had another “mystery artifact” donated to us recently.  A large black wool cloth with fringe on the edges was initially brought in for us to identify.  Though the fringe could have indicated that it was a shawl, the cloth was much too big.  At about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide, it was even too large to be a blanket!

When folded like this, the cloth looks like a blanket or tablecloth. The black dye is starting to fade to dark green, and the cloth has a few small moth holes, but overall it is still in good condition. 

     The owner of the cloth said that she’d been told it had something to do with mourning.  Its black color did suggest that it might be associated with funerals or mourning.  That gave us a place to start.  Our Director of Research, Terry Reimer, was the one who finally identified it.   
This ad for a 19th century cooling board, also known as a cooling table, is from the book, “The History of American Funeral Directing.”  Take a close look at that illustration.  The table is covered with a large, dark, fringed cloth!  So, this cloth is a cooling table cover.
        The ad gives a good indication as to the use of a cooling table: “A Practical Undertaker of long experience, submits this cooling board to the profession as combining all the essential qualities to meet every requirement for the proper care of dead bodies.  The simplicity of this Board recommends it over all others in the market, and its price places it within reach of every Undertaker in the land.  It is manufactured of the very finest materials, nickel plated &c.” 
     In addition to the table with the cloth cover in the ad, also notice that there is a second table which is shown folded into a more portable size.  There’s a good reason for these tables to be easily portable.
     Funerals used to be held in people’s homes, with the viewing of the body being in the family’s parlor.  Instead of transporting the body to a funeral home, the undertaker would travel to the family’s home, and he would need to bring his cooling table with him.  The body would be placed on top of the cooling table, and blocks of ice would be placed underneath the table to cool and preserve the body.  These tables often had small holes in the top to allow for better circulation of the cool air around the body.  The cloth cover was draped over a frame which folded out from the table.  Its purpose was to help keep the cooler air near the surface of the table.  Reportedly, this method worked quite well to “refrigerate” and preserve the body.

Here is a photo of an actual cooling table, without the frame for the cloth cover.  Unfortunately, my museum doesn’t own a cooling table, so this image is from the website of the Rogers Historical Museum in Arkansas.
     I’ll leave you with a little bit of related trivia.  The term “parlor” went out of fashion at about the same time that funerals stopped being held in private residences.  It was replaced by the term “living room.”  Evidently, the change occurred because people didn’t want to be reminded of the former use of that particular room! 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

1 comment:

  1. My father died in 1969 and his viewing was in the "parlor" at his father's home in Greenwood, South Carolina. I guess old habits die hard in some sections of the country. My siblings and I had to sleep in the next room. I had nightmares for years!