History of American Literature I
When I began this project, I already knew I wanted to analyze an advertisement. I believe advertising is a fascinating and valuable source of cultural information. An advertisement reveals a lot about the rhetoric of a culture—the words, images, and ideas that consumers respond to; the speech patterns and slang terms they use; the current fashions and popular issues of the time; and the concerns and motivations that prompt them to take action. Advertisements can be an intimate and fascinating peek into the consumer consciousness of America at precise moments in its history.
One of the more interesting and gruesome aspects of early American culture were its intense fears and phobias and the bizarre behaviors caused by them. One of the most famous, and most frequently studied, is the Salem witch hysteria, and the ensuing trials and executions. Many other American fears are neglected in favor of this overshadowing issue, including the many bizarre practices caused by the lack of medical knowledge. My digital document, an advertisement for a “Life-Preserving Coffin,”is a darkly humorous artifact of this scientifically ignorant and superstitious culture.
I found my digital document on the Duke University Library website, at http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa/. I was very impressed with the website, which manages to present a huge variety of documents in a completely user-friendly format. The website has a vast number of collections of historical documents, handily organized by subjects such as “Women's History,” “Transcultural Experience,” and “Advertising and Consumer Culture.” I chose the database entitled “Emergence of Advertising in America,” one of the five choices listed in the “Advertising and Consumer Culture” section. That database alone contains scanned images of over 9,000 advertisements from 1800 to 1920, so I was a bit overwhelmed at the amount of documents I had to go through. But the search engine they provided was great, and the huge collection turned out to be a breeze to browse. I could enter any search term, and then sort the results by one of several options: best matches, titles, or years. Even better, I could sort the year by either “low to high” or “high to low,” which made it very easy to ensure that the documents I was looking at were within the time parameters for this assignment. I could also view my search results as a grid of images with titles, a list of images with a brief description next to them, or a 3-D wall of images, which had some great visual effects, but was actually the most difficult to browse (it actually had a link below it that said “How do I use this?”). Once I chose a document to look at in more detail, I had the option to view the image in two sizes, from medium to large, with an additional zoom for small print or details. There was also a “Details” tab for a list of the factual information available about the document: what collection it is part of, the category it is listed under, the company which published the document, the source of the document, the year it was published, where it was published, the format or medium (photograph, newspaper clipping, etc.), the number of pages, the item number in the database, and any notes that may accompany the image. The website is also very visually appealing, with a bold, modern look and clear headings and links. Overall, I couldn't have been more satisfied with the site. It was very easy to use, it looked great, and of course it had a great collection of documents. I even recommended it to a classmate.
My document is a full-page, all-text advertisement for a 'safety coffin' (more on what that term means later), which was published in 1844. It can be found at: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa.B0096/pg.1/. Other than the yellowing of the paper and an almost imperceptible tear on the right side of the document, it appears to be in very good shape for a piece of paper that is nearly 200 years old. I had no issues reading the document, as it is is printed in a bold, clear typeface that does not appear to have faded. The advertisement is dominated by a large, bold heading consisting of several lines. The heading looks a lot like early American book title pages, with the title of the work in big block letters, followed by the name of the inventor, and then the manufacturer in slightly smaller type.The ad does have two small images of pointing hands bracketing the third line of the heading, which draws attention to the reason anyone would possibly want to purchase a life-preserving coffin: “in doubtful cases of death.” Interestingly, the biggest, boldest word on the page, and the only word with a line all its own, is the word “COFFIN,” as if the writer couldn't resist adding to the already hilarious irony of the headline. Since images were expensive to print in the 1800's (Marshall), this eye-catching typography was a more cost-effective method of capturing consumer attention. The technique still seems to work today, at least for this reader—although I wasn't about to buy a “Life-Preserving Coffin” for my grandmother, I immediately decided to use the advertisement as my digital document.
If I had to guess, I would say the advertisement was produced by the manufacturers rather than the designer. At the very end of the text, a postscript declares:
The inventor has given the entire privilege of manufacturing the said coffins to the undersigned, specimens of which can be seen at their Cabinet Warerooms, Sharp street, a few doors S. of Pratt st., Baltimore, Md.
BOBETH & SCHULENBERG.
I did some research and found Bobeth & Schulenberg listed in the Archives of Maryland as cabinetmakers. It seems like the life-preserving coffin venture was an attempt to branch out from cabinetmaking into other woodworking markets. My suspicion seems to be supported by the text following the heading, which runs for five paragraphs. The first sentence refers to C.H. Eisenbrandt himself in a strangely stilted, passive, third person tense: “The undersigned respectfully informs his friends and the public, that he has constructed a “Life-Preserving Coffin, which he flatters himself, upon examination, to give universal satisfaction.” This assertion is not left to stand alone, however, as the text is followed by testimonials from six different doctors, all of whom had examined the invention and attested to its merit. The testimonials all avoid endorsing the efficacy of the coffin's life-preserving properties, choosing only to complement the workmanship involved in its construction. All of the testimonials say roughly the same thing, that their endorsement was solicited by Bobeth & Shulenberg, and that they examined the coffin and found it noteworthy in some way. For example:
Messrs. Bobeth & Shulenberg having submitted to my examination a Coffin made by them, after the invention of Mr. Eisenbrandt, I believe it to be well deserving of public attention and adoption, as calculated to be very valuable in cases of suspended animation.
John R. W. Dubar, M. D.
The other testimonials follow the same vein, suggesting that while C.H. Eisenbrandt invented the spring-loaded safety coffin, his manufacturers bore the burden of promoting and marketing the product.
The advertisement continues to discuss the necessity of safety coffins, with several examples of medical conditions which can cause death-like stupors and even stories of people who had been mistakenly pronounced dead. The narrator attempts to instill fear into his readers, saying:
In our own country, particularly in the summer season, and during the prevalence of Epidemic diseases: as Yellow fever, Cholera, &c. and more especially in cases of sudden death,this will be of incalculable value in preventing premature interment and suffocation, the most horrid of deaths.
The advertisement plays upon fears which haunted many Americans—and people of other nations as well, most notably Germany and France. Although the stethoscope was invented in the early 1800's, early models were quite inaccurate and were not trusted to determine death (Roach 171). Indeed, there were documented cases where patients who had been declared dead revived before burial, often when these patients had died of drowning, stroke, or certain kinds of narcotic poisoning, or when they were young people who had died unexpectedly (Roach 171). These incidents were sensationalized until the mid-nineteenth century, when medical science reached the conclusion that death could be determined by a lack of brain function, and learned to measure this function. Fear of premature burial was a huge part of folklore, which abounded with horrifying stories of people who had revived during their funerals, on the way to the cemetery, or, worst of all, in the grave.
Medical doctors debated for centuries about the best way to determine death, often resorting to subjecting the body to extremely painful procedures in attempts to revive the patient, including slicing the soles of the feet with razors, jamming needles underneath the toenails, making various loud noises, or the even more bizarre nipple pincers, tobacco enemas, or tongue-pulling apparati (Roach 171). Despite the allure of these creative techniques, the general consensus among most medical doctors was that death was best determined by the method known as putrefaction—which is exactly as disgusting as it sounds. Bodies were often left to hang around for days or weeks until certain unmistakable odors and other signs of decay became obvious, and the person could be pronounced dead and buried (Bondeson 143). This practice posed obvious problems—even if people were unaware of the health problems caused by lingering corpses, they couldn't ignore the smell. The advertisement claims that even this test has failed in many cases to determine death for certain:
As most physiologists have agreed that there is no one certain sign of death, great difficulty must arise in distinguishing between a living and a dead body.... instances have taken place, where neither the cessation of the pulse and breathing, nor coldness of the body, nor want of efflux of blood from a vein, nor insensibility to stimuli, nor relaxation of muscles, nor disagreeable odor from the body, could be trusted. All of these signs have been present, and yet the persons have recovered after possessing them some days.
This is an incredible claim, but many people believed this to be true. Fears of premature burial led to all kinds of strange inventions, most notably in Germany and France, where widespread premature burial hysteria led to the construction of “waiting mortuaries,” houses where families paid for the corpses of their loved ones to be watched over for days until the telltale signs and smells of decay proved they were actually dead (Bondeson 92). Although these houses of the dead failed to catch on and never reached America (cite), they provide evidence of the absurdity of premature burial hysteria and the ridiculous lengths taken to protect the potentially undead.
Safety coffins, a more sanitary alternative to waiting mortuaries, have been produced in many countries, each with their own unique method of either releasing the victim or alerting onlookers that the victim needed to be released. According to Jan Bondeson, “the first invention of a security coffin that had any serious claim to practicality was that of Adolf Gutsmith, the city physician in Seehausen, in Altmark. In 1822, he presented a security coffin of his own design that had a long tube linking the buried coffin with the world above. Through this tube, air and light could be admitted into the coffin if the person inside triggered a mechanism (121). The first designs all seemed to rely on the presence of a caretaker who would be present to hear a bell ringing or see a flag and begin digging to rescue the person below. As the “technology” progressed, improvements were made, until various spring-loaded coffins were invented which could actually release the trapped “corpse.” C.H. Eisenbrandt appears to be the first to produce a coffin of its kind in America, as the earliest date I could find for any other safety coffins in America was 1868 (Bondeson 127).
This particular safety coffin was devised with “springs and levers” which could be triggered by the slightest movement from inside the coffin. If a spring release was tripped, the door would swing open, allowing the person inside to escape unharmed. Of course, as the advertisement points out, the coffin must be placed above ground in a vault with a door which can be opened from the inside, otherwise the person would still be trapped. There is an actual drawing of the coffin available at www.digitalvaults.org/record/1038.html.
Strangely enough, the coffin seems to be marketed to the friends and relatives of the deceased more than the dying person. The advertisement promises to remove "all uneasiness of premature interment from the minds of anxious friends and relatives." Apparently, the inventor only expected relatives of the dead or dying to purchase the coffin, although I can see a paranoid person purchasing it for themselves in the event of premature burial. History abounds with stories of paranoid persons with clauses in their wills which demanded their doctors to perform gruesome procedures to determine that they were really dead before burial, such as decapitation, pins through the heart, severing the jugular vein, and even filling the coffin in question with quicklime (Bondeson 141). Despite this fact, it is possibly even more morbid to purchase a safety coffin and keep it in your home in anticipation of your own death, so it makes sense that the advertisement is targeting consumers with recently deceased or dying friends and relatives, who would often be in the position of purchasing a coffin.
This digital document could easily fit into the curriculum of an American literature course. The advertisement immediately calls up associations with the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. In Poe's short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator's friend buries his sister alive, and she escapes from the vault with enough energy to drag herself to the threshold of his chamber door before expiring. The narrator's horrifying realization that he had been listening to her struggles during the storm is similar to the reaction of a deceased person's relatives who realize their loved one might have revived in the grave, and the fear of this realization is exactly what the advertisers are counting on to sell their product. Edgar Allen Poe also published a short story entitled “The Premature Burial” in 1844 (Teuber)— that's the same year this advertisement was published. Is this a coincidence, or was the story the deciding factor in the decision to wage an ad campaign for such an odd product? While no one can know for sure, it is an interesting connection that could be used to introduce this document into an American Literature course. This document could create a cultural connection between Poe's brand of horror and the fears Americans faced before the advent of advanced medical technology. I think a discussion of these fears and the bizarre coping mechanisms they caused would be an interesting, engaging, and humorous addition to any class in the field of American literature.
Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Emergence of Advertising in America. 16 October 2008. Duke University Libraries: Digital Collections. 22 March 2009 <http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa/>.
“Life-Preserving Coffin.” Emergence of Advertising in America. 16 October 2008. Duke University Libraries. 22 March 2009. <http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa.B009
Marshall, Bridget. “Re: Digital Document Assignment.” E-mail to author. 19 March 2009.
Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Teuber, Andreas. Edgar Allen Poe: Biography. 16 January 2006. 22 March 2009 <http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/index.html>.