Coryell Museum has recently received a very unique donation and Billy Byrom had it set up for the October board meeting. It is a wicker casket and behind the casket is a 6 foot tall velvet curtain that also can be folded for travel. Small folding chairs were included with the donation.

This is certainly an interesting exhibit and is on display upstairs in the Victorian Living Room. In the 1800’s families historically displayed their deceased in their own home.

Randomhistory.com had this information about the early American uses of wicker and its production.

While the first items of wicker furniture came to America with travelers on the Mayflower, it would not experience widespread popularity in the new world until the mid-nineteenth century. Rattan, the most common material for wicker furniture, was frequently used in this time period to hold cargo in place on trading ships that had ventured to Asia.

Wicker furniture, made from rattan, has been used for many centuries. Rattan is a general name for types of a climbing palm plant found in the tropics. The vines have hooks on the leaves and climb to the tops of the trees. The vine stems are hundreds of feet long and are then dried and used to make wicker furniture or caskets.

In the early 1850s, Cyrus Wakefield, now considered the father of American wicker furniture, discovered large quantities of rattan on the shipping docks of Boston and became fascinated by the material (Wicker Furniture: A Guide to Restoring and Collecting by Richard Saunders 1990). Recognizing rattan's potential for a variety of purposes, Wakefield began his own rattan importing company in Boston and commenced bringing entire ships full of it into America. The material became quite popular with basket and furniture makers, and Wakefield himself began constructing his own line of wicker furniture from rattan. His popular furniture designs soon caught on and his company became the industry leader in wicker furniture.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. | 2013 | COPYRIGHT 2012 The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. (According to Jackie aka Dark Angel on the internet, wicker caskets were used as temporary caskets for the thousands of soldiers that died every day during the Civil War. The wicker was a cheap material to use in large quantities as compared to the cost of wood, and wicker was lighter to transport.

After the Civil War, and during the Victorian era, wicker caskets were used in the funerary business, mostly for viewings, and especially for funerals of children.

In the early 20th century, up until the 1930's, wicker body baskets were used routinely by police and coroners to remove bodies from crimes scenes. The wicker casket is actually reinforced with metal ribbing spaced throughout. It also has metal hasps to lock the top and bottom together. Metal handles, covered in wicker, are attached at the top and bottom for lifting and carrying. The wicker is wrapped over a wooden slat and metal ribbing frame and is very sturdy.

I wondered how wicker caskets that are hand woven could be cheaper to make than a simple pine box casket during the Civil War. Randomhistory.com again came up with the answer.

While wicker furniture proved to be quite popular in the United States for both indoor and outdoor use, the labor-intensive process of weaving the canes into furniture limited its overall production. However, in the late 1860s, a loom was invented that could automatically weave and install cane seats (Saunders 1990). The tool minimized the handwork required in creating a piece of wicker furniture and greatly reduced the overall production cost. Wakefield and his partner completely dominated the wicker furniture industry until the 1920s (Wicker: Woven Furniture from 1850-1930 byAdamson & Latham 1993).

Wicker caskets are for sale even today on line, but a large quantity must be ordered at one time. They are listed as eco-friendly. Come by the museum and see our delightful wicker casket, velvet display curtain and small wooden chairs. They are ready for viewing!


By Jann Dworsky and Property of The Gatesville Messenger 2014

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