The picture above is of a glass casket, believe it or not. It’s hard to tell with the leather on the outside and fabric on the inside, but the purpose of a glass coffin wasn’t its transparency, in case you were expecting something out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The sales pitch for glass caskets was that the hermetically-sealed glass would protect a loved one’s remains from water and air, and even from decay itself. It was the perfect sales pitch for the early 20th century, and the first pitch was to investors in glass coffin companies.
Numerous glass-casket companies popped up around the country in the early 1900s, from the Modern Glass Company in Toledo, Ohio, to the Glass Casket Corporation in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Most of these companies were marketing caskets based on a design by James DeCamp of Blackwell, Oklahoma, who received the first of several glass-casket-related patents in 1915. Sealed with a tube of silicone that joined two glass halves, the casket was promised as an airtight and watertight vessel for the dead.
Of those that were made, few survive, and not only because they were objects meant to be buried. Creating a glass casket large enough to hold an adult corpse was an incredible undertaking, so to speak. The American Glass Casket Company stated in 1921 that their huge casket press, which measured 13 feet tall and 25 feet long, was the biggest such press in the world. The lid and base that formed the casket would be some of the most massive pieces of pressed glass ever produced. The casket would weigh hundreds of pounds (and, being glass, would break if dropped by the burdened pallbearer).
Thus, the few that exist are mostly small. “We have a child’s glass casket as well as a salesman’s sample made by the American Glass Casket Company in the collection of the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Arts [in Millville, New Jersey],” said Dianne Wood, curatorial assistant at the museum. “One of our young visitors called the salesman’s sample a ‘Barbie Doll casket’ if that gives you a sense of the size.”
The salesman’s sample was an important tool for demonstrating the wonders of a glass coffin to investors and to customers, but the fad didn’t last long. Read about the rise and fall of glass coffins at Collectors Weekly.