Plumage, Social Means and Funeral History

T&I Stockman provides a horse drawn hearse, the traditional dark horses with their plumes and an ornate Victorian carriage.

T&I Stockman provides a horse drawn hearse, the traditional dark horses with their plumes and an ornate Victorian carriage.

We’ve written about motorcycle hearses and have eluded to the hearse in general throughout this blog. But, the history of the hearse is just as fascinating, as horse-drawn hearses basically have gone the way of other practices that fell to the industrial age and the automobile. However, horse-drawn hearses have a particular short-lived history – at least in America – that was based upon social class.

Hearses came to the forefront of social acceptance in the early to mid 1800s, when undertakers began to manage death. Along with the establishment of funeral “parlors” and funeral homes, the funeral director created an entire montage of services that catered to the deceased’s survivors. Included in these services was the undertaker’s carriage, which transported the deceased with mourners following on foot at first, and later in carriages as well. The addition of carriages to the funeral procession often depended upon the wealth of the deceased.

Another sign of the deceased’s wealth included the plume, or a feather-like appendage that often was attached to the top of the hearse carriage and that may also have been attached to the horses’ heads as well. In the Memoir of DeWitt Clinton, written in 1829, a description of such a funeral hearse is found (page 525):

The hearse, covered by a superb canopy, surmounted with black plumes, drawn by four white horses; their heads also decorated with black plumes…

In 1869, James M. Shanahan illustrated a variety of these hearse plumes in his Illustrated Catalogue of Undertakers’ Hardware and Trimmings. You can view a page from this catalog at the Smithsonian to see the variety of plumes offered, including hearse plumes with white movable tops.

Hearse plumes were dramatic, and they indicated the wealth of the individual by the number of plumes displayed. A poor person did not deserve plumes, and two plumes indicated modest financial circumstances. Three to four plumes meant the deceased was fairly well-to-do, and five to six plumes indicated the deceased was well off, indeed. The highest regard was paid to the wealthiest of funeral clients, with a display of seven plumes or more.

This is how, in classic literature, you can determine the wealth of the individual in the story. For instance, in the Memoir of DeWitt Clinton, readers can learn that the deceased had at least five or more plumes decorating the funeral hearse, including the horses. This meant that the deceased was at least well-to-do if not wealthy. These plumes were based upon much earlier practices in Asian and European countries and brought to this country by story and then by practice in a social scene that included other funeral frivolities that were meant to keep Victorian-era surviving family members busy after a loved one’s death.

Other pieces of literature mention horse plumes, or funeral plumes, and these mentions indicate the story was written in the nineteenth century or it is a story about the nineteenth century. Among these are O Henry’s “Confessions of a Humorist,” written before 1910 (when O Henry died); the current Anthology of Chinese Literature: Volume I: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century, and Edgar Allal Poe’s “King Pest,” written in 1835.

Motorized hearses replaced horse-drawn carriages in the early 1900s, and few if any literary references are made about plumes during the twentieth century unless those stories used historic references. However, many funeral companies today are reviving the horse-drawn funeral hearse for anyone who cares to use such transportation to the grave. One of these companies is T&I Stockman in the UK. An image of their hearse with plumes on the horses is seen above.

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