by Jessica Kosinski
When it comes to collecting death-related items, a large category on which you may choose to focus is funeral home advertising. In the early days, advertisements for funeral homes and other businesses mainly consisted of fliers and newspaper advertisements. However, they later branched out into various types of promotional products. Many of those products are still collected today. To understand how they came about and why they are fun to collect, we need to take a peek at the evolution of the American funeral. We also need to peek into the history of advertising techniques and trends in the United States.
The History of American Funeral Practices
Before, and even sometimes during, the 1860s, the at-home funeral was more or less the only option available when someone passed, especially in many rural areas. Even when the first undertaker businesses started popping up, at-home funerals were often preferred. It was only during the Civil War that trends started to shift. After-death care was often left in professional hands, and undertaking gained a solid professional footing. However, it was not until around the 1930s and 1940s that the transition from undertakers to morticians, and eventually funeral homes with funeral directors, was complete.
The Corresponding History of American Advertising Practices and Promotional Products
For as long as products and services have existed in the United States, people have worked on ways to promote them. In Colonial America and the early days of the United States, word of mouth and print advertisements were the only options. That began to change in the United States in 1789. That year, a button was made to commemorate President George Washington’s first term in office.
After the production of that button, many promotional items began to be produced over the years. However, it was not until the mid-1800s that traveling salesmen started touring around the country in larger numbers and needed ways to keep their product or service name out in front of the others. That also led to companies looking for ways to bring product visibility to small-town America. When they did so, they began giving durable, highly-visible promotional products often made of metal to the general store and cafe owners. Those consisted of such useful and attention-grabbing items as large thermometers. Approximately 350,000 salesmen were traveling around the country distributing such promotional products to store owners by 1900. By the time funeral homes were popularized in the 1930s and 1940s, promotional item use by companies of all sizes and types was in full swing.
Early Promotional Funeral Home/Church Fans
Some of the earliest promotional items used by funeral homes were handheld church fans. Air conditioning as we know it now was not popularized until the 1950s. Even when it was, many congregations could not afford to install cooling systems in their churches. Often, a hand fan featured a biblical depiction on one side, and a funeral home advertisement was displayed on the other. Some later fans branched off into depicting important modern icons of the day instead of biblical scenes. For example, in some African American segregated communities, fans depicting Martin Luther King Jr. popped up when he rose to popularity.
The Use of Home Products to Promote Funeral Homes
The purpose of using promotional items to promote funeral homes was to keep the names of those funeral homes visible to potential clients. Eventually, there was a shift from advertising funeral homes in public places like churches and general stores to making sure individual families received promotional items. When that shift took place, sometimes stores sold goods that featured advertising local funeral homes. Other times, the funeral homes gave items away for free. One such major category of promotional items for the home was the writing implement category. Promotional pens and pencils were viewed as good advertising investments by all sorts of companies, including funeral homes because people used them daily. In fact, to this day pens and pencils are frequently used to advertise many modern companies.
Types of Funeral Home Promotional Products to Look For
Church fans are among the most popular funeral home collectibles. They were usually constructed of fairly flimsy material and could be lost easily due to fires, water damage, or prolonged use. They were also prolifically produced for many years in high quantities. Since so many were made, many have survived to the present day. Many of the metal items produced to promote funeral homes, such as thermometers, have also survived. Although, they can have rust or other damage due to age.
If you want to collect other funeral parlor advertising products, you have no shortage of options. Popular antique and vintage options range from hand brooms to sewing and darning tools. Post-1900, egg separators were also commonly used to advertise funeral homes, as were any other items people tended to use on a daily basis. Many funeral homes also commissioned the creation of other types of advertising products, such as calendars and metal storage boxes. What items were produced changed with the times. For example, between approximately the 1950s and 1980s, ashtrays and paperweights that promoted funeral homes were among the most common items.
There were also plenty of funeral home owners in the 1900s who chose to create more unique advertising products. Therefore, it is possible today to find unusual one-off advertising products like vintage potholders or antique fly swatters to add to your collection. Since such individualized products were usually made in smaller quantities, they are often among the most prized by today’s collectors.