Friday, January 1, 2010

Death Memorabilia, Part 1: Cabinet Memorial Cards

As a longtime collector of American funeralia, I’ve accumulated a large quantity of death-related memorabilia. This series of posts will examine the different categories, characteristics, and purposes of paper funeral collectibles.

Memorial cards, properly called cabinet memorial cards, are the size of cabinet photographs, measuring 6 ½ by 4 ¼ inches. They were printed on thick card stock, as were cabinet photographs. A number of companies produced the cards, most notably the Memorial Card Company of Philadelphia. I also have cards from a number of other companies, including E. C. Stark Memorial Cards of Philadelphia; H. F. Wendell & Co. of Leipsic, Ohio; National Memorial Co. of Northfield, Vermont; Art Memorial Co. of Baltimore, Maryland; and George Mitchell Fine Memorial Cards of Greenfield, Indiana.

The earliest example in my collection is dated 1888 (shown above), the latest example is from 1927, and most of the cards are from the 1895-1915 era, which seems to be the heyday of these cards. The card manufacturer is frequently not identified, but some makers imprinted their advertising on the back or on the bottom of the card. A memorial card for Cora Esther Schucker, who died March 6, 1891, has a piece of advertising glued to the back that provides valuable insight:

“This Memorial Card is sent to you for your inspection. It has been for a number of years in Europe and lately in many parts of the United States, a beautiful custom upon the death of a dear friend or relative to prepare a suitably inscribed Memorial Card of the deceased, which kept in the family album or neatly framed becomes not only a token of respect to the memory of the departed one, but is a continual reminder of one who in life was near and dear to you. Thinking that you would appreciate one of our Cabinet Memorial Cards, we have taken the liberty of submitting this sample to you for inspection. If it meets with your approval, you can retain it by remitting to us the price, 25 cents. Additional copies can be procured at the following prices: 6 for 50 cents, 9 for 75 cents, or 12 for $1.00. Should there be any mistake in the printing, or should the card be injured in the mail, return it to us with 25 cents and the corrections you desire and we will rectify it.

"Your particular attention is called to the clearness and brightness of our gold work, in comparison to the numerous imitations, which you no doubt will receive. Being the originators of this business in the United States and having special machinery for the manufacture of these goods, we can guarantee our work to be first-class in every particular.

"If you do not wish to retain it, cross off your name and address on the large envelope wherein we sent it to you, and return it to us. For price list, designs, verses, and other information see the accompanying descriptive circular. Very respectfully, MEMORIAL CARD CO. P. O. Box 619, 120 and 122 N. Seventh Street, Philadelphia.”

The memorial card companies probably subscribed to various newspapers to learn of local deaths, and they may also have employed persons in different areas of the country to clip death notices. The company would then make a memorial card, using the information in the obituary, and send it to the survivors along with a solicitation for orders. In those days, of course, there were no addresses required for mail, unless a person lived in one of the largest cities, so it was easy to reach people this way. I would say this was a very effective marketing strategy. Below are images of Cora Schucker's memorial card, front and back.

Memorial cards, then, would have been ordered and received well after the funeral services concluded. Their purpose was to serve as a keepsake to memorialize the deceased; they were sized and marketed to be kept in the family photo album (along with the family’s cabinet photographs) and that is where you still find many of them today.

Memorial cards were also available with a photograph of the deceased glued onto the card, although this type of card was undoubtedly more expensive and is seen much less frequently than the others. The identifying information on the photograph card below is worn off, but it was for J. W. Pitt, who died December 29, 1899.

In the earlier years of their popularity, memorial cards tend to be black with gold lettering and designs, although other background colors were available. Beginning about 1900, other colors were used more frequently, primarily white and gray, and it may be that eventually black was no longer the preferred color. None of the memorial cards in my collection after World War I are black; all of those examples are white. My examples of gray cards date from the 1900-1910 era. Most cards have smooth edges, but I do have several deckle-edged cards, one of which is shown below.

Every card in my collection is printed with portrait orientation so that the cards could be used in photograph albums, save one example from 1927 which is done in landscape orientation (see below). This was, of course, well after cabinet photographs and cabinet photograph albums were no longer widely available and the demise of the memorial card may well be associated with the demise of the cabinet photograph. It appears that memorial cards declined in popularity by about 1915 and so far, I’ve found no examples dated later than 1927.

Cards are occasionally seen memorializing multiple deaths, as in the Lowe card above and this card.

Here's a nice card from the Wendell Company of Leipsic, Ohio.

This card was manufactured by the Stark Company of Philadelphia.

This card was manufactured by the Art Memorial Company of Baltimore.

Lastly, the card below is a white card with a double poem, done by the Wendell Company.

Future posts planned for this series will focus on memorial card poetry, a memorial card catalog, funeral/death notices, funeral cards, obituaries, and funeral memorial books.
© 2010, copyright Stephen Mills


  1. These Cabinet cards are beautiful along with the poetry Stephen, thank you for sharing them. I look forward to seeing more.

  2. That's what they're called! Thank you! I have several, and didn't know how to refer to them. (^.^)

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  4. I just found some cards in a shop the other day and didn't know anything about them. This was extremely helpful. I only took one as it stood out. It is from the Stark company and just like the Anne Holmes card you have except it is for Mrs. Inez O. Faulk, Died July 5th 1880, Aged 28 years and the poem on the bottom is different: 'Call not back the dear departed, ----In our Father's mansion fair.' E C Starke & Co memorial Cards is stamped on the back. If you would like a copy let me know.

  5. I want to congratulate you for sharing those precious cards. I think these are very much rare. The drawing of the card is very much graceful. Thank you again for sharing.

    1. very good blog thanks for sharing the picture..............

  6. Are any of the companies that manufactured the old memorial cabinet cards both in the U.S. and other countries still in existance?


  7. Some way of expressing our heartfelt sympathy is by giving a memorial cards. Those Cards are big help to those who wants to share their deepest sympathy to the family who had loss someone.

  8. Thank you for the information you provided! I have my great-grandmother's 1891 memorial card, made by George Mitchell. I am a retired American History teacher who is learning more about history every day!

  9. Great Blog! As a funeral afficionado myself, I find it all quite inspiring.

  10. I came across a card in a very old bible dated 1886 on the back. It has a name of Anna Healey age 47.