October 29, 2013

Polishing Mother's silver—and Mother, too?

by Christine Kirkham, Coordinator, Montana Digital Newspaper Project

The Montana Digital Newspaper Project offers glimpses into once-popular ideas that today may strike us as odd or even horrifying. This 1890 article from The Anaconda Standard describes a new process for preserving the bodies of the dead. 

Anaconda Standard, Dec. 7, 1890, p. 11
Anaconda Standard, Dec. 7, 1890, p. 11
Instead of embalming, families were advised to have their loved ones electroplated. "In from eight to 10 days, at a price varying from 300 to 3,000 francs ($60 to $600), you can have the life-size statue of your mother-in-law, should she happen to luckily (sic) die, as an ornament for your parlor."
The process was developed by a Paris physician, who promised that “modern Cleopatras may now smile in their last moments, knowing full well that their beauty will be handed down to future generations."


This modern mortuary practice promised to benefit public parks, as well, because "the finely formed bodies of dead women" could serve as statues and fountains. Electroplating bodies appeared occasionally in the news until the early 1900s. Why the practice did not catch on is unknown.

Eerily, the Anaconda Standard story abuts a large advertisement for Leyson's jewelry store, headlined as follows:

 Leyson's ad

You'll find the same news story, word for word, in the Cape Girardeau Democrat (May 30, 1891) and the Roanoke Times (June 28, 1891). All three papers were reprinting an item that originally appeared in The New York Journal. Reprinting texts (not always with attribution) was commonplace in nineteenth-century newspapers.

* The practice was profiled in Scientific American: "Electroplating the Dead," vol. 31, no. 797, April 11, 1891, p. 227.