This page is from a Newman Brothers’ trade catalogue, dating from around the 1920s. The range of shrouds on offer was much more limited than the range of metal coffin furniture.
Ensuring that the deceased was well dressed in the coffin was paramount as it was customary for the body to stay at home for up to three days after death. This gave family and friends a chance to see their loved one for the last time. It was also a prime opportunity for the funeral furnisher or undertaker to advertise his merchandise. They were judged on how well the deceased was dressed and how suitable the attire was. The material chosen would indicate social status. Brushed cotton was for the working classes, with silk and linen used for more middle class robes.
By the start of the 19th-century, the variety of shroud styles grew with distinct styles for men, women, boys, and girls.
Men’s shrouds often had a bow resembling a bow tie. Women’s shrouds usually had a high neck frill. We first see the use of Swansdown, a popular material of choice at Newman Brothers, now replacing silk. The development of the shroud seems to have reached its climax in the 19th century and didn’t develop much after the 1920s. Shrouds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries bore a close resemblance to christening gowns or baby clothes. This was because they appeared mainly in white, which was still largely the case until 1970s and 1980s, where a broader range of colours were on offer.
Purple cashmere was available at the close of the 19th century for women, but it rarely got more adventurous than that.
Etiquette was important, but the rules around funerals and funeral attire began to break down after the First World War as attitudes to death began to change. The war had brought death to the nation on an unparalleled level. The idea of the Victorian funeral became inappropriate, especially when nearly half of the total dead of the British Empire had no known burial place. Given these circumstances how could you carry out a lavish Victorian funeral? You couldn’t. This forced society to become more practical which broke down the fixed etiquette of what was considered a respectable send-off. It took the pressure off, so to speak, and consequently saw the death of the Victorian funeral.
The earliest evidence of Newman Brothers manufacturing shrouds is from a newspaper advertisement dating from around 1914, where the company was advertising for ‘women to work in the shroud trade’. As Newman Brothers were originally brass founders, it’s likely that they focused solely on the metal side of the business before moving into producing textiles, which were known as ‘cerements’.
Cerements referred to gowns and robes, as well as the textile linings on the inside of the coffin. Newman Brothers probably began to manufacture shrouds not long after they set-up shop on Fleet Street, as it would make sense to become a one-stop shop, so speak.
Watch our video about shrouds here.