Multi-tasking undertakers in trade cards

Trade card for Willm Boyce, coffinmaker
Trade Cards 28 (89)

Late 18th and early 19th century trade cards give us fascinating insights into undertaking. While there were dedicated undertakers, a startling number of tradesman undertook this role as a sideline to their main trades. Often these had an obvious relation to one of the multiple tasks of preparing a body for the grave (trunk makers, carpenters, drapers), administrating the wordly goods of the deceased (house appraisers, auctioneers), or equipping the mourners (drapers, hatters).

Trade Card for Willson, upholder, cabinet-maker, etc.
Trade Cards 4 (57)
Trade Card for J. & R. Shepherd, naval & military trunk makers
Trade Cards 28 (57)






Trade Card for Henry Slater, broker
Trade Cards 2 (54)







Trade Card for Wilson, Venetian spring parlour
Trade Cards 29 (112)

There are some curious juxtapositions, however: Venetian blind makers, for example and brush manufacturers.

Trade Card for Joseph Seager, brush manufacturer
Trade Cards 4 (3)






Trade Card for William Castle, cabinet & chair manufactory
Trade Cards 4 (43)

More than one tradesman omits to mention undertaker on his trade card and adds it by hand.




Trade cards reveal much about funeral practices in the 18th and 19th century, not least through their imagery. Depictions of funeral processions, hearses, the apparel of horses and carriages, mutes, and coffins differ from other sources in that they do not record an actual event but rather encapsulate in the restrained medium of a small-format engraving the correct appartenances of a funeral.

Trade Card for Thomas Matcham , hearse & mourning coach maker
Trade Cards 28 (114)



Funerals, even of the less afluent, were elaborate in 18th and 19th century England and codes of mourning dress and etiquette were to be strictly observed.  Charles Dickens notably decried the pomp and circumstance (and attendant expense) of even humble funerals and the employment of paid mourners, notably in the form of ‘mutes’, who kept vigil outside the house of the deceased and then accompanied the coffin.   Oliver Twist is perhaps literature’s best-known mutes, during his apprenticeship to Mr Sowerberry.

Trade Card for J. Taylor, carpenter, joiner & undertaker
Trade Cards 28 (106)

Their dress was distinctive: dark clothes with a sash, top hat and a stave swathed in black crape, although white was used for the funeral of an infant.

Trade cards and bill headings which give prices for undertaking services are also invaluable to social historians. The example below gives extensive detail of the components of each of nine classes of funeral for adults and four for children (but alas is not dated).

Trade advertisement for Alfred Beckett, furnishing undertaker
Trade Cards 28 (88)

















Trade cards (but not bill headings) in the John Johnson Collection are catalogued and digitised and can be accessed through our online catalogue. Undertakers as a primary trade are at shelfmark Trade Cards 28, but in order to find the multiplicity of cards which include undertaking, set the scrollbar to Subjects, Trades and Products in browse.



Shakespeare in the John Johnson Collection for scholars and dilettantes

The Bard immortalized in ephemera

Such is Shakespeare’s fame, that he has, inevitably, permeated the culture of our land. Quotations and misquotations from his works pepper advertisements from cosmetics to shoe polish, artificial teeth to linen mesh underwear. The Bard lent a certain gravitas.

Keen's mustard detail
Food 7 (38b) detail
Keen's mustard ad
Food 7 (38b)

Shakespeare’s portrait graced match boxes and cigar labels, and advertisements for (among others) soap, patent medicines, mustard & candles. In her excellent work Portraits of Shakespeare (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 2015) Katherine Duncan-Jones situates these humble ephemera as derivative of the Droeshout engraving or the Chandos portrait.

Shakespeare: Great English writers on candles
Oil and Candles 1 (57)


Shakespeare cigar lights
Labels 12 (43c)


Pears soap ad showing Shakespeare
Soap 7 (14)




Cellular cloth and clothing catalogue showing Shakespeare collar, 1892
Oxford Trade Pamphlets (7) p. 13







A women’s clothing company (The Shakespeare Manufacturing Company of  Manchester) took his name and a collar was called after Shakespeare.

Inevitably, many circulating libraries and bookshops bore his name or his portrait on their trade card.

Clubb & Greening trade card with Shakespeare portrait
Booktrade Trade Cards 4





Hodgson's New Characters in The Tempest Miniature Theatre sheet, 1823
Hodgson’s New Characters in The Tempest Miniature Theatre sheet, 1823

In our ProQuest project (free within the UK), in addition to advertisements, there are sheet music covers, minature theatre sheets, popular and humorous prints, scraps and prospectuses.

However, the major corpus of Shakespeare-related ephemera in the John Johnson Collection is theatrical, with over 2,000 playbills and programmes from London and provincial theatres fully indexed and digitised on our ProQuest site with some playbills from the end of the 18th century on DigitalBodleian.  These playbills constitute a major scholarly resource.

Mrs SIddons in Macbeth, April 14 1812
London Playbills Covent Garden vol. 1811-1812 (159), with Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth

Not only can researchers find details of which plays were performed, when and in which venue, but also who performed them, in whose edition and in what context. As all performers are indexed, scholars can find Sarah Siddons in Macbeth, John Kemble in Coriolanus, Edmund Kean in Richard III.

The couplings of Shakespeare tragedies with somewhat lighter works are alien to our current theatre-going practices and reveal much about the nature of an evening’s entertainment expected by Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians.  Inserted into these long evenings were songs, dances, ballets, burlettas, masquerades, etc.  Musicologists can search for specific pieces or composers of incidental music or discrete works.

In addition to resources available electronically, there are eight boxes and three folders of ephemera and secondary material relating to the Bard, including undigitised prospectuses of Shakespeare editions. The Shakespeare index is online.

Don’t forget to explore ballads relating to Shakespeare too: