The Grave Truth about American Gravestones

Gravestone shapes are instinctively familiar. When passing a cemetery, we anticipate a hodge-podge of headstones ranging from upright tablets and crosses, to obelisks and mournful statues. Gravestones become our companions in eternal rest, but they memorialize both people and the ideals of their day. Using photographs and prints from the Winterthur collection, let’s stop and ponder some grave truths about American headstones in history.

From the 17th century to the present, the American gravestone trade experienced dramatic changes. Styles evolved through time, and production and acquisition methods transformed. Colonial Americans fashioned gravestones as bespoke objects on commission. A craftsmen would carve a headstone from locally quarried stone, typically, as a source of supplemental income.[1] These stones were lobed, rectangular tablets, carved in a puritanical tradition of imagery meant to instill piety in the living through grim reminders of their own death. It wasn’t until after the formation of the new nation, that gravestone culture began to change.

In the last decade of the 18th century, many Americans were eager to turn away from English traditions, and found inspiration in ancient Roman and Egyptian culture. [2] Americans adopted Classical and Egyptian motifs, in the form of tall columns crowned with amphorae, and pointed obelisks, a form associated with Ra, Egyptian God of the sun.[3] The end of the century also brought an increase in consumer culture and gradually, gravestones shifted from bespoke commission objects to personalize-able, ready-made consumer goods. Monument makers thus needed showrooms to display their wares and entice customers.

In the mid-19th century, English stone-cutter, Joseph Cartledge, opened the country’s oldest continually-operated monuments shop in Philadelphia in 1843.[4] Visual representations of these earliest interiors have not yet been discovered, but by the late 19th century such spaces came to resemble art galleries and promoted, luxury, personalization, artistry, and convenience. The 1883 trade card of A.W. Ayer, an importer and manufacturer of granite monuments from Elmira, New York, depicts such an interior.[5]

A.W. Ayer Trade Card Elmira, NY; 1883 Tradecard 86 X1.99. The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera

A.W. Ayer Trade Card, Elmira, NY, 1883.  Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera 86 x 1.99

In the image foreground, a salesman assists a fashionable couple as he gestures to his gleaming selection of steam-polished obelisks, columns, and statuary monuments. Behind the salesman, a man scrutinizes a monument as if it were a painting, while several other customers peruse the sales floor. The whole scene evokes the spectacle and grandeur of Victorian exhibition fairs. A second look at the scene also reveals a change in gravestone styles, with the Victorian influence now present in the ostentatious statuary monuments, a trend fueled by the wholesale romanticism of death typical of the late 19th century. [6]

Although gravestone design continued to evolve alongside broader decorative movements, the showroom sales-model persisted into the 20th century. When compared to a photograph of Foley Bros. Co. Mausoleum and Monument Works (ca. 1940), not much but the location has changed. [7] Taken 60 years after the A.W. Ayer trade card, the showroom floor is similarly staged and the same gravestone motifs persist, albeit with the addition of forms following mid-century design themes.

Interior of Foley Bros. Co. Mausoleum and Monument Works. United states; 1940 Photograph The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera

Interior of Foley Bros. Co. Mausoleum and Monument Works, c. 1940.  Winterthur Library,  Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera Collection 182

Jumping to 2016, gravestone styles have stabilized, but the enterprises have diversified. Business is conducted in exterior and interior spaces as well as in the digital realm. Joseph Cartledge’s Philadelphia shop has transformed into an international operation called Tombstones & The company operates an online store, and a warehouse and salesroom in Upper Darby, PA taking the tenets of luxury, personalization, and convenience to the next level, and blurring the lines between the spaces where the monument business was once conducted.

Despite this shift, many of the gravestones still trace their stylistic origins through the centuries and demonstrate that the visual landscape of the American cemetery is an additive process. Unlike many decorative art forms, gravestone styles persist for centuries after falling out of fashion. Perhaps this provides truth to the adage: the more things change the more they stay the same.


By Kristen Semento, WPAMC Class of 2017


This post is part of a series written in the fall of 2016 for a Historic Interiors class at Winterthur.  Students explored photographs housed in the miscellaneous photograph collection (Collection 182) in the Winterthur Library’s Joseph Downs Collection. These scenes each reveal a treasure trove of objects that invite further examination, speculation, and connections to other Winterthur collections.



[1] Jessie Lie Farber, Early American Graves: Introduction to the Farber Gravestone Collection. American Antiquarian Society, 2003. 13

[2] Kaitlin W, “Obelisk Tombstones.” Memorials in Stone. Accessed October 28, 2016.

[3] Ibid

[4] “About Us.” Tombstones and Accessed October 28, 2016.

[5] A.W. Ayer Trade Card, 86 X1.99. 1883. The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera., The Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, DE.

[6]Ragon, Michel. The Space of Death: A Study of Funerary Architecture, Decoration, and Urbanism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983. ,83

[7] Interior of Foley Bros. Co. Mausoleum and Monument Works. ca. 1940. The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, The Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, DE.

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