Student Spotlight: Samantha Comerford, “Dresses for Death: Mass-Produced Burial Garments in America, 1880-1915”

photograph of a white silk dress inside a dress box.
19th-century burial dress. Image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society and Dave Driscoll. Object #2845.

Samantha (Sam) Comerford, a recent Master’s degree graduate of the Department of Art History at the University of WisconsinMadison and the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection (HLATC) Assistant Collections Manager shares her MA thesis research, her experiences with the collection, and how they resonate with her practice as a maker.

CDMC: Congratulations, Sam! Can you tell us a bit about your studies?

Sam: I just finished my master’s in the Department of Art History. I focus on material culture as it relates to the lives and deaths of women and children in nineteenth century America. I love looking to textile objects and the things we don’t always consider to be art to understand what life was like two centuries ago. If you can ever take a class on material culture whether it is an intro course or seminar you really should! It is fascinating to think about how the clothing we wear, the trinkets we collect, and the chairs we sit in define us and our cultural moment!

CDMC: Tell us about your thesis research; what is your “elevator speech”?

Pair of white satin children's shoes near a tape measure.
19th-century children’s shoes. Image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society and Dave Driscoll. Object #1983.267.2a-b.

Sam: My thesis, Dresses for Death: Mass-Produced Burial Garments in America, 1880-1915, is based around three objects: a burial dress for a girl between 4 & 8 years old, a pair of children’s shoes, and a pair of women’s shoes, all mass-produced for burial by manufacturers between 1880 and 1915 now held by the Wisconsin Historical Society. I used these objects as evidence to understand how funerals became a consumer experience during this period. I loved getting to look really closely at these three to see how they can tell us about consumerism. For example, the two pairs of shoes have soles made of cardboard! Meaning they were not made for anyone to walk in, they were just made to dress someone entering the grave. I found the details of these objects, such as those soles, so haunting and exciting. I learned a lot about the foundations of how we hold funerals today and where the rituals we practice originated. One thing I didn’t discuss in my thesis was that there were young girls employed in the making of these objects within this time span. There are some really fascinating newspaper interviews with laboring girls under 18 who talk about their experiences sewing in factories next to coffins. In one interview a girl recounts how they held a fake funeral using the coffins on their lunch break. This was a heartbreaking and humorous detail as the girls did not earn much, but they still engaged in imaginative play and giggled when they could.

CDMC: Can you tell us about your work for the CDMC/HLATC?

pair of ladies satin shoes with storage box on a black background
19th-century lady’s shoes. Image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society and Dave Driscoll. Object #1983.267.3a-b.

Sam: I started with HLATC as a Collections Assistant and have since become the Assistant Collections Manager. I work with other graduate and undergraduate students as well as the incredible CDMC staff! I love getting to work looking at historic textiles every day. Seeing tiny stitches, woven fibers, and beading from the past is thrilling every time I am at work, it’s so amazing to think about the hands that created each of the objects we house. I also love doing any preparation work for our exhibitions. It means I get to go in and hand sew all day long, I love to hand sew in my free time, so doing so at work makes me feel so lucky! My other favorite thing is spending time with all of my co-workers in our offices. We haven’t done that in more than a year, but it was so fun to get to catch up with friends and talk about our favorite pieces when pulling them out for visits.

CDMC: Do you have a favorite memory of working with the collection/gallery?

Sam: My favorite memories are from when I got to pull textiles out with my friend Gioia (who graduated with MLIS last year). We would always pull things out and talk about how we might wear a printed textile or how we might style a dress. It was so fun to imagine the textiles brought to life! I have so many favorite objects it’s hard to choose just one, it seems like every time I am in it changes as I open new drawers. I do love a lace piece we have of a girl holding a goose, I find it so sweet (L.P.E.0313)! And we have an incredible vest from Eastern Europe that I have many photos of because I love the fabric and trim, and someday I want to recreate it for myself! Additionally, I think every semester I used an object from the Textile Collection for a final project. Getting to really see what is within the Collection allowed me to use it as a resource for many projects.

19th-century print showing two women in elaborate dresses.
Trade catalogue for the National Casket Company in Baltimore, MD. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.

CDMC: What are your plans post-graduation? Or, what are you looking forward to this summer?

Samantha: I’ll be staying on with HLATC this Summer and Fall assisting with exhibitions and projects! I will be taking some fun trips with my boyfriend and family this summer and I cannot wait for those. I also have lots of quilting and knitting projects that I put on hold while I finished my coursework and I am ready to dive into those and lots and lots books!

CDMC: Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your work, Sam! Congratulations, again, on graduation and we are so happy you are staying with us!

headshot of Samantha Comerford standing in an archway laughing wearing a black and grey dress.Samantha Comerford graduated this May from UW–Madison with a Master’s degree in Art History. She is currently the Assistant Collections Manager with the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection at the Center for Design and Material Culture in the School of Human Ecology at UW–Madison. She loves studying the material culture of nineteenth-century America, especially textile objects. She also loves knitting, quilting, reading, and spending time outdoors!