Encore: Embalming as a Fine Art Conspicuously Absent from The Great Exhibition: 1851

Queen Victoria opening the Great Exhibition, Louis Haghe

Queen Victoria opening the Great Exhibition, Louis Haghe

It was on this day in 1851 that Her Majesty Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition. Here is an encore post relating some of the delicate decisions taken and difficulties surmounted by the selection committee.


By Frederick Owen

The talk about the exhibition at Wembley, England, turns one’s mind to some of the big shows of the past, especially to that of 1851, which was held in Hyde Park, London, and to humourous recollection of a man who was at that time quite young, and served as secretary to the selection committee. He it was who, in faultless handwriting, “returned with thanks.” They were courteous little letters of course and showed no trace of the chuckles with which they were often punctuated.

   In his power to see the funny side of his job, he was quite alone. The hardworked committee unfortunately finding nothing to smile at in the thousand and one things sent by an enthusiastic public. They had entered upon their task with the consciousness that the exhibition was to be a vast educational force, and wore the proper looks of profundity in their faces. Unfortunately, the public had got the wrong idea. They thought an exhibition was a sort of magnified museum, and sent curiosities in van loads. The natural history specimens in themselves would have overcrowded an ordinary museum.

   There were stuffed dogs which had been born with eight legs, cats with four ears, calves with three heads, as well as the “gorilla shot by the uncle.”

A Thing of Terror.

The unusually monotonous task of unpacking parcels became in this instance a thing almost of terror. The removal of a sheet of paper might leave a hapless workman exposed to the glare of a four-eyed owl or a cat that “had killed fourteen shoats.”

   A stuffed tabby with tiger teeth, damaged ears, and fierce glass eyes to match bore the label, “A cat which killed 3,475 rats, ten shoats and would fetch a rabbit at any time.”

   The lady who received it back with “the committee’s regrets…many thanks,” was amazed that it should be refused by any educational agency.

   The committee was incurably serious. It failed to smile even over the little affair of the box of brown dust that came through the mail. It was the chairman himself who dealt with the innocent package and who stirred up the powder with his forefinger. Could it be snuff? He rather rashly sampled it. No, it had no odor. Another dip of the finger and a card was revealed.

   The burned remains of a large dog, which weighted quite 100 pounds and was reduced to six ounces of dust in three hours by W____’s cremating apparatus. No smell and only six pounds of charcoal required.

Remarks Omitted.

   The frenzied used of a pocket handkerchief and some remarks which would not look well in print closed the incident. No one dared to mention cremation again to the chairman. Thus early did the fog of prejudice gather and put intelligent selection out of the bounds of hope.

   It was hardly to be expected that embalming would be viewed imaginatively. The right atmosphere had not generated by the time the first sample came in. A zealous American called and unpacked his own parcel. It contained the body of Julia Pastrana. Julia had been exhibited for years as a half baboon and half woman. Now that she was dead she was obviously more valuable, because she was embalmed and was a fine example of this rare art. All her guileless owner asked was that she should be fixed up as a side show at so much a peep of which he was to receive half. He expected to receive a great welcome, not, perhaps, because of Julia’s beauty, but because she was the best embalmed thing outside of Egypt.

   If Julia was regarded as noneducational and noninteresting, not much was to be expected when it came to imperishable coffins. The earnest gentleman who had invented the coffin brought half a dozen as samples, and as they lay in the receiving room—delivered before breakfast—it looked as though one each had been provided for the committee. The chairman arrived first, tapped one of them with the toe of his boot and walked solemnly away. The clerk needed no other instruction. He wrote: “The committee regrets…with many thanks.”

Lids Not Even Removed.

   The would-be exhibitor almost broke into tears on discovering that the committee had not even removed the lids of his caskets. Inside two of his “indestructibles” he had placed two “indestructible corpses,” embalmed “by his own infallible methods, which were intended to prove convincingly to an intelligent public,” etc. But the “intelligent public” got no chance. This dim-eyed committee was supreme, and there was no appeal. The exhibition opened without a single corpse on view. Undertakers who paid to go in must surely have been found at the turnstiles demanding their money back. Embalming as a fine art was scotched for a generation.

   Another exhibit that might have advanced the study of embalming was an example of the art as practiced by one of the Indian tribes. The body was drawn up into a bundle and the dark face grinned over a pair of bony knees. As the corpse was shriveled by the application of hot sand it made a compact and handy bundle, and when trussed up and bound, occupied but little room. Indeed, it need have taken up no real space, for it was provided with a hook and rope, by which it could be slung from the roof. In the dim light and to unsuspecting visitors…but it did not come to that. The owner swallowed his disappointment and tried again at the exhibition of 1861, when after a second turn-down, he sold his treasure to a traveling menagerie.               

Did nobody get the bright idea of buying up the rejected stuff and running a rival show? It was fortunate for the committee that Barnum was young and his genius undeveloped.

   It is understood that Wembley has learned all there is to learn from the past and that nobody has been disappointed this time. But the selection committee may have had its worried moments all the same.

Indianapolis [IN] Star 8 June 1924: p. 53

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The Hyde Park exhibition was, of course, The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, opened by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1851. Wembley was the British Empire Exhibition held in 1924 and opened by His Majesty King George.  Queen Mary’s dolls house was on exhibit at Wembley and Mrs Daffodil remembers taking one or two hints on household arrangement from that admirably laid-out manor house in miniature.  You may see several reels of motion pictures from Wembley at British Pathe.  The corpse of the unfortunate Julia Pastrana was only recently given a proper burial.  The press maligns the poor creature when they call her “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” She had a very neat figure and was of an amiable and confiding disposition.

Cremation was quite outré at the time of the Great Exhibition, but there was a movement among the burial reformers to encourage it; hence the “cremating apparatus.”

For more on embalming, corpses, and cremation, see  The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition. For fresh daily posts on Victorian mourning and death, see The Victorian Book of the Dead Facebook page.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.




2 thoughts on “Encore: Embalming as a Fine Art Conspicuously Absent from The Great Exhibition: 1851

  1. Pingback: Encore: Embalming as a Fine Art Conspicuously Absent from The Great Exhibition: 1851 | BA Illustration Year One– Shaih's Blog

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