S.Y. Wilson’s Coffin

One of the Pink Palace’s newest acquisitions is a mid-twentieth century coffin that was donated by Susan Wilson Hoggard of S.Y. Wilson store in Arlington, Tennessee. S.Y. Wilson opened in 1893 as a general country store that sold provisions in eastern Shelby County. Samuel Young Wilson erected the store’s current building in 1912 in Arlington’s town square. Today, the family operates an antiques and artisan market in the three story building. When it was a country store, one of the more unusual offerings was coffins. State law allowed individual burials, and, especially in the country, family plots were not unusual. We can only assume that when these types of burials fell out of favor, Wilson’s store had a few coffins, in their original crates, remaining in the attic.

Susan Wilson Hoggard with the coffin crate

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, country stores sold clothing, farming equipment, food and other sundry items. Store owners or clerks served customers who requested items and waited while the clerk went to shelves to find them. The clerk also cut meats and cheeses. Then items were placed on the counter while the clerk added the total on available paper. One merchant remembered that his store was “where we put clothes on anything that had a back to wear them between the cradle and the grave, crowded their feet into something to keep them off the ground, and rammed food down everything that had a gullet to swallow it.”[1] Farmers were able to use their crops as collateral for supplies in a country store, which was known as the crop lien system. Many merchants gave farmers a yearly credit statement, divided into equal monthly portion. This system allowed the merchant to keep track of how much credit he was extending to an individual. Through this system, merchants frequently acted as bankers to their customers. Farmers brought in their harvest to sell, repaid their crop lien, and seldom had much money left. In his obituary, S.Y. Wilson was remembered as a kind man who “always carried people over” through the years to help them when they were having financial problems.

Getting the donated coffin from the attic to the museum took a team from the Pink Palace. The coffin was still in its original crate from the Memphis Casket Company, two steep wooden stairways from the street. We stood the crate on a handcart to move it to the top of the staircase and then laid blankets on the stairs. Supporters at the top and the bottom guided it down. Once we got to the bottom, we were able to reload it on the handcart and take it to the truck for transport to its new home at the Pink Palace where we plan to exhibit it in our new country store gallery.

Original crate label

Stairs

You can visit S.Y. Wilson Antique and Artisan Market and see exhibits about the store on the mezzanine. You can also visit a reproduction country store in the History Gallery at the Pink Palace.

Caroline Mitchell Carrico works in the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She has a graduate degree in history from The University of Memphis, and her favorite artifacts are the Cold War civil defense supplies.

[1] Thomas Clark, Pills, Petticoats and Plows, 15-6.

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