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Joseph F. Birch & Sons Records

 Collection
Identifier: MS2056

Collection Scope and Content

The Collection consists of: five ledgers, a number of individual documents, and one medal. The collection is housed in the Special Collections vault. Each of the ledger books is individually phase-boxed and the medal and other documents are housed in one clamshell box. Collection materials bulk date from 1824 to 1889.

All the materials in the collection relate to the Joseph F. Birch & Sons Company, which specialized in cabinet and coffin manufacturing. The company eventually diversified, became a funeral directory of sorts, dealing in all funeral arrangements, from grave digging to burial shrouds. Joseph F. Birch & Sons was located in Georgetown in Washington, DC and as far as our records indicate was in business from as least 1848 to 1889.

Dates

  • 1824-1962
  • Majority of material found within 1824 - 1889

Creator

Restrictions on Access

Some records may be restricted.

Restrictions on Use

Some material may be copyrighted or restricted. It is the patron's obligation to determine and satisfy copyright or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections.

Historical Note

The records of the Town's oldest undertakers, Joseph F. Birch sons, of 3034 M Street, are of great interest to historians of Georgetown.

In the early 1820's, Joseph F. Birch opened a cabinet making business in a little frame building on the corner of Bridge (now M) and Thomas Jefferson Streets. Mr. Birch made and mended furniture for an exclusive residential address. In the pre-department store era, there was nothing that could not be purchased in the quality houses of Bridge Street... silver, jewelry, furs, and silk hats all were there for the elegant Georgetown trade.

But in 1842, under pressure of public demand, Joseph Birch switched completely to coffin making. In 1870, the handsome brick building, which stands today on the same site, replaced the original "coffin-rooms." Joseph Birch's son, Isaac, succeeded him in the business and on Mr. Isaac's death in 1934, he in turn, was succeeded by his son-in-law, Archer L. Haycock, the present manager.

While Birch's was still in the cabinet making business, an occasional wooden casket would be made on request, but there was never a supply of coffins kept on hand. That was considered a portent of bad luck, a superstition that today, along with factory production, has been forgotten. Mr. Haycock, who has a fine store of memories of his own, and is well versed in the tales passed on by Birch pere and fils, recalls that the country people would ride into town with a stick the length of the deceased and a notch on the stick to mark the shoulder width. They would take the finished article back to the country - North Virginia, Arlington, and Falls Church - and the undertaker's work was done.

Joseph F. Birch Sons was for many years the only undertaking firm in Georgetown. The incidence of epidemics in the Town and the alarmingly high child mortality rate can be traced by the number of children's names appearing during the same period in the records; and some of the early influences in the Town can be seen in such stark, anonymous entries as: "Name: Irish Man; Burying ground: Catholick (or perhaps Poorhouse)."

The Civil War brought many changes to Birch's. In their records it is shown that the deceased army officers were sent to their home states. Their names were mentioned specifically and their final resting place indicated: perhaps Massachusetts, Vermont or New York States. The soldiers were registered only as "soldier" and were buried locally. With the need to send the officers back to their homes, the Government recognized that advanced embalming methods were required. Dr. Thomas Holmes was sent from New York to Washington to instruct the local undertakers. Mr. Haycock still has the old wooden operating table used in those days.

His records during those war years show the names of perhaps 10 or 12 soldiers buried on the one day. This he explains quite simply. Between Georgetown and Analoston (now Roosevelt) Island there was a cable where a little boat was pulled from one side to the other. After the fighting up the river at Ball's Bluff or Chain Bridge, the bodies of the slain would be washed downstream and would catch on this cable. Perhaps once a week the bodies would be taken off and buried.

Though in the long years of their existence Joseph F. Birch Sons have devoted most of their time to undertaking, perhaps in the long run they will be remembered for their fine cabinet making. Not long ago, Mr. Haycock went to visit an old friend in Maryland. Her family had for many years lived in Georgetown. Intrigued by a black walnut "Governor Winthrop" desk, Mr. Haycock asked permission to look at the trademark at the back of the copy drawer. To his delight he found the seal of Birch's craftsmanship. He wonders how many other such items, made a hundred years ago in the little workshop on M street, may still be found in the gracious homes of Georgetown?

Transcribed from The Georgetowner, Vol. 7, No.49, Thursday, August 9, 1962 and reprinted from the July 14, 1995 issue.

Extent

5.75 Linear Feet

Language

English

Abstract

Collection consists of: five ledgers, a number of individual documents, and one medal from Georgetown's oldest undertakers, Joseph F. Birch sons, of 3034 M Street. The collection is housed in the Special Collections vault. Each of the ledger books is individually phase-boxed and the medal and other documents are housed in one clamshell box. Collection materials bulk date from 1824 to 1889.

Collection Organization

Organized into three series: Ledgers; Individual documents; and Realia.

Acquisition Information

The Special Collections Department of the Gelman Library purchased the Joseph F. Birch and Sons Collection in 1995 from a private owner at the Quaker Antique Mall, located in Quakertown, PA.
Title
Guide to the Joseph F. Birch & Sons Records, 1824-1962
Status
Completed
Author
Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University
Date
2006
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University Repository

Contact:
2130 H Street NW
Washington 20052 United States of America