The Man Behind the Mask


Joseph Sears’ death mask. (Kenilworth Historical Society)

For my first post I decided to start with one of the more startling objects I’ve found in the collection, Joseph Sears’ death mask. Until I happened upon it in an unmarked box, I had no idea we had such a macabre object in the collection.

A death mask is a mold of a person’s face, usually cast in wax or plaster and the impression is typically taken directly from the corpse. They can be used as mementos of the dead, but some were used to create postmortem portraits. Death masks date back to the Middle Ages and eventually fell out of style in the nineteenth century.

You don’t have to travel far to find one. The Chicago History Museum recently had one of Lincoln’s death masks on display in their exhibit Undying Words. From Napoleon to Lincoln, museums all over the world have death masks in their collections. There are even a few museums whose sole mission is collecting death masks. Here is a fascinating article about the masks and their history if you want to lean more.

Now for the man behind the mask. Joseph Sears was a successful businessman, a philanthropist, and the founder of Kenilworth. (No relation to Sears-Roebuck) Sears was born on March 24, 1843 in Lockport, IL, however he lived in Chicago for much of his childhood and early adult life. In 1868 he married Helen Barry and started working at N.K. Fairbank, a company that manufactured lard, oil, soap, and candles.  He soon moved to the fashionable Prairie Avenue neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago. Sears witnessed the Great Fire of 1871 and lost several children to the unsanitary conditions in Chicago.


Joseph Sears photographed on Christmas 1911, just before his death. (Kenilworth Historical Society)

Haunted by his loses, Sears decided to use his wealth and develop his own pristine community fashioned off of those he visited in England. In 1889, he formed the Kenilworth Company and purchased several plots of land on Chicago’s North Shore between Wilmette and Winnetka. It didn’t take long for Sears to layout streets, construct a gas works, and begin building houses.  He donated much of the parkland in Kenilworth, as well as the land for the local elementary school named after him. Sears died in his home in on January 30, 1912.

Now on to the mask. It was most likely donated in 1965 when the Society received a sizable amount of Sears’ family items from Joseph’s descendants. The mask was most likely created during a short window between when Sears died and when he was cremated on February 3, 1912. The sculptor, John Paulding, engraved his signature on the bottom of the mask.

Paulding attended the Art Institute of Chicago and was well known for his World War I sculptures. A few of his sculptures became very popular and casts of them can be found all over the United States.


John Paulding’s engraved signature on Joseph Sears death mask (Kenilworth Historical Society)

Joseph Sears is a gargantuan figure in Kenilworth’s history. His shadow falls across nearly every story this village has to tell. Over one-hundred years after his death, Joseph Sears’ lasting impression on Kenilworth can been still be seen.


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