The 19th century is often seen as a century of change. It played a major part in both the first and second industrial revolutions and also saw changes in social customs. One of these social customs revolved around the practices of mourning and memorializing the dead.
Every culture has a way of commemorating the dead. In western cultures, the major mourning practices we may frequently think of: mourning pictures, hair jewelry, black garments, etc., came about since the 1600s. In the 19th century, especially, the world of social status was changing. Middle class families were gaining wealth, but “old-money” elites were hard-pressed to let them into the high-society social circles. As the middle class, growing in number and wealth, tried to prove themselves worthy of the upper echelons of society, they looked to social customs they could emulate and participate in, to prove their worthiness. Mourning became one such custom.
Memorial pictures, stitched using delicate silk threads and fine silk fabric, showed not only the financial wealth of those in mourning (all of that silk was not cheap), but also the financial freedom of the individual maker. In order to have the time to create a detailed, embroidered image commemorating the deceased, the living needed enough money to afford them the leisure time required to devote to this type of needlework.
Another aspect of mourning that proved wealth was the purchasing of mourning jewelry. The style of mourning jewelry changed throughout the 19th century following general fashions. However, mourning jewelry generally consisted of black jet, black enamel, and dulled metals. One very popular form of mourning jewelry was hair jewelry. Although, it is important to point out that while hair jewelry was used to commemorate the dead, it was often also used to commemorate the living and was fashionable in its own right during the middle of the Victorian Era…thus, not all hair jewelry is mourning jewelry.
Black garments are another item that are highly associated with mourning practices. Although, again, not all black garments are mourning garments, the ones that do come with provenance to a certain individual and are styled to a time in their life when they were likely in mourning, are quiet interesting. If finances allowed, mourning garments were often made directly after the death of a loved one and tended to be quite fashionable in terms of basic silhouette and construction. A variety of rules governed these types of garments, from the types of fabrics used (crepe, bombazine, voile) to the colors approved for each mourning period (primarily black, but also grey, dusty mauve, and even white for accents).
Strict mourning customs lasted well into the early 20th century, but slowly began to fade into little more than donning black for funerals or wearing a piece of jewelry to remember the deceased. Following these strict Victorian practices may have helped some to reach the status they so desired, but likely worked more in reverse, impressing upon those beneath them that they had obtained the amount of wealth necessary to carry out such stringent practices.
The CHS collection holds a number of items representing these mourning practices. Some of these items, and a few that are a bit creepy will be on display during the CHS Behind-the-Scenes tour this Saturday. Other items are currently on loan to the Mark Twain House and Museum for their exhibition entitled “Spiritualism, Seances, and Sam”.