Mourning customs and rituals of the 19th century were clearly defined and adhered to as much as finances and circumstances allowed, but in today’s society of medical advances and wonder drugs it is, perhaps, difficult to understand the need for such practices. In order to understand them we must delve into conditions of the 19th century including disease, lack of sterile practices, diets which lacked essential vitamins and nutrients, and medical treatments barely a step above witchcraft which made death much more prevalent than in the 20th century.
Doctors of the 19th century were not required to fulfill the education requirements we associate with the practicing of medicine, and standard medical treatment consisted of blistering, bleeding, and treatment with herbs and plants many of which today are considered fatal in themselves. Germs were not known and sterile conditions yet to be discovered.
Medicines were usually what came out of the herb garden tended to by the lady of the house, or tonics peddled by travelling medicine shows. Antibiotics were yet to be discovered and people routinely died from something as simple as a cut finger.
Childbirth claimed the lives of countless women, enough so that many women made arrangements regarding the care of their infant should they not survive delivery. Infant formulas and sterile bottles did not exist making the feeding and care of an infant a major task when the mother did not survive. Often the infant soon followed her to the grave. In tracing families we see that it was common for men to have multiple wives during their lifetime, and childbirth is one of the reasons.
Disease, accidents, poor nutrition, and impure water claimed the lives of a large percentage of children in the 19th century. Couples had large families with the hope of raising a few of the children to adulthood. Contagious diseases such as typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, smallpox, diptheria, and whooping cough could easily take the lives of an entire family. Quarantines were put into practice to try and prevent the spreading of such diseases but many communities are known to have lost the major portion of their population in epidemics. Flu claimed thousands of lives in the 19th century as did diarrhea, pneumonia, consumption (tuberculosis), and infection.
Remedies included such bizarre practices as: burning gunpowder in the sickrooms, wearing bags of camphor or asaphedita around the neck, sprinkling houses with vinegar, placing an ax under the bed to stop bleeding, placing a knife under a pillow to cut pain, the use of leaches, or the intentional blistering of the skin which supposedly drew disease out of the body. Preventive medicine was unheard of and treatments such as inoculation for smallpox killed an many patients as they saved.
Death was so prevalent that mourning customs and rituals were refined from several centuries of superstitions and beliefs as a way of showing proper respect for the deceased. These customs called for changes in clothing, and in one’s way of life that are today difficult to comprehend. In a time when families perhaps needed the support of family and friends more than at any other time they were isolated and expected to shoulder the burden of family responsibilities and overwhelming grief alone.
In the early 19th Century mourning had not taken on the significance it did in the later Victorian era.
There was no special clothing worn, no books which outlined mourning customs, and no elaborate meals and wakes provided. At the death of a family member the family buried them simply and without a lot of ceremony. The wearing of black, however, is a custom that has been put into practice for centuries. It dates back to the time when Death was feared by the living and wearing black was thought to make mourners as inconspicuous as possible so that Death would not claim them as its next victim.
Mourning had become more regulated by the 19th century, however, with regard to customs and clothing. The rigidity of the mourning rituals were aimed primarily at women, particularly widows. Men often had very few changes in their outward appearance. They were expected to wear a black or dark suit to a funeral if possible, and the use of a black armband was considered a sign of respect. For the most part they went about their daily routine of running the farm, plantation, or business as usual. Armbands were usually worn a period of a few months to a year, then the widower was free to remarry if he chose, especially if he had young children to care for.
Men attending funerals wore black or white silk hat bands as a sign of respect for the deceased. White silk was used only if the deceased was a young girl otherwise black prevailed. Crape hat bands replaced silk after a proper time. Hatbands were cut one nail to three nails deep depending on the relationship of the deceased. (A nail was a measurement for fabric).
Rules governing the etiquette of mourning for women varied depending on the relationship to the deceased with that of a widow mourning a departed husband being the most rigid and lasting the longest. Mouring as it pertained to women was divided into three stages – heavy or deep mourning, full mourning, and half mourning with distinct differences between each one.
Magazines of the day such often carried advice on the customs of mourning pertaining to both clothing and acceptable behavior during the mourning period.
Mourning for a spouse generally lasted one to two and a half years; for a parent six months to one year; for children (if above ten years old) from six months to one year; below that age from three to six months, and for an infant six weeks and upward; for siblings six to eight months; for grandparents six months; for uncles and aunts three to six months; for cousins or aunts and uncles related by marriage from six weeks to three months; for more distant relatives or friends from three weeks upward.
The first stage called either heavy or deep mourning lasted a minimum of a year and a day to two years. In reading primary sources lengths of mourning varied somewhat. Some of the variation can be accounted for by differences in England and America. It was characterized by the use of black clothing, jewelry, veils, bonnets, outer wear, and the use of black crape was used extensively to cover both clothing and bonnets. The use of crape to cover outer wear and bonnets usually lasted a year and a day at the end of which time the crape could be removed.
Crape was crimped silk and the dyes used were very unstable. If caught in the rain the crape not only drooped pitifully, but the color would “run” ruining anything it came in contact with. Liners were sometimes added to the hems of dresses as a protective barrier. This in itself limited a widow’s ability to venture far from home.
The fabric of choice for heavy mourning was wool or a wool blend such as serge, alpaca, or merino. Bombazine and Henrietta were used in the early stages of mourning until after the turn of the century. Any fabric used for heavy mourning was dull with no luster or shine to it. “The color of black for mourning should be a dull dead hue, not a blue-black, nor yet with any brown shade”.
Many period recipe books carry instructions for restoring the color to black fabric or for washing in hopes of preventing its fading. Ingredients used included ox gall, fuller’s earth, urine, egg yolks, vitriol, gum arabic, and others. It was recommended that merinoes be washed in bran water with cream of tartar added.
For heavy mourning collars and cuffs were black – often covered in black crape. Hats were not worn for mourning, using instead a bonnet which was covered by a black crape veil. “The vail is always of crape, and in this country is worn very long; – most inconveniently and absurdly so, indeed. In deep mourning, here it is customary not to wear any white – even the cuffs and collar are of crape”.
Mourning clothing was expected to be plain with little or no adornment. “Bows, flowers, and decorative finishing generally are wholly out of place in deep mourning, the only fit trimming of which consists of crape folds….Plain net, with black ribbon intermixed, or clear muslin, edged with very narrow net, makes suitable collars and cuffs – lace and embroidery being wholly inadmissable”.
Linings of mourning dresses were recommended to be of gray and never of black paper muslin. “Even then it is difficult to prevent the skirts from being stained by the black dye. It is advisable, however, to run a piece of some black material inside the hem of the skirt, about a finger’s depth, as it will look better than the gray if it happened to show”.
Gloves were made of cotton or silk with crocheted or knit being acceptable. Dull black kid gloves were acceptable in the first stages of mourning. Handerchiefs were white – approximately l8-20 inches squre, with a black border or band of varying widths, decreasing in size as the period of mourning drew closer to an end. Sheer white fabrics were preferred for handkerchiefs. Queen Victoria and daughters embroidered white lawn handkerchiefs some of which survive and are housed at the Museum of London. One of her favorite decorations was black embroidered tears.
Hoods were commonly worn by female mourners made of black or white silk, book muslin, or cambric.
Black fur and seal skin were acceptable in any presentation during mourning.
Underpinnings were the standard of the day with the exception that a black band was often added to the hem of the outermost petticoat in case it were to show underneath the hem of the dress. Underpinnings and handerchiefs were of traditional white fabric because of the unstable nature of black dyes of the period – no one wanted the dye to rub off on their skin, or stain their face from the use of a black handkerchief.
Jewelry was not used at all for the first few months of mourning, but then for the remainder of this period of mourning consisted of black jewelry with the material of choice being jet. Jet was a substance mined in the Whitby region of England and popularized for mourning by Queen Victoria who remained in mourning the remainder of her life after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Diamonds were sometimes set into the jet as mementos of the deceased.
Hair jewelry was often used as mourning jewelry with it being distinguished from other hair jewelry by the use of symbols such as weeping willows, urns, weeping women, tombs, lillies, lambs, butterfiles, roses, etc. The use of photo jewelry – usually used under thick heavy glass was also used in mourning, often depicting loved ones or the deceased.
For those observing the strictest of mourning customs jewelry was often not worn at all during the mourning period and mourning jewelry was only put into use after the mourning period had officially ended. Mourning jewelry most often consisted of rings, broaches, bracelets, lockets, and earrings.
Mourning rings were traditionally given out to mourners as keepsakes of the departed. Sometimes these were given in large numbers adding up to a considerable expense for the family of the deceased.
By the second year of heavy mourning silk might be substituted for the wool, however, the use of black crape was still prevalent. At this point black lace might be used to trim the collars and cuffs. Veils could be shortened and made of lighter fabrics at this point, possibly net or tulle.
After another year or so a widow could enter full mourning if she chose. This was characterized by replacing the black collar and cuffs with white, and by discarding the veil. Crape was generally discarded at this point, and jewelry of a wider variety was worn.
Jewelry for full mourning included more gold or silver, the use of pearls, especially seed pearls, etc. These were often combined with the jet or other black stones.
After a period of six months to a year a widow could enter half mourning which was characterized by the addition of lilac, lavender, violet, mauve, gray, and similar colors. She was no longer limited to black, and patterned fabric was acceptable. Jewelry was worn with more regularity and in a wider variety of choices. Half mourning was characterized by the use of white or black ornaments for evening wear, and bonnets were white, lavender silk, or straw.
It was recommended that for half mourning the lilac and other colors be combined with black, and any combination of more than two colors was not advisable, unless it might be gray, white, and black. “It is a little singular that while the combination of any one color with black is among the most graceful, two or more spoil the effect.”
Love ribbon was a type of ribbon used exclusively for mourning and was usually white or black. It was very plain with no pattern other than stripes. Silk ribbon was to be avoided.
During mourning not only did a widow or woman have to deal with the restrictions of her wardrobe, but also her personal life and activities were strictly limited. For specified periods she did not leave the home for business or visiting, and did not receive visitors. This seems, perhaps, almost cruel by today’s standards when a woman was expected to bear her burden alone at a time when her grief was often almost unbearable. After a respectable time the widow could send out black edged cards advising friends and family that her time of heavy mourning had passed and she was ready to receive visitors. Prior to that time she did not even go out into the yard without the heavy crape veil covering her face.
In the unhappy event a second relative died during a widow’s period of mourning her length of mourning was extended the amount of time proper to the relationship of the second deceased.
Parties, weddings, and other social affairs were beyond the reach of women in heavy mourning and to attend such an affair undoubtedly brought about the scrutiny and disapproval of the entire community. Widows often had to remarry as soon as decency allowed in order to be able to support their children, and stories survive of widows remarrying while still in mourning for the first husband, but this was frowned upon except in the strictest of circumstances.
During mourning widows often had to attempt to make a living for themselves for the first time in their lives. During the War Between the States when men died in record numbers women found ways to earn money giving way to a vastly different lifestyle for women from the late Victorian era through present.
Widows often put away their mourning clothes when their period of mourning had ended, however, clothing and crape manufacturers perpetuated the myth that to do so was unlucky. The only people it was in fact unlucky for were these manufacturers who might sell less when women saved it. Southern women were far more likely to save such clothing should it be needed again if they knew there was no way to replace it. Often Southern women could not obtain proper mourning clothing and resorted to dyeing existing clothing if possible. Many Southern journal entries describe the heartbreak of not being able to properly mourn the death of a family member during this time.
In both England and America fashion magazines such as Godey’s Ladies Book, Harper’s, and Petersen’s often carried ads for ladies wishing to sell mourning clothing and through such it was passed on from a lady who no longer required it to one who found herself in need of it.
During the Victorian era children and even babies were put into mourning clothing and a child would mourn the loss of a parent for six months. Babies often wore white robes trimmed in black.
The worst fear of death during the 19th century wasn’t death itself, but the fear of not being properly mourned. Victorians also feared possibly being buried alive, and periodically tombs were opened and remains were found near doorways or on the floor indicating that such fears were grounded. Funerals were often prolonged to make sure the deceased was in fact dead before burial took place.
Widows were often excused from attending the funeral of their dearly departed husband in the belief that the grief would be too much for her to bear. It was not uncommon for invitations to be sent out to funerals much as we would to parties today. Many communities had designated persons whose responsibility it was to deliver these invitations. They received remuneration for their services varying with the number of stops made and the distance travelled.
Mourning clothing was sometimes kept on hand by wealthier women and women were known to exchange their colored clothing with neighbors and friends for black when circumstances dictated.
One source warned women of the dangers of wearing crape veils for extended periods of time due to breathing the chemicals associated with making the crape. Women were advised that if wearing the veil over their face for an extended period of time they should periodically lift it and breath pure fresh air before dropping the veil back over their face.
By the middle of the 19th century funeral invitations were often elaborate and sent with the idea that they would be framed or otherwise kept as a remembrance of the deceased. These usually were on black backgrounds or printed with black borders. Anyone receiving an invitation to a funeral was expected to attend and very few excuses were accepted. This often put friends at a decided disadvantage as they were expected to cancel any previously made plans in favor of attending the funeral. Victorian parlors often contained several such memorials of deceased friends and family members.
Mourning pictures were painted or embroidered in silk, cotton, or wool and served as remembrances of the deceased, and quilts were often made tracing various family members from birth to death.
In many communities custom dictated that the church bell toll one time for each year of the departed’s life and this custom continued well into the 20th century. Businesses often closed as a sign of respect for the deceased, especially if the deceased was of some social standing.
Often funeral arrangements were made during the lifetime of the deceased. Clothing might be made and kept in anticipation of a wake and funeral. Boards were often kept for years for making a coffin when it was needed. This writer had one ancestor who went so far as to plant two trees on each side of the front walk and treasured them to maturity at which time they were cut and the lumber used to make coffins for both he and his wife. This was the intent when the trees were planted and they were buried in these coffins.
Proper burial clothing was highly prized and often kept for years. In early times a shroud was the garment of choice for burial, and it consisted of a large sacque-like garment with a drawstring at the top. It was made of a special type of flannel (if possible) woven especially for making shrouds. A seam extended the length in front with the back open so as to promote ease of putting it on the corpse. It usually had slits cut for arm-holes with plain sleeves and gussets sewn in. For women shrouds were gathered in front and for men they were made without gathers. Winding sheets were also frequently used for burials. Shrouds were generally black for adults and white for children. Later on people began to be buried in clothing similar to what they wore in life – a dress or suit suitable to their station in life.
The custom of sending flowers to funerals came about during the 19th century when bodies were sometimes kept waiting for family to arrive or for a photographer to arrive and photograph the deceased to cover the smell which was associated with decay. When available fresh flowers filled the home, especially the room where the body lay, to mask the odor of death. While embalming prevents the need to mask odors the custom of sending flowers to a funeral continues.
It was proper during the Victorian period and well into the 20th century in many communities to sit with the deceased from the time of death until the burial. Family and friends gathered and sat with the corpse as a sign of respect. Food and drink was usually provided the mourners. The door was often covered in crape and clocks were stopped upon the death of the deceased.
The custom of the “riderless horse” for the funeral of a soldier dates to at least the 1600’s, and was often put into practice during the War Between the States. “Today for the first time came a military funeral….The empty saddle and the led war horse – we saw and heard it all. And now it seems we are never out of the sound of the Death March in Saul. It comes and it comes until I feel inclined to close my ears and scream”. – Mrs. Mary Chesnut, July 1861.
Many superstitions abounded during the 19th century concerning death, again, some of which continued well into the 20th century. These included:
* Covering mirrors in the house of the deceased – usually
with black crape – so that the next person to see himself
in the mirror would not be the next to die
* Pregnant women were not allowed to attend funerals
* Taking the corpse from the house feet first in the belief
that if the head of the deceased faced backward he might
influence another member of the family to follow him in
* Stopping clocks in the house of the deceased to prevent bad
luck for the living
* Closing the eyes of the deceased so that he may not choose
someone to accompany him to the grave
Photography came of age during the 1860’s and mourning photos were taken to preserve the image of the deceased. Burial was held off in many instances days or weeks waiting for the photographer to arrive. A mourning photograph was often the only image taken of the deceased in poorer families. These images were often painted surrounded by clouds to evidence that it is a mourning image some time after the passing on of the deceased.
It is not always easy to tell if a woman in an image from the 1860’s is truly in mourning but there are some things that indicate that it is a mourning photograph including the use of crape, or the carrying of a parasol in an inverted position.
Photographs of children are especially difficult to determine whether or not they are post-mortem images. Often the use of butterflies symbolize passing into the next life, or roses to symbolize a “bloom cut early” mark an image unmistakably as that of a post-mortem image.
These portraits were often placed in the parlor along with a wreath of hair from the deceased and/or other family members, needlework, or other remembrances.
A pauper’s funeral was the fear of the Victorian poor. When a family could not afford to pay for the funeral of a family member the local parish would assume the financial burden bringing much shame and dishonor to the surviving family members of the deceased. Destitute families would go to any means to avoid such humiliation, however, many never achieved the lavish funerals of the more well-off.
During the 17th and 18th centuries widows often had their beds covered in black and black sheets put upon the bed. The custom of black drapings on the widow’s bed continued into the Victorian era.
In Victorian times and in some circles even today a widow was expected not to marry for at least a period of one year. This came about out of a superstition that the widow should not marry until after the decay of the body of the deceased husband. One year was the time judged for this natural occurrence and after one year and a day the widow could generally remarry if she so chose.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Mourning" https://englishhistory.net/victorian/mourning/, January 12, 2022