Victorian Mourning Culture: What Was It?

The Victorian Age, which roughly corresponds to Queen Victoria’s reign in England (1837-1901), was a time of many elaborate cultural rituals and societal expectations. From birth to marriage to social calls, many men and women acted in roles expected of them in society. Death and “mourning”, the time spent in grief over a death, was no exception. The Cult of Domesticity – a Victorian social system for the middle and upper class that emphasized femininity and specified a woman’s sphere of influence to the home and family, designating the greater world as the man’s sphere – heavily influenced mourning practices during the late 19th century. This culture of mourning will be explored throughout the month of October in a series of blog posts.

Handkerchief (H 21190) from circa 1867.  Item ranging from handkerchiefs to stationary were given dark borders to indicate that the user was in mourning.

Handkerchief (H 21190) from circa 1867. Item ranging from handkerchiefs to stationery were given dark borders to indicate that the user was in mourning.

How did this culture of mourning start?

The simple answer to this is one familiar today, the public followed the mannerism of a famous figure. Funerals were already elaborate and used as a way to display a family’s wealth. The death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, in 1861, and her subsequent mourning practices drastically increased the prevalence of such practices in both in the British Empire and in America. Queen Victoria plunged herself into “mourning”, only wearing black and refusing to leave her estates for years. She insisted on keeping her husband’s rooms intact as when he was alive and commissioning dozen of statues to be made of him.

Parasol (H 75792) from 1850-1875.  When in morning, parasols would be black and have limited decoration in jet, expressing that the woman using it was in mourning.

Parasol (H 75792) from 1850-1875. When in morning, parasols would be black and have limited decoration in jet, expressing that the woman using it was in mourning.

While Queen Victoria and a select minority of women chose to stay in mourning for the rest of their lives, for the rest of the public, there were set expectations as to how long it was proper to mourn. This varied depending on the relationship with the deceased. For example, a first cousin would warrant between six weeks and three months of time spent in mourning, whereas a husband would be mourned for two and a half years. These rules for lengths of time were varied and complicated, prompting help manuals to be published in ladies’ magazines to ensure they were following the correct protocol for the death of their loved ones. These manuals also included what was appropriate to wear, how the mourner should act, and when it was appropriate to move through the various stages of mourning. These magazines had advertisements for mourning clothing, accessories, and popular forms of memorialization. Books, such as A History of Mourning, published in 1890, contextualized the idea of mourning to largely middle and upper-class women, justifying seemingly bizarre traditions by connecting them to historical events of the past. Today, these magazine, manuals, books, and advertisements help historians and curators figure out the culture of mourning and the importance of the material culture left behind.

Hair comb (H 80253) from the 1890s.  Jet stones, like those featured on this comb, were one of the few decorations allowed on mourning attire.

Hair comb (H 80253) from the 1890s. Jet stones, like those featured on this comb, were one of the few decorations allowed on mourning attire.

Check back throughout the month to learn more about the differences in male and female mourning, the various accessories and popular forms of memorializing, and how this culture of morning changed throughout the centuries.

Caitlin Smith, History Collections Intern

 

 

Sources:

MacKethan, Lucinda. “The Cult of Domisticity.” America in Class: from the National Humanities Center. 2014. http://americainclass.org/the-cult-of-domesticity/.
National Park Service. “The Custom of Mourning During the Victorian Era.” National Park Service (2011): 1-5.

http://www.nps.gov/jofl/historyculture/upload/MourningArticle2011.rtf.
Taylor, Lou. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983.

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