Victorian Mourning Culture: Memorializing the Dead

An essential portion of the mourning culture during the Victorian Era was the memorialization of the deceased. Once again, the memorializing of loved ones fell to the women, as they were considered memory vessels for the family.  In this practice, women were given power in a world where their range of influence was limited.

This memorial sampler (H 84247) made between 1840 and 1880 reads: “In Memory of a Broken Household. C. & L. Hempstead. L.S. Moore.”

This memorial sampler (H 84247) made between 1840 and 1880 reads: “In Memory of a Broken Household. C. & L. Hempstead. L.S. Moore.”

One way some women memorialized the dead was through the creation of a physical reminder of the deceased’s life and accomplishments.  Often written, this physical record was usually a document placed in the family Bible or a special printed memorial card. More time-consuming records were created, mainly in the form of samplers.  Samplers were used by middle- and upper-class girls’ to instruct in docility and to teach how to sit still with downcast eyes for long periods of time.  Samplers created a memorial for a family member. These pieces of embroidered art were also a point of pride for the young women, who would add their name to the work, ensuring viewers would know who created it.

Human hair bracelet (H 52876) from 1850-1865.  On the gold clasp is engraved “Jane F. Whiteman to Nancy B. Torren”.

Human hair bracelet (H 52876) from 1850-1865. On the gold clasp is engraved “Jane F. Whiteman to Nancy B. Torren”.

Another popular practice was the art of hair working.  Extremely delicate and intricate work, women created and wore jewelry made from hair of the deceased in addition to creating large hair wreaths.  Often the deceased’s hair was intertwined with their own hair, symbolically cementing the bond between them.  Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular woman’s magazine, offered lessons in hair work; “Do-It-Yourself” hair working kits were also widely available.  Businesses formed where consumers could send loved one’s hair and the memorial piece would be made for them.

Hair wreath (H 36715) made by Mary Jane Preston around 1857 using hair collected from family members.

Hair wreath (H 36715) made by Mary Jane Preston around 1857 using hair collected from family members.

By the time Queen Victoria died at the turn of the century, the elaborate mourning culture had largely disappeared.  Certain customs from this time have reappeared throughout the next century, particularly during wartime, but most of the traditions followed by Victorians are no longer practiced.

How do you memorialize today?

Caitlin Smith, History Collections Intern

Sources:

Garton, Stephen. “The Scales of Suffering: Love, Death and Victorian Masculinity.”         Social History 27, no. 1 (2002): 40-58.

Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and     Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture 39 (2011): 127-142.

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.

Old Sturbridge Inc. “Historical Background on Mourning Rituals in Early 19th Century     New England.” Old Sturbridge Village (2003).       http://resources.osv.org/school/lesson_plans/ShowLessons.php?PageID=R&Lesso            nID=37&DocID=2043&UnitID=.

Zielke, Melissa. “Forget-Me-Nots: Victorian Women, Mourning, and the Construction of a Feminine Historical Memory.” Material History Review 58 (2003): 52-66.

This entry was posted in collections. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s