For the last few years, I have tried to do something interesting in line with the Halloween season. I have gone to local Halloween costume parties and street fairs and to Day of the Dead celebrations. This year I went to a lecture on Victorian mourning practices at the Banning House. I thought I might be a little weird to spend a morning listening to something so morbid. If I’m weird, then so were about 65 other people. I won’t go into everything presented. There is plenty enough on this topic if you want to Google it. But I thought I would share a few things that stood out.
First, I learned that the strict mourning practices had more to do with conforming to the expectations of society than it did to caring for one’s personal emotional state after a loved one’s death. If one did not precisely follow the mourning practices, one could be completely ostracized by the community for not showing proper respect to the deceased. This was serious stuff back then. Do you remember the scene in the film Gone with the Wind when Scarlett goes to a ball while in the deep mourning? That would not have happened in real life.
Another thing I learned is that women bore the brunt of the mourning practices. Widows had to mourn their husbands for two and a half years consisting of three stages: deep mourning where she was clothed and veiled in total black and confined to home for a year and a day, then full mourning for another year where she still wore black but did not have to be veiled, and finally a six month half-mourning period where she could wear gray, lavender or mauve. Men, on the other hand only had to mourn their dead wives for three months. They just had to wear a black arm or hat band. They were encouraged to go back to work and marry again as soon as possible. And they were not to publicly show any emotions over the death of their spouses.
I learned that the “smell of death” didn’t mean the smell of decay, but rather the smell of the boiling dye pots where mourners with less means could dye their clothing black.
I learned all about the various types of materials out of which black mourning jewelry was made. Do you know what bog oak is? I didn’t.
I learned that jet is fossilized wood and not stone and that English jet is the real deal while French jet was just black glass.
I had thought plastic was first invented in the Twentieth Century. Not so. Mourning jewelry and black picture frames were often made of Vulcanite, an early form of plastic made from India Rubber and sulphur in the Nineteenth Century.
I had never heard of lachrymatory bottles (click HERE to see pictures of lachrymatories). These were small bottles used to catch the tears of a mourner. One way to get around the long mourning period was for the mourner to fill the bottle with her tears and when the liquid evaporated, she could stop mourning. I wonder how many impatient widows dumped the contents out as a way to help the process along.
I already knew about postmortem photography, but it is still shocking to me to see these images. This is just plain morbid.
The Victorians were a superstitious lot. A woman’s mourning veil was not simply to hide her grief but it was believed that the veil kept the spirit of the deceased connected to her and unable latch on to another person. Mirrors were covered with black crepe and pictures of the deceased were turned around because there was a fear that the deceased spirit would get caught in those items. And let me tell you when you take a Victorian house which is pretty dark and heavy to begin with and cover every mirror with black crepe and draw all the curtains, it is absolutely oppressive. Sorry, no photos were allowed in the house so you will have to take my word on that.
Finally, the thing that stood out the most to me — and I should not be surprised about this — is that the practices of mourning were also big business. For example, if you bought a set of mourning clothes, it was “bad luck” to wear them for mourning another person. If another close person died, you had to go out and buy another set of black clothes for yourself, your immediate family, and your servants. Dress-makers were making money hand-over-fist, not to mention jewellers, printers, photographers and all others with mourning-related products and services to sell.
Spirit photographers were very in vogue. In the days before Photoshop, some very talented photographers were able to flim-flam a lot of dough out of grieving people. Here is the famous one of Mary Todd Lincoln being “visited” by her husband.
Psychic mediums were so much in demand by mourners to reach out to their loved ones that these mediums became well respected and legitimate professionals in the community.
These mourning practices started coming to an end after the death of Queen Victoria and were fairly gone by the end of the First World War. Critics blasted this obsession with death and the resulting crass commercialization of the practices. It was a morbid and unhealthy preoccupation. I can’t say that I disagree.
What I found most interesting is the total reversal of our attitudes toward death. In the Victorian era, society was obsessed with death and afraid of sex. Today, our society obsessed with sex and afraid of death.
Happy Halloween, folks.
ljgloyd (c) 2012
I took the image of the house. The other photos were from Wikipedia. I couldn’t find any free use images of lachrymatories; hence, the link.