The Unpaved Roadshow: The art and fashion of mourning

A note referring to a locket containing child’s hair and inscribed “Our Child” was discovered to belong an ancestor of the last owners of Tudor Place.Courtesy of Tudor Place, Washington, D.C.
A note referring to a locket containing child’s hair and inscribed “Our Child” was discovered to belong an ancestor of the last owners of Tudor Place.

This is the month of the macabre, thanks to Halloween, which makes it a perfect time of the year to discuss antique mourning jewelry.

Death came early and often in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In early colonial America, or the Georgian era (1714 to 1835), the specter of death was persistent and much art and jewelry design was focused on the concept of Momento Mori — the medieval practice of pondering mortality and the salvation of the soul. Through the 1700s, jewelry of this type often featured ghoulish images of skulls, gravediggers and coffins.

Although for centuries, people made jewelry to commemorate death, it wasn’t until the reign of Queen Victoria that pieces were made to remember a dead individual. Remember that before photography, the only way that people had to remember their loved ones was by creating a touchstone that could be carried with them everyday to be reminded of the departed.

Then, in 1861, Queen Victoria went into perpetual mourning after the death of her beloved Albert. The queen’s epic sadness over her loss was a major catalyst for mourning fashion, and her reign marked the height of the mourning industry.

Her decades of wearing only black clothing and matching mourning jewelry popularized the tradition, both in England and the U.S. During her reign, mourning grew into a respectful, yet fashionable, practice, and women became quite interested in wearing attractive mourning dresses and jewelry. The etiquette for mourning fashion became so stringent, elaborate and confusing that magazines published guides and schedules, describing, for example, how a widow’s mourning was expected to last two years. During the first year, she was allowed to wear only black clothing and jewelry, which led to a tremendous rise in the popularity of jet — black, fossilized coal — in jewelry design.

Although black was the obvious color for mourning jewelry, certain distinctions were made about the piece’s surface. Since the earliest stages of mourning were strictly regulated, it was considered poor taste to wear highly polished jet, too soon, so matte-finished pieces were made for early mourning. Although black enamel, along with jet, was the hallmark of most mourning jewelry, pieces that used white enamel meant that the deceased woman was unmarried, and pearls were used to signify the loss of a child.

Curls could be fashioned into a Prince of Wales Feathers design as seen in this brooch. The hair work is displayed on the reverse of the brooch.Courtesy of Tudor Place, Washington, D.C.
Curls could be fashioned into a Prince of Wales Feathers design as seen in this brooch. The hair work is displayed on the reverse of the brooch.

During the Victorian period, symbols of death softened into angels, clouds, weeping willows and urns, and such phrases as “in memory of” and “lost but not forgotten” were frequently used, along with gemstones in jewelry designs.

As the middle class rose and desired more affordable options, bits of the deceased hair were worked into more pieces. Hair work describes making jewelry and art from woven human hair. The intimacy of preserving someone’s memory by using a lock of his or her hair appealed to many. The popularity of hair work created a large market for mass-produced gold fittings for items that could be specially commissioned using the deceased’s hair. People made wreaths, men’s watch fobs, bracelets, necklaces and brooches out of human hair. During the mid-1800s, with the increased demand for hair work as mourning jewelry, there was widespread distrust of jewelers who were selling “custom-made” pieces, but neglected to use the deceased’s hair. In fact, more than 50 tons of bulk human hair was imported to England each year to be used by the country’s jewelers.

Palette-worked hair was glued onto flat surfaces to produce pictures like intricate Prince of Wales feathers, urns and weeping willows, flowers and reeds. Table-worked hair was braided into elaborate patterns. The collector can find beautiful examples of brooches, necklaces, fobs and rings at most antiques shows. Depending on the size and intricacy of the piece, they can range from $300 and up. Some pieces are quite pretty and mostly set in gold. They are very wearable and definitely conversation pieces.

The high mortality rate of the First World War led to the decline in the formality of mourning. This period of mass human attrition blurred the lines of mourning regulations. Families felt personally impacted by the Great War. Death was closer and part of day-to-day life, public mourning codes became a burden and grieving became more personal. So many people were mourning and trying to cope with grief that mourning fashion and strict codes were increasingly viewed as affectations.

By the 1920s, people were tired of drab mourning clothing and even the concept of a regulated mourning period seemed antiquated. The fashion of mourning was soon abandoned.

Michelle Galler (antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com) specializes in American primitives and folk art. She lives in Georgetown and her shop is in Rare Finds in Washington, Virginia. Contact her with any questions or about great finds you would like to discuss in future columns.

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