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11 May 2018

Forget me not – revealing Victorian mourning customs

Written by Silvia Scopa
Paper embroidered with ‘Forget Me Not’ in human hair (Weaver’s Cottage)
Paper embroidered with ‘Forget Me Not’ in human hair (Weaver’s Cottage)
Since Project Reveal started, Team West has successfully catalogued five properties. Most of the items we have had the opportunity to describe and inventory are from social history collections dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Recording social history items is a fascinating and, in some ways, intimate process. Often, the objects that are preserved for generations are the ones linked to special moments in life, such as births, weddings and deaths. In Victorian times there was a high rate of child mortality and life expectancy was much lower, at around 40 years of age, so death was openly talked about and honoured with distinct rituals. Victorian mourning etiquette was strict and not just a way to express sorrow for the departure of a loved one. Depending on the individual’s social class, it was also an opportunity to show wealth, with theatrical funerals, extravagant monuments and specific dress codes.

Victorian mourning dress (Weaver’s Cottage)
Victorian mourning dress (Weaver’s Cottage)

Wearing black during the mourning period gained popularity and reached a peak during Queen Victoria’s reign. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the queen famously wore mourning clothes until her own death in 1901, 40 years later.

The number of black garments and the quality of different fabrics to be worn were dictated by rigid guidelines. There were also different stages of mourning: full mourning ensembles were plain black, while half-mourning allowed the wearer to add fancier fabrics like silk and velvet, and later on sombre colours such as purple, mauve and grey. The duration of mourning depended on the relationship of the wearer with the deceased. For example, widows were expected to wear full mourning for a year before moving to half-mourning for another year, while for a widower it was 3–6 months.

Black velvet Victorian mourning cape, with black feather trim (Weaver’s Cottage)
Black velvet Victorian mourning cape, with black feather trim (Weaver’s Cottage)

We found the majority of the items connected to mourning and death at Weaver’s Cottage in Kilbarchan and the Tenement House in Glasgow. While most of the textile collection at Weaver’s Cottage has been gifted by a variety of donors, the collection at the Tenement House is largely original to the property.

The mourning coat in the picture below was worn by Mrs Toward, who lived at the Tenement House until her death in the 1930s. Mrs Toward lost her husband and three of her children in the space of a few years in the late 1880s. As she was a dressmaker, it’s possible that she made this garment herself.

Mrs Toward’s mourning coat (Tenement House)
Mrs Toward’s mourning coat (Tenement House)

Generally, wearing most types of jewellery during mourning in the Victorian era was not allowed, but objects made of jet were considered suitable for deep mourning. Jet is a shiny, black, lightweight mineral, which is easy to carve and polish, and mourning jewellery made from it became popular after being shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851. The most famous and expensive variety comes from Whitby, a small seaside town in North Yorkshire.

Cross pendant made of jet beads (Weaver’s Cottage)
Cross pendant made of jet beads (Weaver’s Cottage)

Another form of mourning jewellery popular in Victorian times were ornaments made partly of human hair, embroidered and woven to create various objects such as brooches, earrings, cuffs and necklaces. Born from a desire to keep a part of a dead relative close to the wearer, hair from the deceased was often worked into sentimental keepsakes as everlasting, although maybe for today’s taste, slightly morbid tokens of love, friendship and remembrance. One of the most common items created with human hair were watch chains, like the one in the picture below, which was donated to Weaver’s Cottage and includes a winding key for a pocket watch.

Watch chain made of human hair, with winding key (Weaver’s Cottage)
Watch chain made of human hair, with winding key (Weaver’s Cottage)