Death in the Victorian era was a complicated thing with complex rituals, and clothing. Strict protocols were observed that required mourners to wear certain items of clothing, colors, and to abstain from particular activities.
Today, we can scarcely imagine the rigid rules and rituals that were brought about by living conditions in the 19th century. Disease was rampant. Sterility was not understood. Diets, lack of vitamins, and nutrients resulted in illness and death. Doctors did not receive the medical training they do today and often, treatments consisted of blistering, bleeding, and poisonous herbal cures that sometimes resulted in fatalities. Germs and antibiotics were unheard of. Many died from simple cuts and childbirth claimed so many lives, that it was customary for a woman to make arrangements for the care of her child should she not survive.
Infections, pneumonia, TB, typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, small pox, and whooping cough could wipe out entire families. Remedies tended toward bizarre superstitions. Burning gun powder in sick rooms, sprinkling houses with vinegar, or placing an ax under the bed to “cut the pain in two” were common practices.
Superstition surrounded death, and in the American South, many of those customs survived into the twentieth century. Some of those beliefs included:
Covering Mirrors – During the 19th Century, most funerals were held in the home. Victorians believed that when there was a corpse in the house, all mirrors had to be covered with a black cloth. The Barton Upon Humber Family History Aid website explains that this ensured "that the soul of the departed would not get trapped behind the glass and be prevented from passing to 'the other side,'" Similar to the ancient superstitions, the Victorians also believed that "if you saw your own reflection in a room where someone had just died, then you would soon die yourself."
Stopping of Clocks – Pendulums on clocks were stopped at the hour of the deceased’s death to prevent the living family members from having bad luck. Victorians believed that when a person died, time stood still for them in the afterlife and a new period of existence began where the concept of time did not exist. To permit the clock to continue marking time was synonymous with inviting the spirit of the deceased to haunt the home. Stopping time allowed the deceased to ascend to heaven and eternity which is timeless.
Carrying the Body Out Feet First – The custom of removing a corpse from a home feet first was derived from the superstition that if removed head first, the deceased could look back into the home and beckon those remaining into death.
Photographs of the Deceased – All family photographs were sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead.
Wearing Black - The wearing of black is a custom that has been observed for centuries. It was thought to make mourners draw less attention to themselves so that Death would not claim them as its next victim.
Socially, strict and elaborate dress and behavior codes were imposed, sometimes that lasted for several years. Mourning customs have been observed since the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 1830s and 40s that bereavement became an art form. Scads of books were published on the proper course of mourning and Prince Albert’s death in 1861, and Queen Victoria’s mourning made the practice “fashionable.” Queen Victoria’s impact on mourning customs set the stage for the rest of Western Civilization. She continued wearing her "widow's weeds" until her death in 1901.
That same time period saw the onset of the American Civil War. At least 618,000 died or were killed during the Civil War. Some experts believe the actual death toll reached 700,000. According to Jane Peters Estes, an authority on death customs in Civil War-era America, in the state of Alabama alone, there were over 80,000 widows.
A Victorian woman donned what was known as "widow's weeds" within twenty-four hours of her husband's death. For a year and a day, she wore full mourning which consisted of dull black clothing trimmed with crepe, and a weeping veil.
Mourning women wore a veil in public to shield their tears from onlookers. Estes also stated that, “they believed that spirits of the departed would hover around those they loved. And if a passerby looked directly on the mourner's face, that spirit might attach itself to that person. So, the veil was a protection for the wearer as well as a protection for others.”
Mourning attire became some of the first store-bought clothing items during a time when most clothes were handmade at home. Death could come unexpectedly and the bereaved had to be prepared. Those who could not afford to buy ready-made items paid to have their own clothing dyed or dyed it themselves at home, in the back yard because of the dye's pungent odor. An 1864 diary from Virginia related 'the entire town smells of the dye pots.”
Men wore black or dark colored suits to a funeral and black or white silk hat bands, depending on who had died. If the deceased was a young girl, white silk was worn. They donned a black armband for a few months to a year as a sign of respect. Widowers were permitted to remarry after the wearing of the armband.
Women observed three stages of mourning: heavy/deep mourning, full mourning, and half mourning.
Mourning observations lasted different lengths depending on the deceased:
Spouse: One to 2 1/2 years
Parent: 6 months to a year
Children over 10 yrs old: 6 months to a year
Children under 10 yrs: 3 to 6 months
Infants: 6 weeks and up
Siblings: 6 to 8 months
Aunts and uncles: 3 to 6 months
Cousins: 6 weeks to 3 months
Aunts or uncles related by marriage: 6 weeks to 3 months
Grandparents: 6 months
Distant relatives and friends: 3 weeks and up
Deep mourning lasted a minimum of a year and a day but could extend as long as 2 ½ years, in which black clothing, jewelry, veils, bonnets, outer wear, and crepe were worn exclusively. Bonnets and outer wear were covered in crepe for a year and a day, and could after that time be removed. Often the dyes used to color the crepe would run when wet, thus widows did not venture far from home. Mourning fabric was somewhat shiny. Much work went into keeping the black from fading. Among the ingredients used were: ox gall, fuller’s earth, and even egg yolks. Heavy mourning collars and cuffs were black, and marking the second year, a woman could add lace. Hats were forbidden for mourning and instead crepe covered bonnets were worn. Long veils were worn the first year and shortened by the second. Very little, or no adornment was worn.
Underclothes remained the standard of the time, but a black band was sewn to the hem of the outermost petticoat in the event it became visible. Jewelry was not worn for the first few months and thereafter, jet jewelry was permitted. Black glass and India rubber was also used to make mourning jewelry which consisted of rings, broaches, bracelets, lockets, and earrings. Mourning rings served as keepsakes and were provided by the deceased’s family.
During full mourning, gold, silver, jet, pearls, and other stones could be worn. White collars and cuffs replaced black crepe.
Half mourning colors included various somber colors of lilac, lavender, violet, mauve, and gray. Bonnets were also allowed in these colors as well as straw hats.
Time periods were observed where a widow was not permitted to leave her home or receive visitors. After that time, she distributed black edged calling cards to let friends and family know her heavy mourning was over and she could receive visitors. Those in mourning were not allowed to attend parties, weddings, or other social events.
It was considered unlucky to throw one’s mourning attire away after the mourning period was over. The clothes were put away and kept should they be needed again.
Author Sally Painter
offers another mourning tradition of the time. “My grandmother had several death announcements that were used before and during this era. They were made out of very thick cardstock that was about 1/8" thick, maybe a bit thicker. The background was black with gold print and a gold ribbon border. Usually a gold cross was centered at the top, but these varied in design. Included on the card were the name of the deceased, date of birth and death and details about the funeral arrangements. A messenger (usually a young boy) was sent from house to house with the announcement for people to read and then return to him so he could carry it to the next house.”
People during this time feared they would not be mourned properly.
A practice that seems macabre in the modern era is post mortem photography which became popular during the 1860’s. Burial was often delayed for days or weeks waiting for the photographer to arrive. Often this was the only photographic image a family had of a person. Sometimes, these images included painted-on clouds to indicate the picture is of a deceased person. Wreaths of hair from the deceased, called mourning wreathes, were crocheted and laid by the portraits.
Widows would often use black bed linens. They were not permitted to marry for at least a year, the thinking being that it took a year for the complete decay of deceased husband.
Older widows tended to mourn longer than their younger counterparts.
To this day, many women consider it disrespectful to wear anything other than black to a funeral or memorial service.
Widows serve as characters in several of my historical romance novels set during the Civil War.
Tough…or tender? If she follows her heart, she won’t have to choose.
Molly has forever lusted for all three Barksdale brothers, but could never choose. Instead, scandal chose for her, and she married the youngest of the three. Then the brothers go to war, and Molly finds herself a grieving widow when her husband is murdered by a merciless band of Union soldiers.
Hardin Barksdale is hell-bent on avenging his brother. Greer Barksdale is honor-bound to protect his home. They both
want Molly—and this time, they’re willing to share. The temptation is seductive, the passion sizzling. In harsh, post-war Tennessee, their nightly forbidden trysts wield the power to heal them all—if they can escape the twisted desires of a man bent on seeing all three of them dead.
Unable to support herself and her beloved servants, Widow Carrie Hatcher contemplates the unthinkable—offering her services for money. Forced to board wounded Colonel Wesley McEwen, Carrie vows to make the striking Confederate soldier her first “client”.
But Carrie gets more than she bargained for when she agrees to comply with Wesley’s every illicit request for one week. Throughout long, sultry nights, Wesley tutors Carrie in every position, every skill, of her illicit new trade. From dark taboos to pleasurable punishments, Carrie becomes his willing pupil. Passions inflamed, the couple becomes more scandalously intimate but Carrie realizes she wants to give him far more than just her body. The colonel, however, may be too haunted by his past to risk accepting more than he’s bought and paid for.
They say she’s a Rebel spy…
Widow, Rosalie O’Kelley, is not above using her feminine wiles to secure much needed supplies for her fellow townspeople. But when Union Colonel Eric Skaarsberg is put in charge, Rose’s usual tactics fail miserably. In exchange for supplies, she comes to a scandalous arrangement with him. She agrees to become his willing plaything—to fulfill his every physical need…eagerly and without hesitation.
Eric Skaarsberg is duty bound to ferret out the spy who has been leaking information to the Confederates. All evidence points to the passionate belle who readily responds to every touch and taste he metes out to her. One by one, he strips away Rose’s secrets, but Eric is not satisfied with owning the she-Rebel’s luscious body. At any cost, he must uncover her vulnerable and perilous past—even if it means the destruction of them both.