Salt Life and Death

“In terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand.”

Nautical-themed memorial brooch to M. Thayer. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This unusual mourning brooch, which dates to between 1830 and 1840, is a late example of the sepia painting technique popular up to a century earlier. Sepia miniatures in the neoclassical style, such as the one below right, were painted with dissolved human hair on ivory tablets and typically feature weeping women and willows, funeral urns, graves, and other scenes and symbols of loss.

This gold brooch in a navette shape, circa 1790, features a sepia painting of a grieving widow with the bust of her husband. Courtesy C.J. Antiques.

This brooch is dedicated by reverse inscription to “M. Thayer,” but little more can be known about the deceased, as the inscription includes no dates of birth or death. Thayer was likely occupationally connected to the sea, although the image may be wholly allegorical. A ship sailing toward a distant safe haven, accompanied or guided by birds, may be read as the soul journeying toward the afterlife in the company of angelic beings.

“Being lost at sea strikes an image of loss and departure that evokes the very essence of sadness. In the very literal sense, there is the loss of the body that prevents the kind of closure that physical remains offer. Yet, in terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand. It is not surprising that symbolism featuring the sea has been appropriated by mourning jewellery. The physical and symbolic departure of the soul away from the mourner as a result of a death at sea, during both peace and war times, are depicted in 18th and 19th-century jewellery,” writes Lord Hayden Peters at the magnificent site, The Art of Mourning. His article on this topic deserves to be read in full, rather than summarized by me.

Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A mourning piece connected to a sailor or ship’s officer would have been worn by someone like the young woman above, were she widowed. In this detail of a circa-1850 daguerreotype, the couple was portrayed likely on their wedding day. The groom wears gold hoop earrings, marking him as a career sailor who may have transversed the world several times.

“Men’s earrings are nothing new, old salts will tell you. Even before the days of pirates, mariners who had sailed the China seas or had done any Asiatic duty took to wearing earrings as a mark of their service in the Orient. It was the campaign ribbon of its day. The modern gob, after he has sailed in Asiatic waters, gets his ears pierced and a ring inserted, then goes to a tattoo parlor and has various Chinese legends etched on the shank of his left leg. But not all men who wear earrings are veterans of Asiatic sea service. The custom has been adopted by many who have sailed in the Central, South, or Southwest Pacific without entering the waters of the China Sea,” wrote Hal J. Kanter in the Saturday Evening Post, December 8, 1945.

Sailors of old believed that piercing their earlobes increased their eyesight and hearing or would prevent seasickness. They were also quite concerned about dying at sea and not receiving a land burial. Sailor victims of shipwrecks hoped the value of their gold earrings would be put toward a proper Christian burial by those who found their bodies washed up on the shore. Ω

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

10 thoughts on “Salt Life and Death”

  1. I love the ship miniature. I have a third great grandfather that was a ship captain that ended up sailing to China and Japan, due to the US civil war and the changes to shipping patterns it caused. He ended up losing his ship in Japan, and it was his last voyage. Kind of sad way to end a long career.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Unfortunately we don’t. Although we do have of copy of the newspaper article of the discovery of his body. The police reported as a murder of unknown man but the coroner’s inquiry came back as suicide. Unfournately the transcripts of that inquiry has been lost. Would love to find out such discrepant descriptions.

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      2. I do have a copy of the news article explaining what happened in Japan. I’ll post it on Facebook. It’s interesting, they were taken to a Temple at first because they were in a remote location, then the government picked them up and took care of them until they could passage home.

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    1. Hair was chopped up and combined with gum arabic or another adhesive made from vegetable and seaweed gums. The hair could also be ground up in a mortar, then combined with distilled water and mixed with other pigments.


  2. A few years back I saw mourning jewelry being made here in Baltimore, using photos of the deceased that were then set into purchased earring and necklace blanks. It was especially poignant that the ones I saw were of young men who had died in gun violence here in the city. I was moved to see this creative tribute going on today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, people are still making jewelry and other items that commemorate their dead loved ones. They’re just different from what the Victorians did. Today, for example, I commonly see cars with cling film stickers in the rear windows that say exactly what mourning jewelry used to: “In Memory of Joe Smith, April 3, 1935-14 October, 2015,” for example. The cars are literally moving memorials to loved ones. What seems to upset modern people about mourning jewelry is the hair. It’s a bit of a double standard, since mother’s routinely keep locks of their baby’s hair even today. But the idea that the hair was cut from a person now dead seems to upset them, although no changes occur to the hair immediately after death and that the hair inside the brooches was always washed before being pallet-worked or braided for inclusion in the piece.


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