At the close of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th, memorial pieces with hair were generally small, delicate, and graceful. However, the oncoming Victorian era would turn “the entire ritual of mourning into a public display, and the jewelry changed accordingly, becoming larger, heavier, and more obvious,” wrote the curators of the Springfield, Illinois-based Museum of Funeral Customs in Bejeweled Bereavement: Mourning Jewelry—1765-1920.
In December 1861, Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg-Gotha, died of what is thought to have been typhoid fever. Married for twenty-one years, their happy union resulted in the birth of nine children. The forty-two-year-old prince’s demise shattered Victoria. For the rest of her life the queen wore mourning, and required many courtiers who served her and who attended court functions to do the same.
Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be at worn during all stages of mourning. For example, in the first nine months, the only acceptable jewelry was made of black glass, dyed pressed animal horn, gutta-percha (a latex plastic derived from tropical evergreens), vulcanite and ebonite (rubber treated with sulfur and heat), bog oak (fossilized peat), or carved from jet (a fossilized wood that washes up on west coast Yorkshire beaches, and was extracted from shale seams, particularly around between Robin Hood’s Bay and Boulby). In later stages of mourning, gold or pinchbeck (a composite metal) and hair-work jewelry commemorating the deceased was worn. Many of these items bore the motto “In Memory Of” and featured heavy black enameling.
In the United States, not one woman’s loss, but the losses of millions drove the mourning jewelry industry to its zenith. Between the years 1861-1865, the nation was locked in a horrific civil war that left thousands bereft of their loved ones. Soon after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, on Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The resulting wave of grief may well have been the “high-water mark” of the hair work phenomenon. (“High Water Mark” was a title bestowed upon the a copse of trees on the Gettysburg Battlefield by John B. Bachelder, the first government historian of the Gettysburg battlefield, who realized its significance during the intense fighting now known as Pickett’s Charge.)
The collective grief was dissipated almost fully during the 1870s. By the early 1880s, many young adults had only sketchy memories of war and children had none at all, and in the way of rising generations, they chafed against their elders’ mourning habits. “Young people began to look at their parent’s elaborate rituals with distaste, the fashion industry experienced a backlash of sorts, and [mourning] jewelry was once again smaller and not much on display,” noted the curators of the Museum of Funeral Customs.
The custom of mourning jewelry had petered out almost entirely before World War I, although sentimental items such as “Mizpah” pins and rings (“Mizpah is an emotional bond between people who are separated either physically or by death. Mizpah jewelery is worn to signify this bond. From Genesis 31:49 of the Bible. ‘And Mizpah; for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another,’”) and celluloid photo buttons and were quite popular, as was name jewelry—including appellations such as “Mother,” “Sweetheart,” “Sister,” and others)—that has never since lost its appeal.
The mid-20th century marked a volte-face in the way the Western world dealt with death. Two world wars yielded staggering fatalities, making a collective psychological withdrawal inevitable. In addition, in peacetime, fewer and fewer people were dying at home; they disappeared into hospitals only to be seen again in their coffins, already embalmed and prettified by strangers. The idea of touching the dead and retaining any biological material from them became repugnant to the majority of the population. Discussing death became culturally distasteful, if not taboo. Even as late as 1993, when I encountered my first glimpse of mourning jewelry, I wouldn’t have spoken of my interest in death and death customs to anyone except my most trusted friends. Ω