The Silent Ones

Some pieces of mourning jewelry offer enough facts to fill volumes. Others are stealthy and secretive, unwilling to share the stories of the dead or their grief-stricken survivors.

 

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A large and beautifully carved Whitby jet mourning brooch for E.M.H., circa 1860. Purchased in Newbury, England.
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A tiny mourning or sentimental brooch, circa 1825, featuring the hair of two unknown individuals. What looks like finely woven hair inside some brooches is actually fabric called “checkered silk” inserted by the manufacturer, over which the hair relic was meant to be laid. Here, the contents of the viewing chamber clearly show the hair atop a scrap of this cloth.
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A Regency-era, gold eye-shaped memorial or sentimental brooch, circa 1800, purchased in Hungerford, England. It is more likely this is a lover’s-eye type brooch and not a mourning piece, although it is impossible to know with certainty. The brooch contains one person’s hair looped into a Celtic knot with similarly colored checkered silk behind it.
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This mourning brooch, circa 1870-1875,  features Prince of Wales hair plumes of two individuals. It is a large brooch, measuring about 3 inches wide. The brooch is pinchbeck, but beautifully done and in immaculate condition. Sadly, there is no inscription. The date I assign is early 1870s, but this is provisional and based on what I can glean from references. It may be later; it may be earlier, but I doubt by more than five years in either direction. Purchased in Hungerford, England.
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This English mourning or sentimental brooch of coral and Gold, circa 1820, contains what is likely braided locks from two people. While this may be a mourning item, coral was considered a protective substance for children. It may be that this tiny brooch, usually called a lace pin, may contain the hair of two siblings or of a child’s parents, or perhaps a child’s godparents.
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Agate mourning brooch of pinchbeck, agate, and black enamel, circa 1850. Inside is the interwoven hair of two deceased individuals. The gothic letters that encircle the viewing compartment read “In Memory Of,” a phrase used used throughout the 19th Century on mourning jewelry.

In Memory Of

Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be at worn during all stages of mourning.

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A selection of mourning jewelry from my collection. The difference is marked between the Regency and early Victorian pieces (far left and center) and the heavy black later Victorian items.

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.

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Victoria in mourning. Courtesy British Museum.

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.

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A carved Whitby jet name brooch (left), suitable for mourning and still on its original sales card, featuring a drawing of Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire. Circa 1885-1895. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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

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A carved Whitby jet mourning brooch from the 1870s. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The How-To of Hairwork

“Warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.”

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The Edinburgh brooch, circa 1850. The only component missing from this otherwise outstanding example is an inscription. Sadly, no more can be known of the deceased beyond that he or she was gray-haired and elderly, and came from a Scottish family that could afford a high-quality death memento. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I purchased this mourning brooch in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1993. It was the foundation of my collection and, at the time, was actually was my second choice—the first being a smaller, plainer piece with a simply coiled blond lock, probably dating from the 1820s or 1830s. The brooch looked more “human” to me, but the shop owner enticed me toward a different brooch, assuring me it was unusual. It dates from the late 1840s to early 1850s.

The body is 14-karat gold or higher with a tube hinge, C-clasp, and a pin that is longer than the length of the brooch—all evidence that an item that was indeed crafted in the 18th or 19th centuries. The hair memento compartment is set amidst a tempestuous lovers’ knot untamed by the somber black enamel embellishment. Inside the glass-capped compartment is a piece of black cloth on which palette-worked gray hair has been affixed. The design is known as Prince of Wales feathers and is decorated with a pearl band, as well as a stalk of barley and ribbon made from gold wire thread.

The Prince of Wales feathers for the Edinburgh brooch were carefully crafted by a professional hairworker. For an exploration of how it was made, one can turn to no better source than the Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry: Identification and Values by C. Jeanenne Bell, which contains a full reprint of Alexanna Speight’s 1877 booklet, A Lock of Hair. The booklet contains instructions for palette work that were aimed at the Victorian lady who aspired to a new and noble handwork. Taking up the hobby, as Bell notes, would not only give her “the satisfaction of working with the hair of her loved ones, but it also assured her that the precious locks would not be substituted for, or augmented with, another’s”—an ignoble deed undertaken by unscrupulous memorial jewelry makers and feared to occur with regularity.

Speight instructed her readers to first dissolve one small piece of borax and one of soda in a half a teacup of hot water, and to soak the lock of hair for several minutes to remove “oil and impurities” before the hair could “take its place among the fine arts.” The cleaned hair was spread on a palette and scraped with a knife then the cleaning process was repeated with fresh borax and warm water. The hair was then spread on the palette again and the ragged ends chopped off.

Next, a curling iron heated by a candle flame or spirit lamp was used to shape lengths of hair into feather shapes, with Speight coaching her aspiring artists to hold the irons in position until the hair began to steam then allow it to cool before removal. The twist of the curl and the ends were then affixed with gum and these were then left under a small weight for an hour. Afterward, the curls were slightly moistened with water to touch up the shape, if needed, then remoistened with gum and left to dry. The process was repeated for a second and usually third curl.

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Patterns for palette-worked hair from the mid-1800s, with Prince of Wales feathers at bottom right. These patterns were not all meant for use in memorial jewelry, but also for pieces that commemorated friendships, engagements, marriages, and other milestones in a family’s history.

To remove a curl from the palette, writes Speight, “warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.” The curls were then arranged on an ivory, bone, or milk glass, cloth, or even a paper tablet. Speight goes on to teach her readers how to make the delicate gold-wire band and ribbons by twisting the wire around a needle, and the barley stalk by cutting the wire and using gum applied with a camel-hair brush to cement the shape. Similarly, the decorative band was constructed, using gummed paper as a ground, by carefully arranging the gold-wire band and split seed pearls. Finally, the decorative elements were carefully arranged amidst the curls. After drying, any extra gum was removed using spirits of wine.

The design thus assembled, the tablet would be inserted into the selected brooch setting by the jeweler. The final step, in some cases, was the engraving of a memorial or other inscription. Sometimes the entire process was handled by a single skilled artisan—such as the one who placed this advert in the London Illustrated News: “Hair jewellery, Artist in Hair. Dewdney begs to inform Ladies or Gentlemen that he beautifully makes, and elegantly mounts in gold, Hair Bracelets, Chains, Brooches, Rings, Pins, Studs, etc., and forwards the same, at about one-half the usual charge. A beautiful collection of specimens handsomely mounted kept for inspection. An illustrated book sent free. Dewdney, 172 Fenchurch St., London.” Ω

As They Were

“Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever look’d with human eyes.”—Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection

This poignant American brooch, which measures about 1.75 inches tall and dates to the late 1860s, contains a tintype image of a boy of about eight years wearing a wool jacket. Around the inner rim of the viewing compartment is a thin braid of blond hair, presumably that of the child in the photograph.

The brooch has a unique swivel mechanism that I have never seen before. Usually, the brooch body revolves to bring to the front a second viewing compartment (in this case the back side contains only checkered silk). On this brooch, however, it is the pin mechanism that rolls to whichever side will serve as the reverse.

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Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

This lovely American woman, who is pictured in fashions of about 1850, once looked out at those who loved her from the black enamel setting of this mourning brooch just as she now studies us, the denizens of an age perhaps unimaginable to her. The daguerreotype is delicately tinted to give her cheeks the rosiness of life and to highlight her gold brooch and earrings.

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This large rolled gold brooch contains a ruby ambrotype (an ambrotype made on red glass) of a beautiful English woman whose first name, Emily, is inscribed on the reverse. It dates to about the same year as Beverly Wilgus’s brooch, above. Ω

 

Portrait Brooches: Preserving Appearance in a Time Before Photography

This English Regency-era portrait of a pretty brunette with a ruff-like collar and giraffish neck is an example of the type of image available from a local artist.

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Portrait brooch of an unknown woman. The painting was made during the second decade of the 1800s, but the body of the brooch is from the 1850s. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Before the earliest known photograph was taken in 1826 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphone Niépce and the first picture of an individual taken in late 1839, miniature painted portraits were treasured by those who could afford them. The first known portrait miniature (and possibly the first self-portrait) was painted in 1450 by the artist Jean Fouquet, and until the late 1500s, portrait miniatures remained the possessions of those at the top of the social pyramid. The kings of both France and England employed court miniaturists whose earliest works are of royal spouses, children, and other close relations. From there, the painting of miniature portraits spread, encompassing the nobility then the gentry, in an expanding ripple. By the 18th Century, every European nation and the North American Colonies boasted both well-established and itinerant artists.

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The first known portrait miniature is a self-portrait by Jean Fouquet, painted in 1450. This monochrome gold picture is now in the Louvre.

The English Regency-era portrait above of a pretty brunette with a ruff-like collar and giraffish neck is an example of the type of image available from a local artist. Painted in about 1818, it would have been taken from life, probably by a painter who journeyed to the home of the subject for the number of sittings required to complete the portrait.

“The miniaturist chose a high work surface or placed his easel—a box with an adjustable, slanted lid—on a table. This was moved nearer the window, and the painter sat down—so as not to cover his work painting with the shadow of his hand—then the light fell onto his work from his left. A room facing north had the advantage that the painter was not disturbed by direct or moving sun rays,” notes Bernd Pappe of the Tansey Collection of miniatures, housed in Bomann Museum in Celle, Germany.

At this date, the artist usually painted on a thin tablet of ivory glued onto a supporting card, using paints that either he or she mixed with binder, or—increasingly after 1700—were sold premade.

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Pinchbeck or low-karat gold and black enamel mourning brooch with an amateur portrait painted on a small ivory tablet, probably from the 1830s. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The new availability of premixed paints and ivory sheets turned those who could afford to dabble into portrait artists, too. Well-bred children were expected to have accomplishments, and within the family, portrait sketching was a laudable pastime. It was surely a family member or friend who painted the image beneath the crystal of the mourning brooch above. Of gold and black enamel, it dates to about 1820. The brooch is one of several that I own showing the deceased as portrayed by an amateur—clearly not by someone who made their living as a miniaturist. Because it dates from before the availability of a photographic portrait, one is left to wonder whether the portrait was painted before the brooch and was later repurposed after the sitter’s death, or if it was painted from memory later. In either case, the possibility of this being the only likeness of the subject is considerable. Ω