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.
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.
Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
By Beverly Wilgus
Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be at worn during all stages of mourning.
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
“Being a Grave Gardeners lets them contribute to a place that holds both personal and historic resonance.”
Through the stone gates of Woodlands Cemetery, a tranquil, verdant oasis thrives in the heart of University City. The Victorian necropolis, the last undeveloped parcel of the estate of botanist and plant collector William Hamilton, was preserved and a repurposed as a rural cemetery in 1840 as the city and University of Pennsylvania pushed westward. Today, The Woodlands is flourishing with the aid of creative placemaking and inventive programming.
The Grave Gardeners program is the most recent brainchild of Woodlands’ executive director Jessica Baumert and her staff. The cemetery is home to hundreds of “cradle graves,” tombs with both headstones and footstones connected by two low walls that create a bathtub-like basin. In the 1800s, family members of the deceased filled the French-style “cradles” with living, blooming coverlets of flowers. Cultivating these gardens on weekend outings to sylvan cemetery grounds like The Woodlands was a way of keeping a loved one’s memory alive. As descendants scattered and their memories of connections to Victorian ancestors faded, the gardens died out. The Woodlands’ Adopt-a-Grave program enlists the help of volunteers to revive these now scruffy patches of dirt and grass, one grave at a time.
To read this wonderful article in its entirety, click the link below.
Thank you to my dear cousin, Elizabeth Harrison, for calling this to my attention.
Julia was one of thousands of Americans who made for California after gold was discovered in 1848.
This wonderful 1/6th-plate daguerreotype shows a plump, well-dressed, melancholy woman whose first name was Julia. An inscription in the case reads “Aunt Julia. mothers [sic] sister that went to Calif. in 1851 or 52.” Unfortunately, the niece or nephew who penned this message to posterity left out Julia’s last name. Lacking it, we will never know Julia’s story, save that this daguerreotype almost certainly marked her departure west, as her fashionable clothing and coiffure can be dated to about 1851.
After the Gold Rush kicked off in January 1848, many thousands hurried west to seek their fortune or to provide goods and services for those allured by gold’s siren song. This mass movement lifted the nonnative population from less than a thousand to 100,000. Filled by newcomers and new wealth, the California Territory was quickly admitted as the U.S. 31st state on 9 September, 1850.
The society that Julia joined was only somewhat more than nascent. One new arrival, Jessie Benton Fremont, who came by sea to San Francisco in 1849, noted her first impressions from the deck of the vessel, “A few low houses, and many tents, such as they were, covered the base of some of the wind-swept treeless hills, over which the June fog rolled its chilling mist.” (A Year of American Travel, published 1878.)
Fremont, the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and the wife of military officer and politician John C. Fremont, was used to the finer things. Her account of society in early San Francisco and Monterrey makes for enticing reading. I quote her here at length not necessarily as a member of the social class that Julia represented, but as one of the few surviving women’s voices from the Gold Rush era.
“I was taken to one of these houses, which had been the residence of Liedesdorff, the Russian consul, who had recently died there. It was a time of wonderful contrasts. This was a well-built adobe house one story high, with a good veranda about it, and a beautiful garden kept in old-world order by a Scotch gardener. Luxuries of every kind were to be had, but there were wanting some necessaries. Fine carpets and fine furniture and a fine Broadwood piano, and no house-maid. The one room with a fire-place had been prepared for my sleeping-room, and had French furniture and no end of mirrors, but lacked a fire. The June winds were blowing, and I felt them the more from recent illness, which had left the lungs very sensitive. There was no fuel proper; and little fagots of brush-wood, broken-up goods boxes and sodden ends of old ship timber were all that could be had.
“The club of wealthy merchants who had this house together had excellent Chinese servants, but to make everything comfortable to me they added the only woman that could be procured, who accepted a temporary place of chamber-maid at two hundred and forty dollars a month and perquisites. One of the perquisites was the housing of her husband and children as well as herself. She had been washer-woman to a New York regiment, and was already the laundress of these gentlemen. She was kind enough to tell me that she liked my clothes, and would take the pattern of certain dresses, and seemed to think it a matter of course that I would let her carry off gowns and wraps to be copied by her dress-maker, a Chinaman. I declined this as civilly as I could, but the result was that she threw up the situation.
“The only really private house was one belonging to a young New-Yorker, who had it shipped from home, house and furniture complete—a double two-story frame house, which, when in place, was said to have cost ninety thousand dollars. At this price, with the absence of timber and the absence of labor, it will be seen that it was difficult to have any other shelter than a tent. The bride for whose reception this house was intended arrived just before me, but lived only a few weeks; the sudden and great changes of climate from our Northern weather into the tropics, and from the tropics again into the raw, harsh winds of that season at San Francisco, were too much for her, even with all the comforts of her own beautiful home. At a party given to welcome her the whole force of San Francisco society came out, the ladies sixteen in number.”
Later, to aid her health, she and her husband went to Monterrey, finding “There was none of the stir and life here which made San Francisco so remarkable. There was a small garrison of married officers with their families, but no man of any degree voluntarily kept away from the mines or San Francisco; it was their great opportunity for sudden money-making. Domestic matters were even more upset than in San Francisco, where Chinese could be had. Here it was like after a shipwreck on a desert shore; the strongest and the most capable was king, and, to produce anything like comfort, all capacities had to be put to use. The major-general in command of the post, General Riley, was his own gardener. He came to me, proud and triumphant, with a small market-basket on his arm, containing vegetables of his own raising. And as we would bring roses of our cultivation, so he brought me a present of a cabbage, some carrots, and parsley.
“The French ships brought cargoes of everything that could be sealed up in tin cans and glass, but the stomach grows very weary of this sort of food. It was barely a year since the gold had been discovered, but in that time every eatable thing had been eaten off the face of the country, and nothing raised. I suppose there was not a fowl left in the northern part of the state, consequently not an egg; all the beef cattle left had been bought up by ‘Baron’ Steinberger in San Francisco; there were no longer vaqueros or herdsmen, and flocks and herds had dispersed. There were no cows, consequently no milk. Housekeeping, deprived of milk, eggs, vegetables, and fresh meat, becomes a puzzle; canned meat, macaroni, rice, and ham become unendurable from repetition.”
The Fremonts eventually left California, but she and her husband returned to settle in Los Angeles later in life. On the whole, Jessie’s was a happy, adventurous story, which ended 27 December, 1902, in her adopted state. Her ashes were buried at Rosedale Cemetery. We know nothing of Julia’s fate. The inscription implies that she never returned from California, rich or otherwise. She was an aunt unknown and passed into legend— just “mothers sister,” long away, dead or not in contact with the clan; a vestige of family recalled only by her mirror image on a metal plate. Ω
“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.”
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.
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
Long before the London Eye there was the Earls Court Gigantic Wheel, which gave passengers a bird’s eye view of the capital city and beyond.
This British postcard was mailed to Mr. W. Roberts, 3302 Lindell Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri on 22 January, 1904. The unknown sender posted it from what is today an upscale area of South Kensington, London. The message reads, “34 Brechin Place. Received yours today the 22nd. Thanks so much, am delighted with them. This is a little of Earls Court exhibition. Will write.”
The wheel at Earls Court, London, was built by Maudslay, Sons, and Field, for the Empire of India Exhibition, and opened to the public 17 July, 1895. The project’s engineer was H. Cecil Booth, who recalled, “One morning in 1894, W. B. Bassett, a retired naval officer, one of the managing directors of the firm, entered the drawing office and called out ‘Is there anyone here who can design a great wheel?’ There was dead silence, whereupon I put up my hand and replied, ‘Yes, I can, sir.’ Basset’s answer was ‘Very well, get on with it at once. It is a very urgent matter!’” (Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History by Norman D. Anderson.)
The design and build process resulted in a 440-ton wheel that reached a height of 220 feet. It had 40 cars, each of which carried up to 40 passengers. On a clear day, from the apex, riders could see out across London and as far as Windsor Castle. At night, the wheel was a sight in itself, with a spotlight affixed to it and the entire structure and passenger cars decorated with incandescent lamps.
“Those who make the ‘circular tour’ will be able to enjoy most of the advantages of being up in a balloon without any of the risks attendant upon aerial navigation,” assured the 2 February, 1894, Westminster Budget, before the public opening. Anderson reveals in his book Ferris Wheels that the first passengers were probably George, Duke of York (later King George V), and his wife, the duchess (later Queen Mary). Bassett was one of the Duke’s old shipmates and arranged the clandestine ride.
The Earls Court Wheel was based on the magnificent Ferris Wheel built for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition by the eponymous George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. (1859-1896). There had been smaller “pleasure wheels” in the past, but the Ferris Wheel overshadowed them at approximately 26 stories tall. Although the wheel was a singular success, carrying an estimated 38,000 passengers daily who each paid 50 cents per 20-minute ride, Ferris was cheated of his percentage of the take and was in litigation up until the time of his death, which occurred not long after the Earls Court Wheel opened.
The 23 November, 1896, issue of the New York Times reported, “
George W. G. Ferris, the inventor and builder of the Ferris wheel, died to-day at Mercy Hospital, where he had been treated for typhoid fever for a week. The disease is said to have been brought on through worry over numerous business matters. He leaves a wife in this city, and friends in mechanical and building circles all over the country.”
The Earls Court Wheel was equally moneymaking.
A 19 December, 1896, Guardian newspaper article discussed its use and profitability, “From the opening of the wheel in May till [sic] it closed in October, [it] carried nearly 400,000 people, and earned from rides on the wheel alone £20,237. The bank holidays were one of the principle sources of revenue. At the August Bank Holiday last year they took over £621. This was largely composed of first-class traffic at 2s. each.”
During its years of operation, the wheel experienced only one incident of note: On the evening of 28 May, 1896, the drive mechanism broke, stranding those in the cars. “Everything possible was done to calm the trapped passengers. Seamen climbed the wheel’s framework, carrying food and drinks. When the wheel still was not repaired by midnight, Grenadier guards gathered around the wheels base and played music to entertain those who were spending the night in a way not expected. Although mechanics worked throughout the night, the wheel did not start turning again until 7 o’clock the next morning. As the weary passengers disembarked, each received a five-pound note as a benevolent gesture on the part of the management,” wrote Anderson in Ferris Wheels.
A more humorous view of the event was published in the 2 June, 1896, issue of The Journal: “At first the people in the wheel went into a panic. The crowd below knew that they were stuck, yet they could not resist confirming this impression by throwing out of the windows frantic notes and statements of their helplessness. The rapid American communicated with the crowd by putting a note in his silver cigarette case and tossing it down to become a highly prized souvenir in the pocket of a street arab. The cook used bad language, the married woman out for an innocent lark wept copiously, the mother of five bestowed her children as only a mother of five can do, and went tranquilly asleep, while her husband paced the aisle of the car and kept informing an old and aged maiden lady that he would give a sovereign for a cigarette. The servants of the Great Wheel Company scaled the outer skeleton of the frame and put ropes in the hands of those who were suffering for food, telling them they could draw up whatever they wanted. As far as I can make out from the newspaper reports, starving people in London, having an opportunity to gratify their appetites, are given to demanding beer and whiskey; for it was beer and whiskey that went up in the greatest quantities.”
Always envisioned as a temporary attraction, the Earls Court Wheel closed in October 1906 and was slowly demolished during the following year. In its lifetime, it carried an estimated 2.5 million riders. Ω