Until We Meet Again: Victorian Mourning Practices

By Ziv Carmi ’23

A special thanks to Ron Perisho, a perennial friend of the CWI, for sharing the two examples of mourning rings, part of his personal collection!

As the 19th century progressed, skull and hourglass motifs on tombstones gave way to symbols such as clasped hands and evergreen plants like ivy, indicating a cultural shift from the conception of death as a permanent parting to just a temporary separation until people met their loved ones in Heaven once more. Indeed, the clasped hand was a common motif on the tombstones of many married couples, which can be interpreted as an idea of devotion or love, even after death. While the idea of love beyond the grave was fairly common within mid-19th century culture, equally prevalent were the Victorian practices of mourning their dearly departed shortly after their passing, such as the use of mourning jewelry, typically rings or lockets with pictures of their loved ones, which often worn by widows during the Civil War period.

An example of the clasped hands of spouses on gravestones (courtesy of JSTOR)

Many modern Anglo-American mourning practices emerged with the 1861 death of Prince Albert. Until her own passing in 1901, Queen Victoria publicly mourned her husband, setting an example for both British and American citizens to follow. This, of course, coincided with the outbreak of the American Civil War, resulting in widespread utilization of these practices across the North and South as widows and mothers were faced with terrible losses.

One of the more unique features of mid-19th century mourning etiquette was the varying length of the mourning period. Etiquette books recommended that mothers mourn their children (and vice versa) for a year, siblings mourn for sixth months, male widowers for three months, and female widows for at least two and a half years. The brief mourning period for males compared to females is worth noting, as it likely came about from the Victorian standards of feminine domesticity, suggesting that loyalty to husbands extended well past their deaths. Indeed, these gendered expectations for mourning extended past the period of mourning into the customs and practices themselves. While the widower’s three months of mourning was displayed through a black armband, badge, or rosette, widows’ mourning periods were far more complicated. Immediately after the death of her husband, women traditionally wore only black clothing and kept their face covered by a black crepe veil when in public. After a period of time, she continued to wear the veil, but lighter shades of lace and cuffs were traditional parts of the outfits. After that period, the widows wore solid-covered dresses made of lavender, gray, and some other shades of purple.

As photography became widespread and affordable, many mothers and widows also wore mourning rings or jewelry with their loved ones in the place of a stone, as seen pictured here:

Mourning Ring, courtesy of Ron Perisho
Mourning Ring, courtesy of Ron Perisho

These pieces of jewelry often featured tiny photos of the deceased or their hair and were intended to ensure that the deceased were not only remembered by their loved ones, but also mourned both publicly and privately, even long after their death. Indeed, with so many soldiers dying on battlefields or in hospitals hundreds of miles away from home, and with families never getting to bury their sons or husbands, this material link to the dead was likely very important in bringing a sense of closure to the families and making sure that, even if their physical remains were lost, they would be able to properly mourn them nonetheless. Combined with other mourning apparel and rituals, these rings also linked mourners to a broader “community of mourners” that helped bring both collective meaning to the omnipresent death around them, as well as necessary emotional support to individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Locket with a picture of an unknown Union soldier with a saber and revolver (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

As the war progressed, many women had to adapt their mourning practices to accommodate the difficult circumstances on the home front. For example, when Varina Davis went into mourning for her young son, Joseph following his tragic April 1864 death resulting from an accidental fall from a second-story window of the presidential residence, she wore a black dress made of cheap cotton, reflecting the economic hardships of the Confederacy at the time. Indeed, another Confederate girl, Lizzie Alsop of Fredericksburg, wrote in March 1863 that “mourning is so high that I do not know whether it would be right for us to [wear black] or not,” suggesting that since Southern women were constantly facing the losses of loved ones, they would be unable to maintain the regimented rituals of mourning established in the late antebellum period and early in the war.

The Civil War challenged the Victorian ideal of the “good death,” the romanticized and expected passing of someone surrounded by their loved ones after a successful and fulfilling life. Instead of this idealized and romantic death, men suddenly and violently perished on battlefields, often not having seen their families in months or years. As such, women had to adapt their mourning rituals to these shocking new losses of their loved ones, coping with carnage on an enormous and continuous large scale, which necessitated re-conceptualization of death and its meaning within both the private and public spheres. Indeed, it is clear that the tragedy of the Civil War left a lasting impact on American society, permanently changing the way that Americans internalized and reacted to loss, and establishing a series of new cultural practices that endured well beyond the 1860s. While the practice of wearing mourning jewelry did not endure through the 20th century, it is clear that the idea of true and even eternal love remains a romantic cornerstone of our culture today.

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