The death of loved ones has always been a difficult subject throughout history. During the Victorian period, however, it took on new significance. After Prince Albert died in England in 1861, Queen Victoria, his devastated wife, lived the rest of her life publicly mourning her loss. The English population quickly adopted Victoria’s extravagant mourning traditions which then made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
Victorian mourning traditions centered on women. Though there were certain expectations for men, such as wearing a black band on their arm or hat, these small gestures paled in comparison to the expected duties of women in mourning. For women, the mourning period was broken into two parts: full mourning and half mourning. The length of time spent mourning a deceased family member depended on how they were related. When a husband died, this was the longest time a woman spent in mourning. In this situation, ladies spent a year in both full mourning and half mourning. Full mourning required strict social isolation. Widows could not accept formal invitations except from close relatives and avoided pleasurable occasions and public places except for church. One of the most obvious ways that women displayed mourning was through their clothing. Society expected them to wear only black clothing during this time to symbolize their grief and spiritual darkness. Dresses were made of non-reflective silk or crepe and jet jewelry or pearls could be worn in modest amounts. Throughout this period of full mourning, widows also hid their faces behind black bonnets and heavy crepe veils. These strict rules only applied to middle- and upper-class women who could afford an entirely new outfit and to be confined to the home. Working- or low-class women often dyed a few existing garments black, but otherwise had to continue with their lives in order to make ends meet.
Once full mourning ended, women moved into half mourning. Widows could wear black clothing trimmed in grey, lavender, mauve, or white. Gold, silver, and precious gems could be added to jet jewelry and widows could receive visitors in their homes and could be seen outside. This transition happened gradually over several months, but gave widows more freedom. After 2 years and a day, a widow could come out of mourning entirely, though some stayed in a moderate form of mourning for the rest of their lives. Different relatives warranted different lengths of mourning. For the loss of grandparents or siblings, a woman mourned for 6 months and the loss of a parent required a year.
The role of mourning fell largely to women during the Victorian period because of their place within society. Women and men had different spheres: women in the home and men out in the world. Men could not be burdened by complicated mourning rituals because that would limit their ability to take part in society. It was expected that Victorian women would maintain domestic and moral order, keep the home and family clean, fed, and clothed, and raise the children. Most middle- and upper-class women hired housekeepers and nannies to help with these duties, leaving them free to pursue other activities such as their role as mourners. Though much of mourning tradition kept women, especially widows, from the public gaze, the process of mourning was also intended for others to see, as each tradition displayed her love and devotion for those she had lost.
Written by Katherine McDaniel, Exhibit Preparator for City of Greeley Museums