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 When Death Came A-Calling
by Bob Brooke


The Victorians had almost an obsession with death. This developed out of the harshness of life during their time and because of certain life-changing events of the day.

The Harshness of Everyday Life
Except for the upper and upper middle classes, most Victorians led a hard life. Conveniences that ease life today weren’t heard of back then. The Industrial Revolution did wonders for production, but workers suffered hardships daily. And many died on the job from a lack of safety regulations.

Medical advancements were nonexistent. Women died in childbirth, and disease was rampant. That the various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly among the working class by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings prevailed amongst the population, whether dwelling in separate houses, in rural villages, in small towns, in the larger towns.

Defective supplies of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing contributed to the spread of disease as did the lack of habits of cleanliness among the middle and working classes. During Victorian times, the annual loss of life from filth and bad ventilation were greater than the loss from death or wounds in any wars in which America has been engaged in during modern times. And finally, the premature deaths of heads of households forced many women and their children to live a life of poverty.

Events of the Day
On April 12, 1861, after many years of tension over the injustice of slavery, the first shot of the American Civil War rang out. Death was rampant and grief overshadowed both the North and South I as more than a million lives were lost. When the war officially ended on April 9, 1865, the end was actually still far from sight, as six days later an assassin's bullet killed President Lincoln while he was attending a play at Ford's Theater. As these tragic events unfolded, a crippled nation already reeling from the devastation of war was further shrouded with grief.

In England a different sort of' tragedy occurred. On December 14, 1861, Queen Victoria woke to find that Albert, her beloved husband of 21 years, had died in his sleep of typhoid. Deeply distressed, Victoria went into full mourning and the nation, out of respect and love, followed her example. All members of the royal court dressed in black and an atmosphere of grief permeated society. It was customary during this time for a widow to remain in full mourning for a period of two years, and then half mourning for six months—however, the Queen never stopped grieving. In fact, she directed her servants to wear black crepe armbands for eight years.

Victoria wore black the remainder of her life. Rarely seen in public, she continued her responsibilities including official correspondence and meeting with her ministers and office visitors. The Queen, however, slowly resumed her public contact after opening Parliament in 1866 and 1867.

These two tragic events in 1861 over-shadowed society on both sides of the Atlantic ocean for several decades. By the 1890s however, fashion and attitude had lightened a great deal, and the mementos of grief were respectfully tucked away for posterity. The symbolic images of sorrow, love and devotion that were carved and molded into the accouterments of mourning are a somber reminder of the time when society dictated what was acceptable behavior in the event of bereavement.

During the Victorian period, certain "rules" existed regarding mourning. When a death occurred in the family, the servants were provided mourning garments by the family. The color and clothing adornment also reflected the event. The color and type of changes to clothing indicated who in the family had died.

Mourning Attire
During the full mourning period, all black clothing was worn and decorative accessories were kept at a minimum. Simple unadorned black straw hats were draped with mourning veils of fine black linen or lace, and for children black hats were sometimes decorated with dark silk flower sprays of forget-me-nots, roses, or morning glories. Black fans, tear catchers, mourning hankies and parasols, were also considered necessary regalia for the bereaved. Hair combs, buttons and jewelry items were hand carved and molded in a limited variety of dark materials, often bearing symbolic images that represented death, grief, devotion and eternal life. Black frames and daguerreotype cases held images of loved ones, as did "lockets" which also were designed to hold a "lock" of hair from the dearly departed.

Men wore black armbands. In wealthy families, the coachman wore a black band on his right arm. The footman wore a black band on his left arm. In this way, the black bands were "symmetrical when seated upon the box" of the coach. Even the horses were harnessed in black with livery crest buttons changed to black as well as the horses' harnesses.

By the late 19th century, female servants wore dresses, bonnets, collars and cuffs of black crepe. Male servants wore black suits, ties and armbands. All servants were provided two sets of mourning clothes. One set was worn for work, the other on Sunday and reception days.

Victorian mourning protocol prescribed certain periods of time for mourning. After a suitable period—usually a year to two years—full mourning attire could be put aside for half-mourning attire. For a female servant, this might include wearing white trim on her dress, sleeves, and collar.

During the six-month half mourning period, it was acceptable to don white lace jabots, collars and cuffs, as well as dark shades of gray and deep brown. Pearls, symbolic of tears and diamonds representing devotion were also incorporated into the look. As these changes were reintroduced to the wardrobe, it became acceptable for the bereaved to re-enter society.

But when a child, an unmarried woman, or a lady died in childbirth, the color of mourning attire was white. However, men related to them wore black armbands.

Mementos of Grief
One of the more morbid Victorian mourning practices was death photography. Photographs of loved ones taken after they died may seem morbid to modern sensibilities. But in Victorian England, they became a way of commemorating the dead and blunting the sharpness of grief. Victorian life was suffused with death. Victorians took photos of their dead relatives posing on couches, in beds, and even in coffins.

Another was the wearing of special mourning jewelry. Symbolic images of sorrow, love and devotion were the custom at the time. Men and women wore carved and molded pieces of mourning jewelry, an acceptable behavior during the bereavement period. But by the 1890s, fashion and attitude had lightened, and people tucked the mementos of grief away for posterity.

In the beginning of the 1860s the material of choice for black jewelry was jet, a hard type of lignite coal that was found along the Yorkshire coast of England. The best jet, which was found along the rocky shoreline, had a compact mineral structure making it strong enough to withstand carving and turning on a lathe. Jet also retained a high polish and resisted fading. As a result, an entire industry was developed around the mining and fabrication of jet during the mid-1800s in the small coastal village of Whitby.

At one time, the natural supply of jet was so plentiful it was possible to find substantial chunks of the shiny black substance washed up along the shore. Eventually however, the supply of true jet dwindled to the point of shortage and a replacement source was needed. Coal was found in lower York, and mined from estuarine beds where the tide washed into fresh water channels. This alternative jet was of an inferior quality. It was soft and did not respond to carving and polishing as well as the Whitby variety.

The industry then turned to other sources for their supplies, and Spanish jet and Cannel coal (bituminous) from Scotland were , imported to Whitby for incorporation into the trade. While these types of coal lacked hardness and luster, it was still better than the coal from southern' Yorkshire and jewelry components were soon being carved into shape from these alternatives, and then combined with decorative components fashioned from true Whitby jet.

When supplies of alternative jet became difficult to come by, other black materials were sought out. Black onyx, a form of chalcedony, was used in some jewelry forms, and French jet; also called Vauxhall, became equally popular. In reality, French jet and Vauxhall are black glass, and it became an excellent substitute for true jet because it remained shiny and would not fade. It is often difficult to tell the difference between authentic and faux jet by sight alone, but upon handling the materials one can easily tell the difference. Black glass is heavy and cold to the touch because it does not conduct heat, whereas true jet is light and room temperature. The details on _ carved jet item$ are often clean and sharp, while molded black glass may not be as defined and can also show signs of chipping or flaking.

But for the Victorians, jet symbolized the deep emotional tie to a loved one through death.

Another mourning practice of the Victorians was to wear pieces of jewelry that contained locks of hair or other mementos of the deceased. This became so common that artists crafted bouquets of flowers encased in elaborate frames or created three-dimensional bouquets displayed under glass domes.

Death pervaded Victorian life and mourning practices and attire because an everyday sight

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