Thursday, April 14, 2016

Mourning Customs in the Victorian Era (The Nineteenth Century)

In my current WIP, set in 1890's Ireland, the heroine's mother dies and she's faced with the strict mourning customs of Victorian society in the United Kingdom. Not familiar with all the nuances, I researched the subject and accumulated a wealth of knowledge. Interestingly, very little of the data will be used in my novel, but perhaps I can use it down the line.

We think of people in the Victorian Era as prudish and repressed, but they had an almost fanatical obsession with death. Queen Victoria's mourning practices are a prime example of that obsession. She mourned for forty years—dressed in black everyday, kept their home as it was the day he died, and the servants continued Prince Albert's routine—from hot water for shaving to scouring his chamber pot. And a bust of the prince or painting appeared in almost every photographic portrait of the royal family.

This picture of the Albert's five daughters was taken by William Bambridge, the Royal Collection RC IN 2900549.

Today, most deaths occur in the hospital, not in the home, so we are removed from the dying process. Mourners would gather around the dying person's bed hoping to hear a last word. These words and their presence would signify the persons transition from this world to the next.

"Because of high mortality rates in Victorian England, she said, death and mourning became a way of life for survivors...'Mourning,' said Christ, 'created a powerful sense of being bound to the loyalty of the past.'"

Berkeleyan Home Search Archive, D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs. 4/5/1000.

During the mourning period, women wore heavy, black, concealing clothing and black veils of crepe—called "widows weeds". The only jewelry a widow might wear would be mourning jewelry made of black jet, cameos, or a locket designed to hold a lock of hair. Clothing for each stage of mourning was dictated—"full mourning", "half mourning". In the later stage, clothing in gray or lavender could be introduced.

Photo: Detief Thomas - de.Wikipedia.

Men wore mourning suits of black frock coats with matching trousers and waistcoats. Only men in uniform could wear black armbands. Also, it was appropriate for servants to wear them.

Widows were required to remain in mourning for one full year up to four years and could not enter society for twelve months. Changing her costume earlier would be considered disrespectful and if the woman were young and attractive, she'd be considered promiscuous.

Men were in mourning for one to two and a half years, for a sibling, it was six months, and for a child, as long as the parent felt the need. In the 19th century, mourning could be very expensive. Mourners needed an entire set of new clothes and it wasn't proper to keep mourning clothes in the closet. It was common for those who couldn't afford new clothes to take clothing to be dyed black or dyed it themselves.

The American Civil War coincided with the death of Prince Albert.

"Here are some interesting facts about dead and mourning.

*The deceased was usually dressed and laid out in the home where they lived. Sometimes embalming took place in the home in the days before funeral homes became the norm.

*All mirrors in the house had to be covered. Should a mirror fall on its own and break, that meant someone in the family would soon die.

*If there was a clock in the room where a person diet, it must be stopped or someone in the family would die.

*The body had to be carried out of the house feet first or it could look into the home, inviting others to follow it in death.

*Mourning clothes were among the first made available on a mass market scale.

*Queen Victoria mourned her husband from the time of his death in 1861 until her own death in 1901.

*The custom of sitting with the dead (commonly called a wake) was likely started to keep rodents away from the body. The body of the deceased must not be left unattended from the time of death until burial."
Museum of Mourning Customs

"...In this time, a veil was considered a necessity as it protected her, as well as those who saw her in public. It was believed the spirit of the dead would hover close to those it had loved in life. Should someone look directly int the face of a mourning woman, the spirit could attach itself to that person. It also disguised the tear stained face of the bereaved.

The material was also to have a sheen to it. It was believed this sheen, along with the black color, would make it difficult for the spirit of the dead to see the mourner..."

When a widows period of mourning was over, she'd send out invitations to her neighbors.

During the Civil War, it wasn't uncommon for a young war widow to remarry. With farms to run and having children, many remarried within a few months.

Widowers weren't as strictly ruled by society, especially if they had young children to care for.

At this time, behavior was carefully watched. The widow was expected to scream and cry. If the sister-in-law or neighbor did the same, rumors flew regarding their behavior.
Life/Religion & Spirituality/General Religion, April 15, 2012.

Times during the wild west, many died in duels, cowboys and Indians fighting for control of territory, and bar fights led to the need for many funerals.

During these days, coffins were handmade, usually by a furniture store owner, many of who served as funeral directors. Friends and family gathered around to exchange gossip and tell stories about the deceased. The coffin usually rested on top of a couple of saw horses. The minister gave the funeral service, and then the pallbearers loaded the coffin on a farm wagon. Mourners followed the wagon a short distance to the cemetery where the preacher gave his final prayers. Mourners would "take on"loudly and if the family didn't their love for the deceased was questioned.

Boot Hill cemeteries were called so because many people were killed wearing their boots, such as in a gun battle.

The Clanton Gang aka The Cowboys
A large sign read
Google Images
Google Images

A common custom upon the death of a Calvary officer, a riderless horse, with boots placed backward in the stirrups, would take place in the funeral procession. This tradition still takes place today in professions and, areas where riding a horse is a way of life.

Riderless Horse Memorial Service
Fort Worth, Texas
Google Images

This information is a mere summary of the customs and practices surrounding death and mourning in the nineteenth century.

Oh, about my work in progress, the title is A Touch of Irish. It's a western historical that begins in Ireland and is set in the arid area of 1890s Fort Stockton, Texas. I've run into several obstacles, but the words are finally clicking along.

Thank you for stopping by Sweethearts of the West today and Happy Reading and Writing!



  1. Welcome back, Linda. This might depress a person, if he/she were not already. My lands, they overdid it a bit, I'd think. Even if you learned more from your research than you can use, You can always draw on it when writing. For this post? I'd say you did a great job.
    The Victorian Era in the United States might have been somewhat similar as to mourning practices..but I don't know. I do know in the US the years were know as "The Victorian Era:Too Much Is Not enough." Excess in everything. I wrote a post about the term once and still have it in my filed, of course. One day, I may have to drag it out.
    The era is very interesting. Thanks!

    1. Go figure. It's working this morning. Yes, they did overdo it, but supposedly it gave them comfort. At least they didn't have to think about what they'd wear every morning and had a good excuse to stay home if they wanted. You know often people try hard to cheer you up, but you're not ready. I liked how during the Civil War, customs changed to fit the time.

  2. Very interesting, Linda. I've read about Victorian mourning customs before, but you added some interesting details. I look forward to your book being published.

    1. Hi, Zina. I always hope to learn something new when I do research. There is so much information out there. I've struggled with this book and am finally on a roll. Hopefully I can get it published soon.

  3. Very interesting, Linda. I've read about Victorian mourning customs before, but you added some interesting details. I look forward to your book being published.

  4. Whew! With all those rules and obligations I'm certain I would have made a social faux pas here and there. If they couldn't put their mourning clothes in a closet, where did they put them?
    It's so interesting to read about all these specifics about mourning during the Victorian era. I think we've changed so very much in our present day. Now we have catered funerals and family members often lead the service. People are cremated more and more instead of being buried. Some cemeteries do not allow headstones, only bronze plaques to note where a person is buried.
    This was a most interesting post, Linda. I wish you great success with your work in progress.

    1. I'm using your comment, Sarah, to test the Reply feature for the blog. Just ignore me.

    2. Haha, Sarah, me too! Most people sold their clothes as there were shops that catered specifically to mourning clothes. About the closet, I think that was a little over stated. Look at Queen Victoria, she must have had a closet full.

  5. Linda, to us some of the mourning customs seem bizarre but I'm sure they were rigidly enforced by society--even to the colors that a widow could wear when she came out of mourning. Great summary.

    1. Yes, Caroline, you're right. A woman could ruin her reputation if she didn't follow the guidelines and could be ostracized. I do remember when growing up, you didn't wear bright colors to funerals. Of course, we didn't wear white shoes before Easter either.

  6. Wow! What a lot of rules for mourning. And I had no idea Victorians were so superstitious. Very enlightening info, Linda. Thanks for sharing.

    BTW I have a lady's mourning fan from the 19th century. Bought it at an antique store in North Carolina years back. It's black silk with tiny pink flowers painted on it. I had it framed and it hangs in our dining room with severralother fans I've collected.

  7. I hear you, Lyn. A lot to keep up with. I'd love to see your mourning fan. Love old stuff. Actually, I like to see some real jet jewelry like they wore in that era. Hard to find.

  8. How interesting. I had known about Queen Victoria grieving for so many years. So many customs to help with the healing probably made it more difficult. Thanks for such an interesting post, Linda

  9. One of these days I'm going to watch the movies about Queen Victoria. I heard they were very good depictions of Victoria and Albert's love story. This is from a cousin who did her high school research paper on Queen Victoria.


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