Sunday, July 10, 2011

19th Century Mourning Practices (revised)

A widow in mourning
At times during living history events I get the distinct opportunity of taking part in what I'm sure would be considered a very unusual scenario in modern society:  19th century mourning. Specifically, Civil War era mourning.  At times during our living history events,  a number of us in the living history world make the attempt to put together a very authentic and eerily realistic presentation.
Please allow me to explain a bit about a part of life in the 1860's that we here in the 21st century rarely speak of:  death.
First off,  as you probably know,  death happened quite frequently for younger people during the  "pre-electrical times" - it was much more commonplace at a younger age than today;  the infant mortality rate was extremely high,   death during childbirth was the number one cause of a woman's death,  and then there were the   "everyday"  causes:  consumption   (TB),  influenza,  cancer,  pneumonia,  etc.,  and even something as seemingly insignificant as a minor cut,  if it became infected,  could cause death.
But let's get rid of this misnomer that  "the average lifespan of humans in 1860 was 45 years old,"  or  " 1900 the average lifespan was 50 years old,"  or whatever other fallacy the e-mails or statisticians say.  I mean,  it sounds like if you were 39 in the 1860's you had one foot in the grave,  for Pete's sake!
Well,  let's clear this mess up once and for all:
A widow in the graveyard
In general,  folks in the 18th and 19th centuries lived nearly as long as we do today.  Yes,  it's true.  If the statisticians would take the time to read journals of the period,  or census records of long ago they would find a good majority of adults living to a ripe old age.
As a genealogist I have found that all of my 1st,  2nd,  and even 3rd great grandparents lived well into their 60's,  70's,  and 80's.  Even my direct line dating back beyond the 3rd greats tended to have a long lifespan...well,  at least of those I could find.  And,  yes,  I have a couple that did die rather young - in their 40's and 50's - they were women and they died during childbirth.
So why is this false average lifespan information being passed around as fact?  Because,  technically,  it is  true - the average life span in 1860 actually was  around 45 years of age.  The average  lifespan.  Now,  take into account that,  up until the mid 20th century,   the infant mortality rate was pretty high.  Er...I mean, very  high.  As I stated,  death was extremely common,  unfortunately,  for infants before their first birthday.  So common,  in fact,  that many parents would not even name the child until it reached 1 or 2 years of age.  My great great grandmother,  Linnie Robertshaw,  practiced this custom in the later part of the 19th century.
So,  with all things considered,  death was  more common,  but it was due to disease,  childbirth,  and infant mortality rather than old age as is the misconception being spread.
Because of this,  death in the 19th century was much more an accepted part of life.  Of course,  the religious faith played a major role in allaying that fear,  for folks were openly religious - far more than anyone alive today has ever witnessed - and that was their comfort,  for they believed strongly in an afterlife.
(In my opinion,  I feel part of our thought process here in the 21st century actually harms our acceptance of death's occurrences.  We feel we've come so far in medical technology that death should almost be an exception rather than the rule,  haven't we?)
Anyhow,  with that in mind,  let's look at the era of the American Civil War:
as you probably know,  during the Civil War death touched nearly everyone,  whether it was an immediate family member,  an extended relation,  or one who lived in their community.  For the soldiers fighting,  death was not only caused from the wounds of battle,  but from disease.  In fact,  from the over 620,000 soldiers that died during the four year conflict,  more died from disease than from bullets.
And,  as stated toward the beginning of this posting,  death was ever-present as well for those on the home front.
Mourning wreaths
So,  with death ever-present,  how did folks deal with it during the mid-Victorian period in American history?  Here is a  (very)  basic mourning overview:
(from  "Rachel Weeping:  Mourning in 19th Century America"  by Karen Rae Mehaffey):  'Americans responded to death as a constant companion, and even embraced it with resignation and ritual.  Americans...were intimately acquainted with death.  Victorians embraced mourning as a sub-culture.  It impacted how people dressed,  how they behaved in society,  and even how they decorated their homes.' 
'Women were responsible for mourning in the family,  and carried the responsibility of preparing mourning garments and making sure everyone was dressed properly.'
In preparation for the visitation and funeral services,  the home of the deceased would have an outward appearance to show the community that there was a death in the family.  Draping the front door and/or door knob in a black crepe with ribbons  (or in white if it was the death of a child)  was the most common practice.
Inside the home mourning took on an appearance that many here in the 21st century would consider morbid,  for virtually anything reflective  (or shiny in many cases)  would be covered,  such as mirrors and glass of any kind,  including picture frame glass.  Crepe could also be draped over fireplace mantels,  windows,  shelves,  and other household items,  especially in the bedroom of the deceased.
A parlor set up for mourning
Clocks would be stopped at the time of death and would not be restarted until the burial was over.  Ribbon or flower-covered black wreaths were hung on doors,  windows,  and mantels.  Window curtains and shades were also drawn and shutters closed.
According to Bernadette Loeffel-Atkins:  "The home was to remain quiet and calm,  there was to be no confusion or loud talking while the body remained in the house.  The departed loved one would be placed on viewing in the family parlor of the home."
As for death announcements and funeral invitations  (yes,  you heard me - people were invited  to the funeral!),  or even for personal letters from the mourners,  stationary would be white with a black border;  "the wider the border, the deeper the mourning of the writer."  These announcements and invitations were hand delivered to the family and friends of the deceased.
The widow's deceased
husband comforts her
Mourning pertaining to women was in three stages: deep mourning,  second mourning,  and half mourning.
Mourning a spouse generally would last one to 2 ½ years
For a parent:  6 months to a year
For children over 10 yrs old:  6 months to a year
For children under 10 yrs:  3 to 6 months
Infants:  6 weeks and up
For siblings:  6 to 8 months
For aunts and uncles:  3 to 6 months
For cousins:  6 weeks to 3 months
For aunts or uncles related by marriage:  6 weeks to 3 months
Grandparents:  6 months
For more distant relatives and friends:  3 weeks and up
(Mourning for parents,  children,  grandparents,  in-laws,  and relatives such as cousins and uncles or aunts vary.  One would need to read a book to learn about all of the differing types and lengths of the mourning process and customs.  This posting is just an overview for the loss of a spouse).

The Civil War preacher 
and the widow
Deep mourning was the first stage of mourning for a woman,  and it immediately followed the death of a husband,  wife,  or child.  Mourning clothes were expected to be plain with little or no adornment.  A woman while in deep mourning would wear all black clothing and jewelry,  including, while out in public,  gloves and a black veil over her face.  Hats were not to be worn for mourning;   bonnets covered in crape would replace them.  She would not speak with anyone but her family or closest friends.  She would not attend parties or gatherings and would basically seclude herself from the public in general.  She would stay in this deep mourning for at least a year and a day,  and sometimes longer,  and there are instances where some women would never leave this stage.
Second stage mourning followed deep mourning and lasted around 9 to 12 months.  Full mourning collars and cuffs were replaced by white,  veils were taken off,  crape was discarded,  and jewelry of a wider variety was worn.  By this second year the woman could add lace.  The veil was of black crape,  and very long,  but by the second year it could be shortened.

Two different stages of mourning

Now we enter half mourning:  this was the last stage of a woman's mourning ritual.  It was during these last 6 months that the widow could include the addition of lilac,  lavender,  violet,  mauve,  and gray.  She was no longer limited to just black with a touch of white.  She would use black and white ornaments for evening wear,  bonnets were white,  lavender silk or straw.
Dresses with bold prints were also acceptable fashion.

For specific periods of time,  depending on their community mores,  a widow would not leave her home and did not receive any visitors.   After a respectable time,  she would then send out black edged cards advising friends and family that her time of heavy mourning had passed and she could now receive visitors.  Parties,  weddings,  and other social affairs were hands off to those in at least the first two stages of mourning,  and many times in the half mourning as well.
In general it took about two and a half years for a woman to complete the mourning process over her deceased husband.  With each stage she slowly became part of society again.  Once the three stages of mourning were complete,  the widow could now store her mourning clothing and begin wearing her normal everyday wear and join into society functions completely.

The preacher and a friend -
note the black crepe armband
For a man,  mourning was quite different.  Men were needed to take care of the family and the business,  therefore he was needed to return to his occupation as soon as the deceased was buried.
A male's mourning garb was his best  (dark)  suit with a weeper  (made of crape)  wrapped around the hatband of his hat.  Although there are some differences of opinions,   most agree that men also wore a black armband.  A man might wear a black cockade on his lapel as well.
Once a widower's wife was buried,  chances are he may look for a new wife soon after - especially if he had young children at home or if she died giving birth to a living child.  Here's the kicker:  if he re-married shortly after his deceased wife was buried,  his new wife might then mourn for the first wife,  wearing all of the mourning clothing and going through the stages as described above!

Now, how about those who attended funerals and were not part of the immediate family?
Well,  according to Heather Sheen,  from the site Creative Cockades,  "it is a common misconception today that people attending funerals in the 1860s wore the full black attire of widows and widowers.  On the contrary,  full mourning attire was reserved for the family of the deceased only.  It was considered improper and even rude for non-family members to wear full mourning. 
Mourning attire had a specific purpose in the 1860s:  To publicly create a  "shield"  for the family during their time of deep grief.  The mourning family was not required to make public appearances of any kind - the widows were even relieved from having to go out to do regular shopping.  Heavy veils for women protected them from prying eyes who might see their pale faces and tears.  A grieving family was given space and time to heal without the stress of dealing with the public.
Thus it made no sense for non-family to wear mourning attire even in sympathy.  So what did a person do to show public honor for the decease
The answer is they wore mourning badges! 
Visiting our deceased president
Mourning cockades and badges were appropriate for men and women of all ages.  They could be worn simply to the funeral, or worn for several months thereafter.  Photos and drawings show mourning badges of many designs being worn by a grieving public. 
This engraving is a good example. Note that the mourners passing Lincoln's body include all ages from young people to old.  The gentlemen all are wearing some type of armband, while the ladies show cockades on their left sleeves."
~To purchase authentic mourning cockades and badges, please click on the Creative Cockades link above)~

 During our mourning presentation in Waterloo,  we not only showed what mourning was like in the home,  but we also held a funeral,  with a pall bearers,  a procession to a graveyard,  and a preacher reciting the 23rd Psalm - accurate except for the lack of a real body in the coffin and a burial.
This was a very realistic immersion of a funeral
(A side note:  at the Charlton Park mourning presentation we actually used a volunteer as a  "corpse"  atop a slab in the parlor!)

Mourning a dear friend.
We do our best to be as authentic as we can.  We've had modern visitors tell us that we make them feel as if they've stepped through a portal to the past.

A weeping widow
It's scenarios like this that help to bring history to life  (so to speak!).  This is also why I reenact - this is my passion.  Bringing the past too life as accurately and authentically as we can is our high.
Those of us who participated in the mourning presentation at the Sixberry House in Charlton Park.  This photograph was taken with a tintype camera made in the 1880s.
As a side note I'd like to add a bit of social commentary to this posting:
During our scenario in Waterloo, I had more than one patron comment on how the respect that,  at one time,  was shown to those in mourning as well as to the deceased is long gone,  that people would rather  "party"  in our modern day and age instead of mourn,  and the deceased is soon forgotten.
In many ways they are right.
Oh,  yes,  we have the three day funeral and all that,  but it is quite different today.  I mean,  I do believe that a party for the dearly departed is not such a bad thing.  But,  there should be more time and more ritual for the mourning process.  In fact,  I believe a time for actual mourning is  needed,  contrary to popular contemporary belief.
The empty chair...
A very good example of this is when my wife lost her mother back in 2008.  A couple weeks after my mother-in-law's death,  we had a memorial service.  In this gathering we had many friends and family,  some who traveled quite a distance,  giving their happy remembrances of my wife's mom.  My wife then read a beautiful eulogy which brought nearly every visitor to tears,  and our eldest son strummed the guitar and sang  "Poor Wayfaring Stranger"  in a special tribute.  To complete the service there was a nice setting of food.
But even though this memorial was supposed to bring closure,  I could see that it didn't,  at least not for my wife.  She continuously cried herself to sleep and had bouts with depression for months - even more than a year - afterward,  but she still couldn't mourn outside of our home  it seemed.  My wife had not truly been able to mourn - to grieve - as she would've liked.  She had been told that  "life goes on,"  and to  "get over it."  Society just does not allow for open mourning without strongly suggesting sending the mourner to a psychiatrist,  who will invariably put them on some anti-depressant.
However,  shortly after Christmas of that year of 2008 - just a couple months after her mother's death - we participated in our reenacting unit's Christmas party.  It was a period dress Christmas get-together as is usual for us.  But,  this year I noticed that,  instead of wearing her nice flower-print brown day dress,  she instead wore her lavender day dress with a mourning brooch I bought for her earlier that year.
Not necessarily period correct,  but it was a last minute idea on her part.
Some there at the party noticed.
And they asked her...
She told me afterward how wonderful it made her feel that people not only were aware of her state but also gave her their condolences.
It helped her in her grieving and mourning.
I actually saw her smile...
And that lead me to finally fully understand the mourning practices of the 19th century:  it gave one - including men,  albeit a much shorter length and less rules - the opportunity to mourn,  and to let others know how they are feeling.  It gave the mourner the right to cry  *whenever*  and have others understand.  It gave the mourner the right to be angry  *whenever*  and have others understand.  It gave the mourner the right to be moody and have others understand.
It gave the widow the right to grieve  whenever she needed to.
And,  that's what we cannot do in this modern day and age.  We need to mourn  and to know it's OK to mourn without anyone saying stupid things such as,  "It's been a couple months,  you should be over it by now!"  and then having some doctor wanting to shove pills down our throats to help us  "get over it."  I don't necessarily mean we should go back to the mourning practices of our 19th century ancestors,  but to give us the opportunity to actually mourn - - and not for three days;  not for a week or a month. But for however long it takes.
Our ancestors were much smarter than today's society gives them credit for.


I do not completely understand my interest in the mourning procedures of the 19th century,  but I have found that I'm not alone in this infatuation.  There are many folks - especially in the reenacting world - who also have a strong interest in this as well. 
Besides the information from the books and pamphlets listed below,  I would also like to give many thanks to Sandy Root  for all of her knowledge about not only the mourning practices of the 1860's,  but her knowledge of 19th century social history in general.
Oh,  and I cannot forget the mourning knowledge of my very good friend,  Kim Parr.  Kim,  along with her good friend Stephanie, began the mourning presentation at the Adams House at Greenfield Village back in the 1990's.
The hearse shed (with hearse) at Greenfield Village - for more info on this building click HERE

Besides the information from Kim, Sandy, and Tonya, here are the three main books I used for this post:

"Rachel Weeping II: Mourning in 19th Century America" by Karen Rae Mehaffey

"The After-Life" by Karen Rae Mehaffey

"Widow's Weeds and Weeping Veils" by Bernadette Loeffel-Atkins

~   ~   ~


Richard Cottrell said...

Oh my. I never do much with death. I just kinda ignore it. Never go to funerals, do send cards, but try and do up-lifting one. I know how hard it was for the Victorians, and it happened so often, especially with infants. Must have been very tugging on the ladies hearts, and bodies. The couple who built my house lost 2 children, one before term, the other less than the first year. I visited the grave to do research and it was sad. Thanks for all your efforts and sharing. Richard at My Old Historic House

Robin's Egg Bleu said...

Wonderful post, as always! At the Whaley House in San Diego, we only deal with a mourning interpretation once a year, at Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. Recently, we have begun to include the death of the 1 1/2 year old Whaley boy into the event.

We have his coffin in the parlor, we use crape throughout the museum but we did not know about closing the drapes! Now we shall include this in our mourning interpretation.

Thanks so much for the great information!

PvtSam75 said...

Fascinating! Another great post! I have to say that your blog is one of my favorites-I get to learn more about the 19th century than I ever have or ever will anywhere else! Death is certainly a touchy subject, but it's something that reenactors have to show once in a while, almost to remind people that it did happen (and still does) and that it was a HUGE part of life.

Jimio said...

Yes this blog is amazing informative and seemingly accurate. As to why women dont mourn much today I think it is because they want to work outside the home to help make ends meet since the dollar is worth much less now. But still others feel both parents work is to get more material things in life which they think might make them feel better or to show off to the neighbors. Also everyone seems to want so much material things, the children tell the parents their friends have this stuff, why can't we have it too?

Historical Ken said...

Wow! I am honored by all of your responses!
Richard: It kind of brings it all home, doesn't it? Now you can visualize what it was like in your house back then.
Robin: That is wonderful. I'm glad I was able to help. Make sure you do light some candles - that's what they did.
PvtSam: Thank you for your kind compliment! I, too, wish more units would concentrate on living history scenarios. It seems many would rather concentrate on cooking over their fire.
Jimio: I believe you are very correct in your description of society "today."

Plymouth Historical Museum said...

Ken, awesome job! Thanks for writing this. I think that not enough people understand 19th century mourning.

Historical Ken said...

This comment comes from Paris Graham. For some reason she cannot post her comments on my blog:
Ken, thanks for the wonderful post, I really enjoyed reading it. I agree that the Original Cast certainly had a more holistic view on death and healing as compared to us. Humans thrive on ritual, I really think that it fills a need we have and enables us to cope better. I was touched by what you shared about Patty and glad that she could in a small sense embrace the Civil War era Mourning practices and grieve for her family with sympathetic people.

ladyestelle said...

Lot's of knowledge here. We at The Hearthside House in Lincoln are planning a Victorian Funaral in the house to introduce mourning pactices of the 1800's. We have been doing much reseach on the subject. Thank you for you interesting post,Ken.

LydiaO said...

What a wonderful post Ken. I came in via Richard at My Old Historic House. I applaud the striving to be truly period. It requires quite an effort, especially when you are putting together the clothing. I am a historical costumer so I know what goes into it. Thanks for explaining the periods of mourning, I never really knew what half-mourning consisted of. And now we all know why everyone was so shocked when Scarlett attended the fund raising ball and danced with Rhett LOL!

Mickie and Matt said...

Hello! I just stumbled upon this blog (from google) while researching customs post Civil War. I am thinking about writing a novel set during the late 1860's and want to know more about the 19th century. Your blog is quite the gem THANK YOU! I'm so excited to explore all your posts.

Historical Ken said...

Thank YOU for such a kind compliment!
I appreciate it!

Unknown said...

Found your site today, interesting and really enjoyed reading. Life and death would have been very similar here in NZ. Keep writing, kia ora

kharp said...

Wonderful reading. It is nice to learn of the past and that people still keep the knowledge of it going for us . Although its true that we cannot "dwell" in the past ,we should never forget it. To know these things gives a greater understanding of how our world has changed and we have lost touch in our hurry up world. I often use a line to remind people how important the past is to us."Guide the future by the past.long ago the mould was cast.

Mountain Writer said...

Thank you for your historical description and personal insights. I do think that we often dismiss Victorian customs as being outdated or repressive without understanding their value.

My father died a couple of years ago. It started with my mother falling and breaking her hip in August. He was already ill but visited her daily at the hospital and rehab. September I was called to jury duty for the murder of an eleven year old girl. And in October, my father died--probably hastened by his caring for my mother.

During those three months, I was expected to continue to work 60 hours a week and not let personal matters interfere. I got 5 days of bereavement -- not nearly enough time to just deal with the paperwork and then it was back in the harness.

Perhaps we are not so enlightened as our ancestors.

Billy said...

Excellent post! We at Andrew Torregrossa & Sons Funeral Services notice that not many of our clients know much about the history of funerals.

Unknown said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your informative information on mourning during the Civil War. You and your staff carefully researched the topic and were respectful when caring out the traditions. Your photos were also helpful(I was unaware that netting was placed over the corpse when in state, was this custom done more in the Southern States?).
Civil War re-enacting in 1992 lead me into researching Victorian mourning customs, specifically, Victorian mourning hair jewelry. I've devoted the past 20 years recreating woven hair art....thank you for your passion!
Warm Regards,
Lucy Cadwallader of

Rosemary Nichols said...

This was very useful and respectful. I am writing a book about a family that loses an aunt/sister in December 1860 in Baton Rouge. This was very helpful. Thank you.

Unknown said...

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• Original Railbed (Built 1832)
• Original Hand-Cut & Laid Stone Wall
• Original Funeral Train Route, April 22, 1865, 12:05pm–12:30pm (Re-Enactment Monday Only)
• Full-Scale Replica of an Original 4-4-0 Steam Locomotive
• Period-Correct Band and Music
• Period-Correct 1850 Passenger Car to Carry the Troops
• Restored and Rebuilt Herr’s Mill Covered Bridge with Troops Crossing the Conoy Creek
• Re-enactors in Period-Correct Dress

• In-camp Demonstrations
• Sutler’s Village
• Photo and History Displays
• Living Historic Lectures by Abraham Lincoln Presenter Fritz Klein, Sam Grant as Ulysses Grant, Wayne Wesolowski, Jean-Paul Benowitz and others
• Lincoln Funeral Train Art located in the Museum at The Star Barn
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• Tour the 1877 Star Barn Village Presentation of mourning customs and mourning hair jewelry weaver
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Hope to see you there!! go to for more info and ticket sales...