To say the Victorians were obsessed with death and dying is putting it mildly. However, worse than death was the idea of dying and not being mourned, writes Natasha Francois.
She was her Most Eccentric Majesty. The monarch with the stratospherically high morals who gave her name to an entire era was one of the stubbornest and most opinionated women in history.
Queen Victoria hated; in no particular order: babies, breast-feeding, smoking, modern technology, motor cars, bishops, Catholics, and the Irish, but she also had a wicked sense of humour, never wore “drawers” and was totally devoted to her husband Prince Albert.
Upon hearing the news that her beloved Albert had died of typhoid in 1861, the pious and popular queen collapsed in a heap on the floor, clutched her youngest child Beatrice, wrapped her in her husband’s night-clothes and lay there until sunrise. She then plunged into a state of mourning that lasted four decades and dragged the rest of the 19th century world into mourning with her.
Victoria was a trend setter and unwittingly sparked the craze for mourning jewellery. Although mourning jewellery had been around for millenia, the Victorians took it to new heights. She even decreed that only mourning jewellery could be worn in court until 1880.
The Queen wore black
Queen Victoria and her subjects were the first to wear black while mourning. The queen wore black ‘widows weeds’ for the rest of her life. She even slept with a cast of Prince Albert’s hand beside her pillow so she could hold him while she slept.
Under her orders, her husband’s clothes continued to be laid out each day, his breakfast prepared and hot water delivered to his room every mourning so he could shave– despite being dead and buried!
Following Albert’s death, the longest reigning monarch in British history exited public life until her death in 1901.
Die, die my darling
To say the Victorians were obsessed with death and dying is putting it mildly. However, with the average lifespan a mere 50 years, with women commonly dying during childbirth, and diseases such as cholera and typhoid running rife- not to mention the widespread unsanitary conditions in which they lived, death was no stranger. This preoccupation with death filtered into everyday life, and the Victorians embraced it as much as they were repelled with it.
Death is not the end…
From the 1850s, it became popular to snap post-mortem portraits of the deceased, which were given to relatives as pictorial keepsakes.
Death was not the worst thing for the Victorians; worse was the idea of dying and not being mourned. It therefore became of paramount importance that the living show their respect for the dearly departed in their outward appearance, no matter their social class or walk or life.
Mourning fashion was widely adopted, particularly by widows and other women. Some wealthy women even dressed their servants for mourning and elderly widows often remained in mourning for the rest of their lives.
The art of mourning
There was a strict protocol when it came to mourning in 19th Century England, a widow was expected to be in mourning for two years. There were also various stages that had to be observed.
Full mourning lasted for a year and a day. Dull black clothing was worn without ornament: the Victorians considered it crass to wear extravagant jewellery in the first stage of mourning. Widows wore a weeping veil made of black crepe.
Second mourning lasted nine months. Minor ornamentation was permitted by way of fabric trim and sombre mourning jewellery. The veil was now raised and could be worn back over the head.
Half mourning lasted between three and six months. More elaborate fabrics were allowed to trim the garments and colour was gradually phased back in. It now became appropriate to wear regular jewellery.
Revering the dead
Mourning jewellery was worn by both men and women and often featured life and death symbols such as skulls, crosses or hearts. Mourning watch fobs, lockets, necklaces, rings, clasps, buttons, bracelets and brooches were all worn in reverence for the dead.
Mourning jewellery was suitably dark coloured, understated, elegant and made from materials including jet, Vulcanite and celluloid.
Queen Victoria’s material of choice was jet, a fossilized coal. Jet, which resembles black glass, has been washing up on shores since prehistoric times. It was the only material allowed during the first phase of mourning. However, jet was very expensive, so it was also flaunted as a display of wealth and status.
When natural jet supplies began to dwindle in 1870s, dark mouldable alternatives such as shellac, dyed horn and celluloid were employed as replacements. Celluloid was the first man-made plastic and was nicknamed “the great imitator”, due to its ability to mimic natural materials which were becoming scarcer and more expensive.
Vulcanite is a type of hardened blackened rubber that, like jet is lightweight and warm to the touch. Although it can be polished to a high sheen, it never has the same shine as genuine jet. Gutta percha is a natural latex found in East Asia evergreen trees, and was the first material to be used for costume jewellery.
Hair we go
Human hair was also used. Today it might sound morbid to make jewellery with hair from the deceased. But death in Victorian times was viewed in an entirely different context. There was far less division between the living and the dead, and hair ornaments served not only as a reminder of the person, but were considered a way for the living and the dead to communicate.
Hair was woven and knotted in order to make brooches, bracelets and watch chains. These human-hair ornaments were suitable for half mourning. Preparation was important: before jewellery could be made, the hair had to be boiled in soda water for 15 minutes before being sorted into lengths and divided into sections of 20-30 hairs. Most hairwork was based around a mould or strong material.
Sometimes the hair wasn’t made into an ornament itself but was hidden within into an item, such as a locket. By the late-Victorian era, popular women’s magazines included new hair art patterns.
Collecting mourning jewellery
Because Victorian mourning jewellery was made to last, it can still be found today. The internet is an excellent place to start: eBay is awash with examples that include brooches, bracelets, necklaces and lockets.
The most common pieces include jet, vulcanite and horn brooches. Necklaces, rings and bracelets are far rarer and therefore command higher prices.
The most prized items are crafted from enameled precious metals and include intricate hair art examples.
Personalised pieces are the most valuable, so look for items featuring photographs or a date.
Such was the nature of mourning jewellery that pieces engraved with a date- in particular the date of a person’ death are common. This makes it very easy to date an item.
Find out more about mourning jewellery: