Originally I intended to focus this blog post on mourning jewellery alone, but I actually fell into a whirlwind of weird and wonderful facts about the ritual mourning itself while researching so here is some of what I learnt...
Mourning etiquette in Victorian times was a complex web of rules and rituals. Following the death of a loved one or family member, Victorian folks referred to manuals of written instructions (a famous one being ‘The Queen and Cassels Household Guide’) for detailed information on specific rituals depending on who had died. The death of a nephew, child, aunt, second cousin… all had different lengths of time and different styles of clothing which must be worn during mourning. Children mourning parents or vice versa the period of time was one year, for grandparents and siblings six months, for aunts and uncles two months, for great uncles and aunts six weeks, for first cousins four weeks. The deepest of mourning was reserved for a widow who wore black for two years. The colour of cloth lightened as mourning went on, to grey, mauve, and white (called half-mourning). Bright colours during this time were an absolute no-no.
There were also rules around fabric quality as well as colour that were strictly adhered to. Non-reflective crepe was usually worn because of the view was that the soul, weakened by grief, was more vulnerable to reflections. Thus household mirrors were covered too. Traditional wax seals (normally red) were also changed to black in colour during the mourning period.
Mourning jewellery was actually first worn in the middle ages. It normally always contained the colour black (usually enamel) but could also be white if the deceased was unmarried, or had pearls for the death of a child - again more strict rules to be followed. Skulls, coffins and other memento mori often featured, as did poignant religious inscriptions (e.g. ‘God hath sent my hearts content’). Hair clippings or portraiture of the deceased were commonly included later on around the 1860s.
The use of mourning rings was widespread from the mid-sixteenth century and peaked in popularity in the eighteenth. So why did we stop wearing it? According to the British Museum website the production of mourning rings fell into decline as death rates lowered and modern medicine kicked in. Photography, too, is an obvious one. Nowadays with Facebook and YouTube our memories of the past are far more literal. Less romantic perhaps than keeping a lock of your loved ones hair threaded into the chain of your pocketwatch?
Early Victorian Heart Shaped Mourning Ring from Charlotte Sayers at Gray's Antiques, London. www.charlottesayers.co.uk