April 15, 2010

Victorian Mourning Customs

If you’ve read many historical novels, you’ve read about women wearing widow’s weeds, but do you know what they are? In the Victorian era, the rules for mourning were quite complex, especially for widows. They were expected to remain in full mourning for a year and day, after which they would transition through one or two stages of partial mourning. During the complete mourning period, which could take years, widows wore simple clothing in muted colors, with upper class women wearing widow's weeds in black only.

During Deep Mourning, which lasted a year and a day, the widow wore all black clothing. Her dress was often made of black crepe, and she wore a long veil and black lace gloves if she left her home. Isolated during her mourning period, she wouldn’t attend social events, couldn’t go out except to attend church, and only close friends and family could come to visit. Men had things much easier. If a man lost a wife, he wouldn’t mourn too long and wore a black arm band on a white shirt. The reason he mourned a shorter time was because most men needed to remarry quickly in order to have someone to care for their children.

Why a year and a day of mourning, you ask? Because a woman wouldn’t think off coming out of mourning on the anniversary of the day her husband died.

Half Mourning, the second stage of mourning, generally lasted 9 months. The widow still wore all black clothing, but she was now allowed to wear a cockade—a tasseled pin with a black fabric flower. She could wear her veil back and not covering her face, a more stylish hat, a lace collar, and a cross or other simple jewelry. All other accessories were black, gloves, parasol, and hat, but her underwear could be white. She still didn’t attend social events.

The 3rd stage of mourning lasted another 6 months. The widow could add more color and might be seen in a gray dress. She could also attend public events more often.

Mourning Customs: People often kept the deceased in their home for 24 hrs. Because they worried about animals getting the body, they draped all the windows. Clocks would be stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered to prevent the deceased's spirit from getting trapped in the looking glass. The room was illuminated with candles, which helped mask the scent of death, as did the many flowers that were brought in. Small cakes, known as "funeral biscuits" were wrapped in white paper and sealed with black wax and given to guests as favors. Lavish meals were often served after internment.

The body was watched over every minute until burial. Grave robbery was a huge problem, as was the fear of a loved one being buried alive. To prevent that, some graves had a bell on the gravestone, with a string running down to the body and tied around a finger. That’s where the term “dead ringer” comes from.

Women sometimes wore a mourning brooch—jewelry out of hair from the deceased. Some mourning brooches held pictures of the deceased on one side, and the back held a lock of hair. Note the elaborate designs made out of hair in the center of each of the brooches above. The center brooch is a basketweave.

People often took pictures of their deceased relatives
to remember them, especially babies
and children.

Queen Victoria set the grieving standard, and I’m certain that many women despised her for doing so, while others appreciated being able to hide while they mourned their deceased loved one. In America, these traditions were followed to a lesser degree, especially in the West, where a women often needed to remarry in order to survive. But next time you read about “widows weeds,” you’ll know what they are.

On a lighter note, I wanted to let y’all know that I have two books releasing this month. The Anonymous Bride is the first book in my Texas Boardinghouse Brides series. Wildflower Hearts is a 3-n-1 collection of a historical romance trilogy set in the Badlands of North Dakota. You can learn more about these books and my other books at my website: www.vickiemcdonough.com



Tina Dee Books said...

I am absolutely enjoying THE ANONYMOUS BRIDE! Hope the publisher won't make us wait too long for the next book, I'll finish this book all too soon, but it's such a great read, I can't help but to gobble it up!

Vickie McDonough said...

Thanks so much, Tina. The sequel releases in October, and it's called Second Chance Brides.

Karen Witemeyer said...

Interesting post about the rules for mourning. Seems a bit psychologically harsh to require a grieving woman to withdraw from social activities for so long. I guess she could still have private visitors, but a year plus nine months plus six months - that's a long time to not move on.

I'm reading The Anonymous Bride right now and am enjoying it. Little Jack is a hoot!

A J Hawke said...

Vickie, thanks for a great post on the mourning customs of the 1800s. I had no idea it would last so long. Although psychologist tell us today that it takes about two years to even think of truly moving on.

I have a great interview with Vickie on my blog. I enjoyed THE ANONYMOUS BRIDE. Great characters.
Looking forward to SECOND CHANCE BRIDES.
A J Hawke

Vickie McDonough said...


I'm so glad you're enjoying TAB. I had fun writing Jack's character. I have to admit, she's a bit like I was as a child. And you're right about the mourning rules being rough on women. I'm glad I don't live in those days, although I like to write about them.

A J,

You do make a great point about it taking 2 years to move on after a death. Thanks again for featuring me on your blog!!