Monday, November 3, 2008

Adams Family Home Mourning Presentation

Full mourning dress (right) and second stage mourning at the Adams Home

(All photographs were taken by me at the Adams home except the one of male mourning)

The death of a loved one in the 19th century was treated far differently than it is today. During Memorial Day Weekend (known at Greenfield Village as Remembrance Day), 1860's era mourning is presented inside the Adams House.

One must understand that death happened quite frequently during the Civil War, and not only due to the battles; more Civil War soldiers on both sides died of disease than getting shot ( a total of over 600,000 men died either in battle or of disease during the four years of the war). Too, infant mortality rate was extremely high, in some cases nearly 30%; 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, dysentery, etc.
As you can see, death during the 1860's was so very much a part of life - seemingly much more than in our modern society.

The following (from "Rachel Weeping: Mourning in 19th Century America" by Karen Rae Mehaffey) gives a basic overview on how society dealt with death: '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.'

So, how did folks deal with death during the mid-Victorian period in American history? Well, the first thing the family did was stop the clock at the time of death - there is no time as we know it in the hereafter. Shades would be drawn. The family would also cover anything that showed a reflection with a black covering - mirrors, glass picture covers, even reflective door knobs. Mourning biscuits would be served for a snack for visitors. And, of course, the body would be laid out in the front parlor.

(Also from "Rachel Weeping"): 'Women were responsible for mourning in the family, and carried the responsibility of preparing mourning garments and making sure everyone was dressed properly.'
Women went through several stages of mourning:
Deep Mourning - This was the first stage of mourning, and it immediately followed the death of a husband or child. A woman in deep mourning would wear all black, including, while out in public, gloves and a black veil over her face. She would not speak with anyone but her family or closest friends. She would not attend parties or get-togethers 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. Sometimes women would never come out of deep mourning.

Once the widow left deep mourning, she would then enter second mourning. At this stage she could stop wearing the veil in public and could begin to trim her bonnet with a little bit of white fabric. She could also wear decorative mourning buttons and jewelry.

The next mourning stage was called half mourning. This stage allowed the widow to reintroduce some color (purple, gray, lilac, etc.) back into their clothing. Dresses with bold prints were also acceptable fashion.
After a little over two years, the widow would store her mourning clothing and begin wearing her normal everyday wear.

For a man, mourning was quite different. Men were needed to take care of the family, therefore he was needed to return to his occupation as soon as the deceased was buried.

Yours' truly (right) showing male mourning (without my black gloves!). The Civil War Chaplain is on the left. This photo was taken in Waterloo, Michigan, at a home of the same era as the Adams Home

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 pretty good that he might look for a new wife soon after - especially if he had young children at home. Here's the kicker: if he re-married shortly after his deceased wife was buried, his new wife would then mourn for the first wife, wearing all of the mourning clothing and going through the stages as described above!

The Adams Home front parlor

What I have written is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to 19th century mourning etiquette.

The folks at Greenfield Village do an excellent job in their mourning scenario and, in my book, they get high marks in showing a part of 19th century life rarely seen anywhere! The Adams home is accurately depicted and, with this visual as well as the presenter's information, the visitor gets a complete understanding of Victorian mourning.
My hat goes off to the Village and the wonderful presenters in this presentation.

(For further information about mourning practices of the 19th century, please click HERE - - For further info on Decoration day/Memorial Day at the Village, please click the two links below)

Decoration Day at Greenfield Village

Civil War Remembrance


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