Report from Woodbury’s Victorian Mourning Event

Jane Peters Estes at the podium for a historical presentation about Civil War-era mourning practices.
Historian Jane Peters Estes explains Civil War-era Victorian mourning rites in a program at the Gloucester County Historical Society in Woodbury, NJ.

Aside from being suffocatingly complex and incredibly restrictive, the baroque Victorian mourning customs of the second half of the 19th century were a serious play of gender inequities. Widows bore the brunt of the rigid, socially isolating requirements, while the life of mourning men was barely disturbed at all, noted Jane Peters Estes in her November 8 historical presentation at the Gloucester County Historical Society.

“When a husband died, a wife spent two years isolated in deep mourning and six months in half mourning; but when a wife died, the husband spent three months in mourning,” she explained. And that involved not much more than wearing a black armband, black gloves, and putting some black crepe on his hat.

“It’s also interesting that many of the husbands tended to find a second wife who was 20 years younger,” she noted.

Art of Mourning Exhibit

Estes’ “Grave Matters” performance was the crowning event of the Gloucester County Historical Society’s ten-week long “Art of Mourning” exhibit in its Woodbury, New Jersey, headquarters complex where she arrived in the full black regalia of a mourning, upper class Civil War widow.

Historian Jane Peters Estes dressed in the mourning garb of a wealthy Civil War widow.
Estes in the full mourning garb of a wealthy Civil War widow at the Gloucester County Historical Society.

The Victorian mourning process — a protocol with heavy status implications — was largely confined to families of the upper middle and wealthy classes. One reason for this was that the process was as expensive as it was time-consuming. The rules not only physically isolated the widow for long periods, but also imprisoned her in a cocoon of dense black clothing from the top of her head to points of her black shoes.

As Estes jokingly told the gentlemen in the audience to “avert your eyes,” she demonstrated her outfit. Pulling up the outer black dress, she revealed the structure of rigid hoops that held the outer skirt five-feet wide. Below that were tiers of black petticoats and black stockings — the only white allowed being the chemise and drawers because they were bleached clean. Every other part of her body was covered in black including her head and veiled face. Even the black bonnet had a special large ruffle in the back to hide the neck, a body part that was considered an erogenous zone. Everything else a woman might use or carry — fans, handkerchiefs, gloves, parasols, handbags — had to be black.

Victorian Hair Art

Estes’ outfit was “second mourning,” or the second phase of the Victorian mourning process that often had three or more phases, each of which had different clothing requirements. In the second phase, a woman could add mourning jewelry. Estes wore a hair art mourning brooch at her throat and a hair art period wedding ring containing the hair of a dead husband.

Large framed hair art piece from 1863.
A three-foot wide hair art piece on display in the Historical Society’s “Art of Mourning” exhibit that contains hair from multiple family members and their favorite horse.
Close-up of the detail of a large hair art piece from 1863.
A close-up of the piece shows the intricate detail of hair wrapped around wire structures bent into the shapes of flowers.

Hair art itself was an elemental part of the Victorian mourning process. The historical society’s “Art of Mourning” exhibit included a collection of hair art, the largest piece of which was a framed three-foot wide 1863 work that included the hair of multiple members of a Gloucester County glass mogul’s family as well as the hair of a favorite horse.

Mourning Superstitions

Victorian mourning protocols required a widow to isolate herself from society and entertainment of any kind and adhere to other superstitions rules related to death. Immediately after a death, windows were opened to provide the soul an easy exit. Mirrors had to be covered because it was believed that if you saw your reflection, you might be the next to die. Clocks had to be stopped. When the body was taken from the house, it was carried out feet first, because it was believed the spirit of the deceased could look back, beckoning another family member to follow in death.

“In the Victorian period, there was a lot of superstition attached to dying and death; they kind of raised it to an art form. Society was fascinated by tarot cards, astrology, spiritualists, angel worship, seances and psychic readings,” said Estes. “Queen Elizabeth herself became a spiritualist after she lost her husband, and believed herself possessed of the power to communicate with his spirit. On more than one occasion, she was reported to have startled her ministers by assuring them she had just consulted with the deceased prince and was passing along his advice. Think of that — from the woman who was running the most powerful country on earth at the time!”

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Hated History as Young Woman

It is a curious fact that Estes, now a famed historian, hated history as a young woman. As an accounting major in Burlington County College, she saw finance as her future career and earned her lowest grades in history class.

That began to change with the 1976 Bicentennial, when she was working in the business office of the East Windsor Regional School District and assigned to chaperone three busloads of 5th-grade students on a field trip to Washington, D.C. The historic sights and exciting environment of thev Bicentennial triggered the beginning of her interest in history. She later took a trip to Gettysburg and gloried in the history of the Civil War era.

“There was something about the stories of the people,” she said. “Not so much about the battles or the fighting or the politics of the time. It was the human-interest stories that spoke to me and that was the hook that reeled me in.”

Historical Re-enactor Clubs

Estes joined the reenactor club Historical Military Impressions and began seriously researching the Civil War. One of her fellow reenactors was getting married and wanted to have a Civil War-era appropriate wedding. Estes did all the research for her friend and wrote up her findings as a booklet on 1860s wedding traditions and clothing that she distributed to other female reenactors who might be interested in having a wedding or vow renewal ceremony in the style of the period.

That was the beginning of what became her first cultural customs presentation — one of ten she still does today, 35 years later. The programs range from “Christmas Past with Queen Victoria,” “Death and Dying in the Victorian Period” which became the “Grave Matters” program she delivered at the Gloucester County Historical Society. Others include “Women’s Lifestyles of the 1860s,” “The Battle of Gettysburg: Where were the Women?” and “Vivandieres,” the story of the women who took part in the Civil War as members of various military units.

Estes went on to become a member of the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, 26th Pennsylvanians, and the 12th New Jersey Infantry Regiment reenactor clubs, as well as civilian organizations including the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, the Grand Army of the Republic Museum, the Mifflin Guard at Fort Mifflin, and the Ladies of the Civil War. She also amassed a library of books published from 1865 to 1875.

“I’ve focused on reading things published at the time of the events and not a hundred years later,” Estes said. “I want to know how the people felt about it as the historical things were actually happening. That’s where I get so much of the content that can take me and an audience back in time in such an authentic way. It’s what made historic reenactment feel so real.”

Cemetery Veterans Work

Part of her decades of volunteer work with reenactor groups involves the annual maintenance of various local cemeteries to ensure that gravestones of Civil War and other veterans were marked and commemorated as such.

One of her most vivid experiences as a reenactor was the 1988 125th anniversary the Battle of Gettysburg that occurred on a 700-acre farm not far from the battle site, where 15,000 reenactors and 80,000 spectators gathered for the largest ever re-enactment of the historic clash of Union and Confederates that was a turning point of the war.

Estes noted sadly over the decades since then, she’s watched as public enthusiasm for reenactor groups has faded. “Back in the 1980s, all the clubs, my own included, had enough members to form an entire military company — more than 100 men in the field. But not anymore,” she said. “At the club gatherings you also noticed that very few members brought children with them. That next generation is very into electronic stuff and tends to not be interested in history. I don’t know who will carry the banner when my generation is gone because the idea of historical reenactment just doesn’t make it onto the radar for the young ones. I wouldn’t be surprised if I see it end before long.”