The Art of Victorian-Era Mourning at the Gloucester County Historical Society

As part of its celebration of the grave Halloween season, the Gloucester County Historical Society of Woodbury, New Jersey, mounted an exhibit entitled, “The Art of Mourning” focused on the elaborate and highly-structured Victorian funeral and mourning practices of the 19th century. The overall exhibit that ran from late September to early November, 2023, included museum displays as well as a presentation by a historian who specializes in the topics of Victorian mourning clothing and practices (see main story link). Below are some of the featured museum displays with artifacts from the 120-year-old Historical Society’s collections.

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Victorian mourning clothing on display
Mourning in the Victorian era was a strictly prescribed system that both paid respect to the dead and demonstrated one’s social standing. Black clothing and accessories were de rigueur. As part of this “Art of Mourning” exhibit, the Gloucester County Historical Society also hosted a presentation by Jane Peters Estes, a cultural customs historian who demonstrated the ornate mourning garb widows had to wear for two years or more after their husband’s demise.
A black fan that Civil War-era windows in mourning would have used.
Mourning culture also spawned industries producing mourning versions of a wide range of standard objects of clothing and personal accoutrements, like this black fan. The toy bear at left, is a replica of a “mourning bear” created by a toy company after the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. The public rejected the toy as a morbid marketing ploy and only 500 were made. The extremely rare surviving Titanic mourning bears now sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.
A display of Victorian hair art works in the Gloucester County Historical Society
Queen Victoria, who popularized mourning practices after the death of her husband Prince Albert, played a role in boosting the fad of incorporating hair art into mourning practices. The craft, refered to as “hair work,” became a major area of artistic endeavor. Displayed throughout the sprawling Woodbury, NJ, mansion that is the GCHS headquarters were an array of hair art works from the Society’s collections.
A framed Victorian hair art work displayed on the piano.
The goal of hair art was to commemorate a deceased loved one by preserving a part of their body as an artistic form of love and remembrance. Some pieces used the hair of multiple deceased family members. The art works were very elaborate and time consuming to make. It was big business as well as a parlor craft for women who purchased best-selling “how-to” instructional guides.
A sample of Victorian hair art work.
Seen from afar, mourning wreaths like this 18-inch wide one are interesting but not particularly compelling. They don’t scream “hair.” Large projects could take hundreds of hours to complete.
A close up of the intricate forms in a Victorian hair art piece.
But close up (click this image to make it larger) you can see the incredible intricacy of the work, all of it from human hair wound around wires that are then bent and twisted into ornate shapes. Floral patterns were the most common motif.
A 19th-century pocket watch with a hair art fob.
Hair art evolved in various formats for many personal products, including lockets, rings, brooches, bracelets, and watch fobs like this one.
A pair of 19th-century hair art earrings.
Throughout Europe and the U.S., the trend gave rise to a mourning jewelry industry. Here is a pair of human hair earrings.
A Victorian hair art brooch with gold trim.
Hair jewelry became popular for mourning as well as for expressing one’s love for a living person. Love token hair art jewelry tends to be set with gold and even pearls. Mourning hair jewelry is set in dark metal and has a much more somber look.
A Victorian hair art wedding ring with the hair of a dead husband in it.
Hair art wedding rings were popular love tokens. This antique one was worn by Jane Peters Estes in her “Grave Matters” presentation at the Gloucester County Historical Society. It is a gold ring that contains the hair of a new husband.
Offering mourners cookies at a funeral was a Victorian custom.
Commemorative eating and drinking customs at funerals are a tradition as old as the human race itself. In the Victorian era, the provision of “funeral biscuits” or “funeral cookies” was part of an undertaker’s services.
The wrapping from Victorian funeral cookies.
Each funeral biscuit was contained within a paper wrapper that was a memento of the event. It included the deceased’s name, age, date of death, and an appropriate poem.
Museum display of post-mortem photography from the Civil War era.
Although it seems gruesome today, post-mortem photography was an important service niche in the 19th century when photography was a cumbersome new process practiced only by specialists. Though families had no access to cameras to capture the likenesses of loved ones while they were alive, there was a strong desire to have a commemorative image of the deceased.
Museum display of post-mortem art from the 19th century.
The 1880s’ development of the first consumer-level film cameras enabled people to take photos of each other as they lived and, by the turn of the century, hastened the end of the the need for post-mortem photography like this.