A Ghastly Traffic in Grave-Clothes: 1862, 1878

A woman's shroud, perhaps 1920s. http://digitaltmuseum.se/011023759179/?name=Svepning&advanced_search=1&pos=1&count=41
A woman’s shroud, perhaps 1920s. http://digitaltmuseum.se/011023759179/?name=Svepning&advanced_search=1&pos=1&count=41

The Ghastly Traffic

A great many horrible things have come out concerning the crime of body snatching since the recent sensations in that line. The miserable ghouls who do the stealing by no means confine their traffic to the dead bodies. While engaged in the nefarious calling, everything is fish that comes to their nets. The clothing of the corpse, and all articles of value in the coffin, are bartered away. Sometimes the Janitor of a medical college will come into possession of quite a stock of “second hand clothing,” obtained from the Resurrectionists; and not infrequently impecunious students are found attired from head to foot in garments that have done duty underground as the raiment of corpses. Undertakers provide a coat-front to cover the breast of a corpse, extending sufficiently below the opening of the coffin to give the effect of an entire garment. When this comes into the hands of the thrifty Janitor, he simply inserts another piece in the back, to match, and is ready for a customer. The false teeth of corpses, especially when set in gold, have been known to be sold to unsuspecting parties, who have used them in the mastication of their food! It was once customary to deck the bodies of the dead in expensive stuffs—silk, broadcloth, satin and velvet; and the knowing ones of the fraternity can, if they will, tell startling stories of the extent to which these stuffs find their way into the market again, after having lain a season in the grave. We believe the custom does not prevail to the length it formerly did; the popular cognizance of the extent of grave robbery as a regular business has quickened common sense in the management of funerals.

It is hard to conceive of anything more horrible than these facts. We might hope that the grave and its accessories were free from any lodgment for humor; yet there is something grotesque beyond expression in the sight of a poor medical student dissection a body while arrayed in the very clothes the “subject” wore when it descended into its “last resting place!”

There is one imperative duty resting upon the legislators of Ohio, and every other state whose statute book is not properly equipped in this respect; and that is the framing of a law for the adequate punishment of this crime. The most that can be done to a grave robber in Ohio is to fine him a thousand dollars and send him to prison for six months! This is ridiculously short of the mark. If the infernal fiends who desecrated the tomb of A.T. Stewart are caught, it is a question whether they can be punished in a manner approaching their deserts. We cannot doubt that the subject will receive the attention it deserves. The dearest ties known to humanity connect us with the last resting places of our dead; and the demand of society that those places be made inviolate must be respected.

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 20 November 1878: p. 2

The theft of burial clothing seems to have been a crime of opportunity. The Sexton, sometimes in the pay of the Resurrection Men, was in a particularly advantageous position to profit:

A Thievish Sexton.

For two days past our usually quiet city has been thrown into the wildest state of excitement, consequent upon the discovery of the most sickening and revolting facts that were ever brought to light in a civilised country. Last week Moroni Clawson and his confreres, in attempting to “slip by justice,” were fired upon and killed by the officers in charge. Their bodies were buried in the city cemetery at the city expense. Two or three days afterwards, a brother of Clawson obtained permission from the city sexton to disinter the body and remove it to Drapersville, the residence of the Clawson family. At the request of some friends, the coffin was opened, and the body was found to be in a perfect state of nudity. The. brother was in a great rage, supposing that the city authorities, had purposely treated the body of the dead highwayman with this shameful neglect; but on inquiry it was ascertained that he was decently interred, and dressed, in the ordinary habiliments of the grave, Suspicion at once fell upon the grave-digger, a, native of Venice, named John Baptiste. His residence was searched by the police, and a large quantity of burial clothes were found and taken possession of by the officers. After many threats, the inhuman wretch confessed that he had carried on this nefarious practice for nine years, three of which he has been engaged as gravedigger in this city. He is now lodged in the city jail, and the clothing which he has stripped from the dead during the last three years is spread out in the main hall, of the Courthouse, where hundreds of persons are now thronging, seeking for articles of grave dresses rifled from the bodies of friends, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and children. A more heartrending spectacle can hardly be imagined. Hundreds of shrouds, winding sheets for old and young, male and female, some whole and some torn, in removing them from stiffened corpses, were strewn about the room. It was a sad sight to see anxious mothers seeking for, yet dreading to find, some little garment, torn with rude, inhuman hands from their infant darlings, whom they had laid away in the tomb, never dreaming they would be disturbed until their sleeping dust should be quickened by resurrecting angels. Now and then a deep sigh, an audible sob, or a violent scream of anguish, indicated that some article of grave apparel had been recognised. Here, a widow pale and sad examining the shrouds of the full-grown, and there was the bereaved mother pressing to her heart, now made to bleed afresh, some tiny stocking, little shirt, cap, or dress. ‘Twas a sad, sad scene; from which we were glad to turn away. The whole people are moved; a heavy gloom like a dark pall hangs over the city; sorrow has entered anew into nearly every household. The cemetery is being visited by crowds, although the weather is cold and stormy. The rich man in his carriage, the poor man on foot, the young widow, the staid matron, the old and infirm, all who have lost friends by death, seem to have an ardent desire to visit the graves that have been so ruthlessly desecrated. The prisoner does not seem to realise the enormity of the crime committed. He seems rather to be possessed of dull and blunted sensibilities, than a corrupt and depraved heart. The populace are much excited, and many are urging the Lynch code, but the more sober-thinking portion of the people counsel moderation and law and order. —Salt Lake City correspondent of the Detroit Tribune.

Otago Daily Times 16 June 1862: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is generally inured to Horrors, but the detail about the false teeth was just that little bit above the odds…  In a curious legal loophole, the bodies of the dead were no one’s property, while the theft of shrouds, coffin-furniture, or trinkets from the body could send a man to prison. Still, given the tight time constraints  under which they operated, it seems doubtful that Resurrectionists would be so scrupulous as to conscientiously strip a body and lay the clothing back in the coffin to be reinterred. Unprincipled undertakers were often happy to resell used burial robes, while shrouds in less presentable condition could be sold to paper-makers, no doubt to end up as black-bordered envelopes.

While Mrs Daffodil is shuddering at the laundry problems posed by garments stolen from the dead, one ingenious Kansas lady, delighted by the attractive shrouds on display at her local undertaker, decided to pre-empt the grave, and steal from the living:

STOLE A SHROUD TO WEAR

An Atchison Woman Trimmed a Burial Robe and Used It.

Burial robes for street dresses is the latest fad, as introduced by an Atchison woman. J.A. Harouff, a local undertaker, missed a woman’s burial robe the other day. Yesterday afternoon he saw a woman on Commercial street wearing the robe. She had adorned with a few fancy frills and trimmings, but there was no doubt as to the identity of the robe, and Mr. Harouff says the dress was a “mighty stylish looking gown.” The undertaker was so astonished that he has decided not to ask for the return of his property. “A woman with that much nerve and ingenuity deserves a reward, not punishment,” he said today.

The Washington Post 17 August 1914: p. 6

For more on Victorian mourning practices and burial clothes, see The Victorian Book of the Dead. For the girl shroud makers of New York and other makers of burial clothing, see Sewing Shrouds and Dead Men’s Shoes.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

Dressing the Hair of the Dead: 1888

dressing the hair The manual on Barbering 1906

DRESSING THE HAIR OF THE DEAD.

A Professional Talks About Her Uncanny Occupation.

‘I was only 12 years old,’ said a prominent lady hair-dresser of this city, ‘when I was called on by the friends of an old lady who had died to come and dress her hair.’

‘And did you go?’

‘No; I ran and hid myself under a bed and stayed there a whole afternoon. Although I loved her and had often dressed her hair when she was alive, I could not bear the idea of doing it after death. But I have done many heads since for dead persons, and, while I do not like it, I have a professional pride in making them look well for the last time.’

‘It must be very distasteful to you.’ ‘

‘Not always. It comes in the way of my business, and naturally my employees shrink from going. Sometimes we have a call through the telephone to come to such a number and dress a lady’s hair. One of the young ladies will be sent with curling irons, pomades, hair-pins and other things, only to find that the lady is a corpse. The girl will not nor cannot undertake it, and I go myself. There is only the front hair to crimp and arrange becomingly. One day last week I dressed Mrs __’s hair for the last time. She was young and very pretty, and looked as if asleep. The hair does not die, so that it is easily arranged. When it is a wig or crimped I have it sent to the store, and when it is dressed, take it to the house and put it on. Let me tell you something that happened lately. A lady died in this city who wore a grey wig. I dressed it and put it on. You can just think how surprised I was when, a couple of weeks later, a member of the family came in here and tried to sell it to me. She said they had taken it off just before the casket was closed for the last time.’

‘And did you buy it?’

‘Buy it? Certainly not. It is not very long since a man came in and offered me a number of switches of different shades and colour. I would not buy them, and sent for a policeman, as I thought he had probably stolen them. But as it turned out, they came from an undertaker’s and were the unclaimed property of strangers who had been given pauper burial.’

‘Is it customary to dress the hair of the dead?’

‘It is. I have some customers who have exacted a solemn promise from me that I will dress their hair when they die and make it look natural and becoming. I have even been sent for by those who had only a few hours to live and taken my instructions from their dying lips.’

‘Is the process the same as with the living?’

‘Just the same, except that I do not arrange the back hair in all cases. But sometimes the hair is dressed entirely, just as it would be for an evening party. And I frequently furnish new switches, crimps, or bangs, at the request of relatives who want no pains spared.’

‘And are you not afraid?’

Madame shrugged her handsome shoulders.

‘It is a lonesome task,’ she said, ‘and it certainly does make me nervous. Once the corpse opened her eyes and looked at me as a lady who was holding a lamp went out of the room in a moment, leaving me with a lock of hair in the crimping-pins. A gust of wind blew the door after her, and I was in the dark alone with the dead women. I think if she had not opened the door just at the moment she did I should have fallen insensible,’—

Detroit [MI] Free Press 1 January 1888: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does not have a high opinion of either the intelligence or the moral scruples of the repellent relatives who offered to sell the dead lady’s wig to the hairdresser. They might at least have dyed it so that it was less recognizable, or, more sensibly, taken it to a different coiffeuse, if they needed to offset funeral expenses.

Wigs and chignons for the living were, however, often made of what was termed “dead hair,” or hair cut from corpses. These corpses might be unfortunates from the Workhouse or paupers destined for Potter’s Field; working girls of the streets, murderers or their victims.  If not a black market, it was certainly sub-fusc.  Medical men issued stern warnings about the diseases and insects that might be found in “dead hair,” and argued for prohibiting any hair except that from the living in hair-pieces. These warnings were widely ignored. In 1911, for example, hair from Chinese who died in the Manchurian plague, was being imported by Germany and England without so much as a murmur from the trade authorities.

For more mortuary professions for ladies, please see this link, and this, about a lady undertaker. You will find more information on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard and under the “Mourning” tab on this blog.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

O, Death Where Is Thy Bling?

Mrs "Diamond" Johnson's extravagant tombstone.
O, Death, Where Is Thy Bling? Mrs “Diamond” Johnson’s extravagant tombstone.

In looking at the popular culture of funerals and death for The Victorian Book of the Dead, I’ve noticed a minor trend in reporting on über-extravagant burials. The Gilded Age was a golden age for the conspicuous consumption of coffins and other funerary goods. Undertakers were quizzed about (and did not hesitate to volunteer) sumptuary details, such as Mrs Van Gilding had a genuine mahogany casket, rather than rosewood veneer, the coffin fittings were real silver, rather than plate, and that the lining fabric cost $12 a yard. This inspired a sort of arms-race, except with funeral trappings as opposed to deadly weapons. Keeping up with the Boneses….

TOMB

To Hold Safe Her Gems

Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson Will Be Buried With Her Jewels.

An Impregnable Grave Built to Baffle Any Attempt at Robbery.

[Norwich (Conn.) Cor. New York Herald.]

Mrs. Mary Tuttle (“Diamond”) Johnson, formerly a resident of this city, now of Chicago, for whom a conservator was recently appointed by request of her husband and sons, has had a remarkable grave constructed in her lot in Yantic Cemetery, destined to receive her body. It is the most costly, massive, unique and elaborate one in this state.

Mrs. Johnson purchased her cemetery lot some time ago and had her grave made. She is haunted by an overmastering dread of graveyard ghouls and robbers and she had barely completed her grave when she decided that it was not strong enough to baffle a possible assault after her body had been committed to it.

With a corps of skilled professional workmen she went to work at once to reconstruct and immensely strengthen it, carrying on the work clandestinely in order to forestall opposition on the part of her conservator and her watchful husband and sons. The result of her craftiness and the dispatch and dexterity of her workmen was that she not only accomplished her project without betraying her design, but so neatly that there is not an outward token to indicate to a casual observer that the old grave had ever been disturbed.

GRAVE SEEMS IMPREGNABLE.

The grave is in many respects the most remarkable and wonderfully contrived one probably in New England. Apparently it is impregnable to assault.

Its floor is a huge smoothly chiseled slab of Rhode Island granite, weighing more than a ton, while a similar gigantic slab of stone, which weighs 2,700 pounds and can be handled only with the aid of a derrick, forms its cover.

The walls of the grave are of cemented pressed brick, solid as adamant, and as thick and enduring seemingly as those of a modern fort.

Mrs. John is greatly pleased with the remodeled tomb, and convinced that after her body is placed between this two ponderous granite slabs it will be absolutely secure.

Not long ago Mrs. Johnson had a magnificent granite monument erected on her cemetery lot at a cost of $18,000, which is said to be the most ornate, unique and expensive private mortuary memorial in New England. It is a lofty, shapely shaft, handsomely polished and carved, bearing the allegorical figures, also superbly sculptured, of Faith, Hope and Charity. The monument was erected by famous granite cutters of Westerly, R.I.

Mrs. John’s ruling passion is an immoderate fondness for diamonds, on account of which the title of Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson

WAS POPULARLY BESTOWED

On her more than a quarter of a century ago. At all times she is a-glitter with the gems from head to foot, and she rarely appears in public with less than $25,000 to $50,000 worth of them displayed on her person.

It is said to be her intention to have her fabulous store of jewels buried with her body, a fancy that may account, in part, for her determination to make her tomb absolutely impregnable to grave robbers….The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 December 1896: p. 8

The tomb, which is pictured at the head of this post, seems to be a different one than currently stands in Yantic Cemetery, and the vault built so secretly seems to have disappeared altogether, but the rich and eccentric (or their heirs) often changed their minds about monuments.

Mrs. Henry Hiller also changed her mind and had a second set of wildly expensive caskets made for her husband and herself. You can’t take it with you, but Mrs. Hiller really did give it her best try.

Mrs. Henry Hiller's Coffin and tomb.
Mrs. Henry Hiller’s Coffin and tomb.

A CONNOISSEUR IN COFFINS

Mrs. Hiller Spends Twenty Thousand Dollars For Her Own Burial Robe

[Boston Special to New York World.]

The eccentricities of the late Dr. Henry Hiller and wife, of Wilmington, Mass., whose fad was magnificently carved and luxuriously upholstered burial caskets, have been described in the World already. The doctor’s funeral took place a year ago to-day and the corpse was carried to its last resting place in a silk-lined, gold-plated, elaborately carved casket of solid mahogany, enclosed by another casket no less extravagantly appointed. Six richly caparisoned coal-black Percherons in gold-mounted harness, each attended by a colored groom, carried the casket to the temporary vault. There the doctor’s body has been guarded night and day by a grim old watchman. A $500 lamp standing in front has shed its bright rays in the path of possible body-snatchers or grave desecrators, and every morning the faithful widow has gone to see that everything about the place was all right.

Not satisfied with the ghostly magnificence of a year ago, the widow has been at work on the construction of new caskets, one for her husband, the other for herself, which easily surpass in magnificence and grotesqueness of ornamentation any thing of the kind the world has ever seen. Each casket is in two parts—the casket proper and the sarcophagus. The material in all four is solid mahogany, imported specially from South America. The upholstering inside is as elaborate as money could make it. Corded silk of the value of $10 a yard is the material used. The lids are made of separate panels, highly polished, richly carved and fastened by solid gold hinges with knobs of solid gold for opening them. The doctor’s new casket is fastened by a heavy brass door of Gothic design, having a knob made of six pounds of solid gold. On the panels are solid gold tablets, inscribed with the doctor’s favorite passages of Scripture, such as “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” “Blessed are they that die in the Lord.”

Standing at the head of the coffin is a figure of the doctor built out of solid mahogany and reduced to a height of eighteen inches. About him are the figures of four angels welcoming him to Paradise. Mrs. Hiller’s coffin, on the other hand, has her figure recumbent on the lid, with three angels ministering to her and the doctor kneeling beside her with his right arm supporting her head. But the most remarkable feature of this remarkable burial casket is the carving on one of the side panels. The sculptor has drawn a sketch of a landscape, showing at intervals a meadow, a river, a hill, a forest, a valley, and, last of all, a mountain, at the apex of which is a white cross. Clinging to the cross is a naked cherub, and behind another cherub, and then another, until twenty-three are counted climbing toward the cross. During the twenty-four years of her married life, Mrs. Hiller says she bore her husband twenty-three children, none of whom lived. The procession up the mountain, she says, perpetuates the memory of her little ones.

Mrs. Hiller has also had made for herself a burial robe, of which it may be truly said that it beggars description. The dress-maker completed it after four months’ labor and an outlay of $20,000. The robe is made of white ottoman silk, corded heavily. There is also a wilderness of white silk lace running in perpendicular panels and tucked and gathered and fluted until it stands out to a distance of five inches. There are other panels of white surah of the most expensive manufacture. Between the panels of silk and lace are intermediate panels constructed solely of daisies made in France of pure silk after a design bought in Boston for $40. It is estimated that 5,000 of these daisies are sewed into this gown. The robe opens in front and is fastened by upward of 200 solid silver hooks designed like a serpent’s head.

The total outlay by Mrs. Hiller will be not far short of $500,000. The mausoleum will be of hammered granite. In the four walls will be gilt windows, through which it is planned to have rays of colored light enter, a different light to each window, which, blending, will fall upon the caskets resting side by side within. The caskets will stand each on four huge brass legs and chairs of magnificent design will be in the mausoleum for the accommodation of sight-seers. Mrs. Hiller will soon hold a reception for the exhibition of the caskets, the invitation to which is a picture of a coffin with “Admit one,” written beneath.

Mrs. Hiller says Queen Victoria sent to her for all the American papers that contained notices of the doctor’s funeral. When she had read them she said that Mrs. Hiller was the only woman who had surpassed Her Majesty in doing honor to a dead consort. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 December 1889: p. 11

A little more detail on the coffins, which sound like an artistic nightmare with their jumble of figures and mythologies.

The Hillers have spent $10,000 on their new coffins, which are beauties of mechanical and artistic skill. Each casket consists of two parts, or, in other words, each body will have two coffins. The inner coffin is composed of mahogany, made air-tight by being completely enveloped in copper. It rests within the outside casket on two elegant brass supports which represent the big paws of a lion.

It is on the outside casket, however, that the most lavish expenditure has been made. This is of mahogany also, the interior being lined with copper, the mountings of the latter being noticeably fine. Every panel contains a group of figures, and it is here the beauties of the carver’s art are made apparent.

Every figure is carefully and accurately made, and stands out in bold and striking relief. Each panel and its figures must have provided weeks of labor. To enumerate the symbols and figures which the artist has imparted with a living flourish to the receptacle of the dead would be to rehearse the names of all the familiar reproductions of the animate and inanimate in decorative art. A lion rampant here, a fierce-fanged griffin, birds of every species, fishes, flowers, plants, trees, the bow and arrow, &c., while in central positions are seen Flora and Ceres, cherubs blowing trumpets, angels tuning harps, Apollo with his lyre, Jupiter with thunderbolts, Neptune with his trident, &c., The caskets have been constructed at Dr. Hiller’s house. He says he has been offered $50,000 by a prominent showman to exhibit them. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 20 November 1887: p. 12

Dr. Hiller died in 1888 and was interred with much pomp. Mrs. Frances Hiller died in May of 1900. She had married her coachman, Peter Surrette, who, at her request, changed his name to Henry Hiller. He waived all rights to her estate, which was said to be worth $500,000. The funeral was a spectacle, with over 2,000 people turning out to stare at the much-vaunted casket, which rode on what looked like a crape-draped float from a morbid parade.

The pageant quickly degenerated into a fantasist’s farce: In truth, Mrs. Hiller had borne not 23, but three children—one of whom survived. The $50,000 casket turned out to have cost $2,000 and the $500,000 mausoleum with solid-gold knockers was never actually built, leaving only the original stone receiving vault, where Dr. Hiller slept, to receive the remains. The cast couchant lion pedestals (the “brass legs” mentioned above) that were to have held the caskets, proved too tall for the small vault and were discarded in a corner. Mrs. Hiller’s casket and the new one for her husband had been stored in an outbuilding and were not in the best of condition. But eventually Dr. and Mrs. Hiller were wrestled into their new sarcophagi, and the door, which had fallen into the tomb when the workmen uncovered it, was permanently bricked up. Several years later, cemetery authorities decided that the Hiller vault spoiled the look of the  cemetery entrance. They demolished the vault and had the mahogany caskets, still in good condition, buried in the ground. Sic transit gloria mundi

Other examples of funerary excess? Detailed photos of the Hiller coffins? Send engraved on a silver (solid, not plate, mind…) coffin plaque to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Portions of the post above appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her latest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Inconsolable French Widow: 1890

freja mourning

THE INCONSOLABLE WIDOW *

IN THE MONCEAU PARK DISTRICT.

Time, 2 P.M. Place, a small room next to madame’s bedroom. Madame’s husband has died during the night, and early in the morning madame summoned, by numerous telegrams, the various persons who appear. She has not obtained her mourning, and wears an old evening dress of black satin embroidered with jet, with a waist improvised out of a black lace scarf. Everything is indifferent to her. She is cast down. She speaks in sighs, replies in onomatopes; but she was so much attached to her husband and their married life was so exemplary that she wishes to give him a splendid funeral. She undertakes the whole business herself. In spite of her grief she accepts the services of nobody, but decides to attend to the whole affair.

The Widow [stretched upon a long chair supported by numerous cushions, to the dressmaker. She is hardly audible; her voice is like one long wail]—Whatever you wish and anything you wish. You know better than I do what I want. Only I would like to have one of the dresses as soon as possible; say to-morrow morning. I can’t bear to see myself in this one. The last time that I wore it [she sobs] it was at the bal de l’Opera with my poor husband. [She takes her pocket handkerchief and wipes her eyes.] We had dined with the Lalgarades, and we decided to go to the bal de l’Opera. I even had on this mantilla. Now, won’t you let me have the dress to-morrow morning?

The Young Person from the Dressmaker—Certainly, madame. We can try on the corsage this evening.

The Widow—I don’t feel strong enough for that. It will fit well enough.

The Person from the Dressmaker [after a few moments’ hesitation]—How about the sleeves? Shall they be tight-fitting or wide? [Seeing that she does [not reply.] The sleeves ?

The Widow—Ah, yes, the sleeves. [She sighs.] He couldn’t bear to see me with leg-of-mutton sleeves. Everything you do will be well done, provided I haven’t got to trouble myself with it.

The Person from the Dressmaker—We might be able to follow the last measurements in the dress vieux paon that fitted so well.

The Widow [with a far-off look in her eyes]—The-dress vieux paon. ’ [old peacock]

[Enter the waitingmaid. The Young Person from the dressmaker retires]

The Waitingmaid—They have sent from the liveryman. The messenger wishes to know if madame can receive him.

The Widow—Let all the persons to whom I have sent telegrams this morning come in. It isn’t M. Mulhtropcher?

The Waitingmaid—No, madame, it is one of the employees of his house.

The Widow—Let him come in. I am glad it is not Mulhtropcher. I prefer to speak to people who have not known my poor husband. .

[Enter the employee of Mulhtropcher.]

The Person from the Liveryman—Madame—

The Widow—Are the carriages at your place?

The Person from the Liveryman—They have just arrived. We will drape the coupé for the day after to-morrow.

The Widow—I know nothing of what is done, and I must depend entirely upon you. You prefer the coupé to the landau? He liked the landau so much; it was after his design.

The Person from the Liveryman—The coupé should follow. It is the vehicle that is used.

The Widow—He never went into it. He detested to be shut up. Nothing but the most abominable weather could induce him to return with me from the opera. He only liked his phaeton. You will have very thick crape upon the lanterns, will you not, so that the lights can scarcely be visible?

The Person from the Liveryman—Can we not also put crape inside on the windows? That is very much the fashion in England now.

The Widow—Crape inside on the windows? Oh, certainly, then we won’t have to meddle with the blinds. I like that better. I must say that I have always been shocked at seeing a carriage with the blinds lowered following a hearse.

The Person from the Liveryman—We can also drape the inside of the carriages with black satin.

The Widow—Can you have it finished day after to-morrow?

The Person from the Liveryman—Certainly, madame. We will only attend to the draping. Plain black satin. The interior of the carriage seen through the crape on the windows makes an extraordinary effect.

[The employee salutes profoundly and retires. The waitingmaid brings in another person who looks more like an attaché of the English Embassy than the clerk of a great livery-tailor’s establishment.]

The Widow—Monsieur—

The Person from Mr. Sutton—Madame, I have come from Mr. Sutton.

The Widow—I want to ask what I ought to do for the liveries during my mourning, and for the funeral of my husband.

The Person from Mr. Sutton—For the coachman, a black overcoat and black trousers. For the others, the coat, waistcoat, trousers black, white cravats.

The Widow—But during the first year?

The Person from Mr. Sutton—Trousers black and cravat white. Aiglets in black linen. Powder can only be resumed at the end of the year, when they put on white gloves.

The Widow—Then for the ceremony black gloves of course? Glossed or plain?

The Person from Mr. Sutton—Glossed. The family only wear black suede.

The Widow—Please be good enough to arrange with the coachman and my steward.

[The person from Mr. Sutton retires. The waitingmaid ushers in another gentleman, completely dressed in black with a great overcoat, eminently appropriate.]

The Widow [recognizing her picture framer]—It is you, yourself! You have learned of the misfortune that has fallen upon me, and I requested you to come to me. It will be necessary to wrap the large portrait of my husband by Bonnat in a veil of crape, quite simple, as simple as possible.

Picture Framer—With a few bouquets of immortelles?

The Widow—Oh, no! No immortelles; there would be too much of Victor Hugo about that. I will have at the foot of the portrait a large cushion, the full length of the frame, and a phoenix at the right and left. It will also be necessary to remove the two or three water-colors, you know; the large one which is over the piano especially. They are a little too cheerful. I was at a funeral lately, and in the house everybody was looking at the picture of a little woman, completely naked, getting carried up into the clouds by a big, savage butterfly. You will put the water-colors in the little room, which will be closed after to-morrow. I will only keep open the drawing-room salon and the gallery.

Picture Framer—Madame also spoke about a frame.

The Widow—In a few days. You will go to Mr. X. [She dries her eyes.] He is making a sketch of my poor husband. You can arrange with him.

[The picture framer retires. The waitingmaid brings in one of the workmen from madame’s shoemaker.]

The Widow [to the waitingmaid]—-Bring down two pairs of shoes; the last that they made for me. [To the shoemaker.] I must have a pair of shoes immediately. I have no mourning shoes. Dark kid, eh?

The Person from the Shoemaker—Oh, no, madame. For heavy mourning we only employ dark suede.

The Widow—Very well, dark suede. You will also please blacken the soles. I know nothing so ugly or so shocking as to see yellow soles when one is in heavy mourning with one’s feet on the cushions. [The waitingmaid comes back with two little pairs of shoes in her hand.] You will perform the same operation for- these two pairs. [The shoemaker goes out. Enter the corset maker.]

The Person from the Corset Maker—I beg a thousand pardons, madame, for being late, but at the present moment Madame Leoty is absent, and I have to take her place. I have come to say to madame how much we feel—I telegraphed immediately to madame—madame needs something.

The Widow—I want one corset immediately. You can make the others at leisure. I haven’t one suitable at present. Of course, it must be black. I would wish to have a plain, dull stuff, and above all things no satin, nothing that is loud. It is so troublesome to hear the noise of the new corset when one is weeping.

The Person from the Corset Maker—Yes, madame, I understand perfectly, and I will put in it, as we always do, little pieces of elastic for sobs.

[She retires and the maid comes back.]

The Widow—What is it now?

The Waitingmaid—Madame, it is the photographer. He is here with his apparatus. Shall I show him into monsieur’s room?

The Widow—Tell him to come and speak to me. I have not the courage to go into the room of my poor husband. I would be afraid to trouble Mr. X., who has been kind enough to let me have a last souvenir

[Enter the photographer.]

The Widow—Monsieur, they will conduct you into the room of my husband. You will find Mr. X. there at his bedside. I want you to catch the last impression of his features for me. I am very much obliged to Mr. Nadar. I know that this is altogether outside of the usage of his house.

The Person from Mr. Nadar—He places himself entirely at your disposal.

The Widow—I would wish a few proofs. The bust, natural size, for the family, and then the others smaller, and the bed complete. When the drawing of Mr. X. is finished, I will want you to photograph that also, very pale.

The Person from Mr. Nadar—A proof upon ivory?

The Widow—Just so. My maid will now show you the room while there is still light.

[The photographer retires.]

The Widow—I’m completely exhausted! One could not imagine all that there is to do! [She uses her little flask of lavender salts. There is a knock.] Who is there?

The Waitingmaid—Madame, it is the rector’s assistant. He says that madame wrote to the rector.

The Widow—I wrote to the rector? Do you remember that I sent a dispatch to the rector? Ask him to come up. My poor husband often said to me, “If I die before you, neither the march of Chopin nor the air of Stradella.”

[Enter the assistant minister.]

The Person from the Rector—Madame.

The Widow—Monsieur, be good enough to sit down. I am so sorry for having troubled you. It was to the organist, rather, that I had to speak.

The Person from the Rector—Madame, if I could…

The Widow—You will see him before the ceremony?

The Person from the Rector—I will see him at once. He is at this moment in the church, where the artists of the opera who are to sing at the service are rehearsing.

The Widow—I will be extremely obliged to you if you will tell him not to play Chopin’s funeral march nor to have the air of Stradella sung. My poor husband could not bear them. He made me promise

The Person from the Rector—Nothing easier. We can replace the march of Chopin by that of Beethoven.

The Widow—Neither could he bear that. He was an officer, and every time that one of his comrades was buried…

The Person from the Rector—Generally these marches…

The Widow—That’s just the reason.

The Person from the Rector—We have a religious march of Ambrose Thomas, less known, but which pleases generally.

The Widow—Ambrose Thomas was his bête noir. He only came in time for the ballet of “Hamlet,” and, indeed, very often we gave up our box at the opera. [After a moment’s reflection.] There was one thing that he adored, and that is the march which is found in the “Wanderer” of Schubert.

The Person from the Rector—? ? ? ? ?

The Widow—You don’t know it! It is magnificent. I have it here in the volume of Peters. [She rises and goes over to the music case.] Here it is. You will show it to the organist. As it is very short, he can, by seeing it beforehand, make a paraphrase. [She hunts through the volume, turns down a leaf, and hands the book to the abbé.]

The Person from the Rector—As for Pie Jesu, to replace the air of Stradella, which is certainly a little known, we have some from Faure.

The Widow—From Faure! My dear sir, what did my poor husband ever do to you? That would be a posthumous penance, and altogether too severe. [She considers for a moment.] What he adored above all things was the Danse Macabre, the Adieux de l’ hȏtesse Arabe, by Bizet. He was never tired of hearing it. Every time that I went to the piano the hȏtesse Arabe and Carmen were his two passions. Of course, I know that for a Pie Jesu—say to your organist that I will depend upon him. But nothing from Thomas or Faure. In old music let him search through Mozart or Berlioz, Schuman or Wagner. Of course, you understand, Monsieur l’Abbé, that at such a moment as this…

The Person from the Rector [rising and carrying off the volume of Peters]—Madame, I will communicate your instructions.

The Widow—Accept all my apologies for the trouble I have put you to. [He retires] That is an inspiration from heaven. Just fancy if they had played the march from Chopin and sung the air of Stradella!

[The Waitingmaid enters.]

The Widow—What is it now?

[The waitingmaid, seeing madame in tears, does not dare to speak.]

The Widow—What do you want?

The Waitingmaid [still embarrassed]—They have sent from the undertaker. The employee says that madame wrote this morning to come without delay.

The Widow—Oh, yes. Let him come up. Haven’t they also sent from the florist’s?

The Waitingmaid—Yes, madame; the messenger is below, and is also waiting.

The Widow—There is not enough light. Bring the lamps, and let them come up.

The Waitingmaid—Both together?

The Widow—Yes, I have to speak to them together. I wonder why I did not receive a reply to the dispatches which I sent to Cannes and to Trouville. [Enter the florist and a young man sent from the undertaker.]

The Widow [to the waitingmaid]—Are there no dispatches?

The Waitingmaid—There are so many that I didn’t dare…

The Widow—Bring them to me. I am expecting two. [To the florist.] Have you received my dispatch? You will have time enough. It is for the day after to-morrow.

The Person from the Florist [taking a dispatch from his pocket-book]—Seventeen crowns.

The Widow—Yes, each servant must send a crown. They will charge them to me, but each servant and the porters must send crowns. Of course they must not all be alike.

The Florist—Tea roses and marguerites. Marguerites among the tea roses. [The waitingmaid brings in the dispatches to her mistress, who reads them with emotion.]

The Widow—Ah! here is the reply from Cannes. The gardener of my villa telegraphs to me that the mimosas are in blossom. Therefore you need not put in any mimosas. I will have an enormous crown of them sent by my people, and on a ribbon, printed in silver, the words: “To Our Excellent Master.” [She reads another dispatch] This is from my villa at Trouville. They will also send me a crown of hortensias and gloires de Dijon. That will make nineteen crowns, two of them of extraordinary size sent by Cannes and Trouville. How will you manage to carry them?

The Person from the Undertaker—We must have wagons. We generally count six crowns for a wagon, but as those from Cannes and Trouville will be enormous we can put them in two little separate wagons.

The Widow-—And the wagons, how are they to be?

The Person from the Undertaker——Quite simple, draped in black; upon the hearse one cross, from you, about as long as [The widow weeps.] All in mauve orchids.

[The waitingmaid brings in another dispatch. The widow reads it and bursts into tears.]

The Widow—The stearine factories send me their condolences and announce the coming on the day after to-morrow of two deputations from the establishments and two immense crowns, to be carried by twelve of the oldest employees [she weeps], and the other by twenty-four [she sobs]—little orphans. The engineers will also send their private crowns. I think about a dozen wagons—don’t you think so, sir?

The Person from the Undertaker—There will be time enough if madame…

The Widow [to the florist]—Won’t you be kind enough to look into the glass house and see if there are two phoenixes fine enough to place before the portrait of my husband, on each side of the cushion of violets? If not, you can send me two to-morrow, and as high as possible; won’t you, please? [The two gentlemen go out. The widow again takes the dispatch sent from the factory, and again reads it attentively. It is 7 o’clock.]

The Chambermaid [entering] — Madame, Miss Camilla wishes to know if she can present her respects to madame. It was impossible for her to come sooner.

The Widow—Let her come in. I can’t understand why I’m not dead. [The young person enters.]

The Young Person from the fancy linen store—Desiring to come myself and personally tell you how much my mistress is concerned for the trouble which has come upon you

The Widow—It is dreadful. Nobody could have foreseen such a catastrophe. I haven’t energy enough for anything. You have received my note? You will send what I will need for to-morrow; you know what I want better than I do.

The Young Person—Precisely, but I wish to ask…

The Widow—To ask me anything! Everything that you do will be done well. I have absolutely nothing to put on in the matter of mourning linen.

The Young Person—It is already ordered. Everything will be in black cambric, with a little Chantilly lace, very simple and no higher than that.

The Widow—But the ribbons—Bear in mind that I must not have anything loud.

The Young Person—All the ribbons for heavy mourning are in peau de soie. [After a moment’s hesitation.] Now for the linen for half-mourning? Madame would do well to look out for that beforehand.

The Widow—The half-mourning! How can you speak to me of half-mourning? Can I ever quit the deep mourning of misfortune? [She weeps.]

The Young Person—I know it, madame; I never had a doubt of it; but I have not succeeded in making myself understood. I mean the linen for half-mourning that is worn after the first six months. It is in white cambric with a Chantilly border. If I spoke of it to madame it was because the work is so delicate, and in order to have it done as I would wish to have it done for madame it would take at least six months. I hope you will pardon me.

The Widow—I can count upon a dozen or two of pocket handkerchiefs for to-morrow?

The Young Person—Certainly, madame, you will have a dozen to-morrow morning; we will work all night. [She salutes and retires.]

The Widow [alone]—Who next? I’m dead! It seems to me that I have something else. Oh! my goodness, what was I going to do? [She gets up and runs to the writing table.] I forgot to notify the Grandmenils of the death of my husband. I gave them my box for this evening, and now they might easily suppose that I only gave it to them because my husband was dead. Seven o’clock! Well, a messenger must carry it. [She writes.]

The Footman enters—Madame, dinner is now ready.

The Widow [without turning round and continuing her writing]—I will be down in a moment. I’m writing a letter. Tell monsieur to commence without me.

[The footman remains nailed to the floor. Madame, becoming aware of her absent-mindedness, falls back on her chair, bursts into tears, then takes the photograph of her husband, before her in a little frame, and covers it with kisses.]

[* La Vie Parisienne: N. Y. Sun Translation.]

The Sun [New York NY] 16 November 1890: p. 26

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil would not dare to add anything to this exhaustive look at French mourning customs. Whenever she is asked about Queen Victoria’s responsibility for excesses in Victorian mourning minutiae, Mrs Daffodil simply directs the questioner across the Channel.

For more on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition  and The Victorian Book of the Dead blog.

A Living Woman Photographed in Her Coffin: 1883

sarah bernhardt in coffin
Actress Sarah Bernhardt posed, living, in her coffin, c. 1873

A Living Woman Photographed in Her Coffin.

A young woman of intelligence and culture, having a great dislike to the heathenish custom of inviting the motley mob at a funeral to view the corpse, expressed the wish that when her funeral took place no one should be allowed to look at her. One of Miss B’s family, in order to turn the dismal subject into a joke, remarked that her friends would be very much grieved if they could not see such a beautiful corpse. “Oh, I may be old and ugly then,” she said and sighed. It seemed so ludicrous that a young girl should wish to die before she was old so as to make a handsome corpse and yet not wish to be seen that her father said: “You had better rent a coffin, have made a becoming shroud and have your photograph taken, when you can decide whether or not you care to be gazed upon.” This idea so tickled this maiden fair, who was aching for something novel, that she proposed at once to carry out the plan. The horror of the photographer but made Miss B. more desirous of seeing herself resting on satin cushions, clad in a snow-white robe, bordered with swan’s down–a lily clasped in her hands. When this startling photograph reached me a tear trembled for one moment in my heart, but did not rise to my eye, ere I thought, as lovely in death as in life, no wonder her afflicted family wish to preserve the likeness of such a corpse. Then, turning the card over to see where a perfect work of art was taken, what is my astonishment to read, in Miss B.’s own handwriting: “Please do not ask to see me after I am dead. This is better than the reality.” Boston Courier.

The Alabama  Courier [Athens AL] 2 August 1883: p. 4

 

 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.  And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Sewing Shrouds: 19th-century Burial Clothing

Sewing Shrouds: 19th-century Burial Clothing A shrouded ghost in a cemetery
Sewing Shrouds: 19th-century Burial Clothing Calling up the shrouded dead.

I have always been interested in what the well-dressed corpse is wearing: a netted beadwork shroud, as worn by an Egyptian mummy; the beautiful brocades found in the royal tombs at Las Huelgas; a plain wool shroud tied at the head and foot, as modeled by John Donne in his funerary monument; or the frilled-front white shrouds worn by some Victorian ladies, accessorized with a ruffled cap.

But who made dresses for the dead? We have records of commercial shipments of shrouds from 1770s America. I remember reading, but cannot find a firm source for the assertion that ladies from the 16th through the 19th century would sew their own burial clothes when making their wedding trousseaux because women were so likely to die in childbirth. (Anyone have a reference?) And there are many news articles about elderly ladies buried in a shroud made by their own hands decades earlier. There is no doubt that the home-made shroud was a significant part of 19th-century burial customs in the United States. People also buried their dead in their own garments or nightwear. See this link for an excellent article on the subject. I have also seen notices for meetings of “Shroud Committees” or “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Societies,” where charitable ladies made shrouds for the poor.

In my search for information on 19th-century burial garments, I ran across the following articles, which discuss the labor issues, the materials, and costs of manufacturing commercial shrouds and burial robes. They are a frank look at the undertaking industry over the course of three decades.

SEWING FOR THE DEAD

Girls Who make Good Wages and Are Contented in an Undertaker’s Shop.

“Isn’t it lovely?” asked a young sewing girl, holding up for inspection something of white satin and lace.

“We are crowded with work just now, so I brought this home to finish it to-night.”

‘You have a trousseau on hand, then? I suppose that fancy garment, whatever it may be, is for a bride.”

The sewing girl opened wide her eyes. “We don’t make no trousseau,” said she. “Did you think I worked at a dressmaker’s?”

“Yes? Aren’t you with Mme. X.?”

“Not much! I left there a month ago. The madame gave me too much sass and too little pay. I’m in Y___’s undertaking establishment and am earning half as much again as I did at Mme. X___’s, who is the most awful crew in this city. The season is longer, too, though of course there ain’t half the number of girls employed where I know that there were at madame’s. When I worked there I was laid off reg’lar three months in the year, while four weeks is the longest that the girls at the undertaker’s are idle. When there is a full supply of robes in stock they are put to making coffin linings, which most of ‘em like because it isn’t fussy work, though, for that matter, none of their work is half so fussy as what I had to bother with when I sewed for live people. Miss B___ (she is our forewoman) used to have the same place at a dressmaker’s, and she says she has grown ten years younger since she went into the robe making business, because she has so much less worry of mind. She sometimes used to have to keep her girls up till 12 o’clock Saturday night to finish a dress for some rich customer, and early Monday morning here would come the dress back again to be altered, and a sassy message long with it about its want of fit. Now, there aren’t any particular fit about a burial robe as you can see by this; it is made only to go over the corpse. Miss B___ says it is a great comfort to her to know that them as wears ‘em don’t make no complaint , and in the main they are becoming, which can’t be said of live dresses—I mean the dresses live people wear.

“To see them in their coffins you would think they were completely dressed, but really all their finery is on top. Even the men’s solid looking black coats and smooth shirt fronts can go on and off without removing the corpse. What I am making is for a young girl who died yesterday, and will be buried to-morrow. She was to have been married next month, and her trousseau was begun at Mme. X___’s before I left there. She will look just as sweet in this robe I am making for her as she would have done in her wedding dress.

“Afraid of the coffins? Not after the first day. It would be a pity if we were, as our sewing room is at the end of the loft where piles upon piles of them are stowed away. We talk and laugh and sing, just as we did at Mme. X___, and Miss B___ is an awful lot nicer than the freewoman we had there, because, as I have already said, she isn’t being constantly worried out of her life by fussy ladies; and, as it is piecework, she never has to scold the girls for loafing. She says that what she can’t get used to is to have to go downstairs and take orders for robes for folks that still have breath in their bodies. Some people seem to be in an awful hurry to get their dead put underground.

When Miss  B____ was downstairs today at noontime and the rest of us were eating lunch, one of the girls had her chair break down under her, and, as there was no other to be had, what did she do but go out and drag in a coffin to sit on! When we had finished our lunch we took and laid her out in it and covered her with a robe, and then we began to cry, and talk about the virtues of the deceased, and were having a real jolly wake, considering there was no candles, when in come the boss. We didn’t’ know but we’d all be fired out for meddling with the coffins, but all he said was that it would be money in his pocket if we lazy loafers were all of us in our coffins, as our custom would pay him better than our work. The girl in the coffin—she’s awfully cheeky—jumped up and told him it was playtime, as it was not yet half past 12, and then he said what as fun to us would be considered death by most folks and with that he went out. One of the girls said he was in a good humor because there was talk of the yellow fever coming here this summer, but that wasn’t so. Undertakers ain’t no more heartless than other men, and when it comes to paying their girls they ain’t half such skins as some women.” New York Tribune. Huron Daily Huronite [Huron, SD] 16 January 1890: p. 3

This next article may be one of the the earliest mentions in the press of machine embroidery—the shroud seamstresses ingeniously created patterns with their regular sewing machines.

FASHION STOPS NOWHERE

Costumes for the Grave

“Sweet Things” in Shrouds, and Trimmings—“Ladies’ Fine Lawn Robes”—“Ladies’ Cashmere Habit”—“Style No. 37”—The “Forelady’s” Role.

Every dress intended expressly for the dead may be styled, generically, a shroud. Modern usage, however, makes a distinction according to the color of the dresses, applying the term “Shroud” to those which are black or white and “habit” to those of brown material. Only black, white or brown material is used. There are large shops for the manufacture of dresses for the dead, as for clothing for the living. The manufacturer sells to the undertaker. He usually makes coffins and coffin trimmings, and everything he sells to the undertaker is, as a rule, sold for just half of the retail price and often for less than half. A lawn shroud that is retailed to the mourner for $2.25 costs the undertaker, usually 90 cents. The undertaker often waits for his pay, and frequently he doesn’t survive the waiting time. So he makes his sales on a basis of large margins of losses. In that way he manages to counteract the effect upon him of the grief that he sees, and he doesn’t die of sorrow accumulating within him.

In the larger manufactories from which the undertaker gets his supplies, from seventy-five to one hundred different styles of shrouds for dead women are shown, and fifteen or more for dead men. The materials chiefly used are merino and lawn. The trimmings are satin, plain, stamped, or quilted; gimp, in folds, puffings, bows, edgings, box plaits, ruches or crepe lisse and of other material, embroidery and raised flosswork representing flowers, vines, tendrils, and in mottoes. The styles of cut and making follow to a considerable extent the prevailing modes of dress for the living. The morning dress pattern is largely used for women, and the dressing gown for men, invariably with a bosom piece. For men it is the usual shirt bosom and collar of starched linen, often with studs; for women the bosom piece is made according to fancy, regulated largely by the material of the robe. The frequent use of the patterns above mentioned may be due largely to the fact that they are easily put on, because of their large sleeves and loose fit. They are open at the back from top to bottom and, when put on, are fastened at the neck. The sides are simply tucked underneath the body.

Garments worn in life are frequently used as grave clothes—a custom more prevalent in New York than anywhere else in this country, with the possible exception of Deadwood and some other places, where sudden deaths and unceremonious burials are rather the rule. Boston uses twice as many shrouds proportionately as New York, which does not require more than could be furnished by one or two manufacturers. The greater number of the shrouds made by New York manufacturers are sold in other cities….

The least costly shroud is of black lawn, and it sells at retail, ready made, for $2.25. It is trimmed with the same material, in puffings, bows and tulles. Lawn burial robes are little used compared with those of other materials. Prices of shrouds vary from that of the simple robe, already mentioned, to $40 or more. The more usual prices are $10, $12 and $15. Manufacturers of shrouds, coffins and trimmings do not sell at retail….

In a long, narrow room—nearly 200 feet long—in the second story of a manufactory of undertakers’ supplies, were shown shrouds for men and for women, in great numbers and various styles. A shroud of new design, was of black merino, with “cross-crease center” of black satin folds, trimmed at the side with box plaits and milliners’ folds, alternately of satin and Merino. Folds of the same kind around the neck inclosed a satin-threaded crepe lisse ruche. It was finished at the throat with a black satin bow. The end of the sleeve was trimmed to correspond, and was softened with crepe lisse. In an open box on the counter was a brown habit. The bosom piece was of white satin, with finger puffs up and down. There were gimp and edging at the sides, and box plaits, with edging; around the neck, white satin bows, finished with trimming. A man’s shroud was in another box. It was trimmed with quilted satin and raised floss work in the shape of a cross and a leafy vine. There were a linen bosom and collar, and a black cravat and bosom studs. TA fold of satin answered for the vest, and the shroud had the appearance of an elaborate dressing gown for a gentleman. Another shroud for a man had a matelassé front, a shirt bosom of another pattern, and folds to represent a vest showing two buttons. The shelves behind the counter were filled with boxes of burial robes and “head linings.” They were labeled “Ladies’ fine lawn robe;” “Ladies’ cashmere habit, No. 25 front, color brown,” Cashmere robe, No. 35 front, color white;” the number designating the style of the robe. An “old lady’s shroud” was in one of the open boxes. It was of black cashmere, with folds crossing over the breast, the second fold narrow and of black satin; pointed sleeve cuffs, bound with black satin; folds of white lawn crossing diagonally to the left, across the breast; a lawn bow at the throat and at the wrists and around the neck a widow’s ruche. “Style No. 37” was somewhat costly. The material was fine brown merino. Double puffings were edged with white satin and edged again with a ruche of rule. The plain white satin breast piece had “daisy buttons”—buttons with white satin center and loops of white silk thread around it—down the middle. At the throat was a white satin bow, edged, and around the neck a tulle ruche. The robe retails for $30. Quilted to the bottom it would cost $40, and a cord and tassel would come with it. Quilting is a more expensive trimming than puffing, for more time is required to make it. Ordinarily, a shroud has about two feet of trimming, and the cost is about one third as much as when trimmed to the bottom.

The women employed in the manufactures work by the piece. They make two shrouds a day of the more elaborate patterns and four of the simpler. The girls who stitch the seams on sewing machines earn $8 a week. Generally the same hand makes the entire shroud, doing the machine and the hand work and earning $12 a week. The “forelady” does cutting. Her salary is, on the average, $15 a week. The cutting is not a delicate task, for shrouds are nearly all the same size. When too large they are tucked under at the back and care is taken to have them all large enough for a person of ordinary size. The women work in the manufactory, and choose their own hours, generally going to work at about nine in the morning and quitting at five in the afternoon. They bring their luncheons and take about twenty-five minutes’ intermission for eating it. Some of the girls work only on “Headlines,” which extend from the head of the coffin to the break on the shoulder. These girls learn to work mottoes and ingenious figures, stitching them entirely with sewing machines. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 9 December 1879 p: 1

This next article is interesting in that it states that there is a particular apprenticeship period to be served because dressmakers don’t necessarily know how to make shrouds.

IN A SHROUD FACTORY

A THOUSAND GIRLS HAPPY IN A STRANGE OCCUPATION.

The Shroudmakers of New York a Distinct Class of Needle Plyers—Clothing for the Dead—Various Designs, Grades, and Fashions.

There are over one thousand well fed, well dressed, well paid young women in New York city who earn their living making shrouds for the dead. The “Song of the Shirt” was not written for them. They sing no songs with voices of dolorous pitch, and indeed they have very little reason for doing so. Their songs are as merry as the day is long, and are sung to the busy hum of sewing machines. Less doleful melodies it would be hard to find.

The shroudmakers of New York form a distinct class of bread winners. They differ from other needle plyers as essentially as silversmiths differ from locksmiths. An experienced shroudmaker may know how to make a dress, but a dressmaker has little or no knowledge of how a shroud should be constructed. This part is emphasized whenever a dressmaker secures employment in a shroud factory. Before she is able to earn the regular wages of her craft she must serve an apprenticeship, the length of which depends solely upon her aptitude to learn the peculiar knack of this strange trade. There are twelve well known firms in this city engage id in the manufacture of shrouds, and it is in their factories that all the work is done. The wages are well maintained, although fixed by no union, and employment is guaranteed the year through, for the sale of shrouds is not marked by any of the fluctuations which are noted in some other branches of manufacture.

New York is the recognized headquarters of the clothing of the dead as well as of the living. There is mothering about a shroud factory to indicate the character of its product. Even the rows of coffins and enticing varieties of caskets in the ware room below seem to belong to another business altogether. The showcases that are visible from the head of the stairs, with their display of the latest styles in shrouds, appear to have been left there, perhaps by some pervious tenant, and bear no possible relation to the use the rooms are now being put. It is very difficult to imagine that these light hearted girls who chat so merrily over their machines are turning out burial robes by the dozen, but such is the case and to them the work is no more dolorous than the making of shirts.

CLATTER AND CHATTER.

If you are curious come with me to one of the largest factories in the city, within a few blocks of Cooper Union, in the Bowery, and see for yourself. As the door of the shop opens the noise is almost deafening. Between the clatter of the machines on the one hand and the chatter of the girls on the other, one can hardly hear himself speak. It is 10 o’clock—early for us, perhaps, but not for the girls. They have been at work since 8, and one-quarter of their day has already been spent. In the center of the room is a double row of sewing machines, varying in size and power, and all fastened to two long and narrow tables with little round places cut in the sides into which the operators snugly fit. At the other end of the room are several counters forming a quadrangle. Within this square sit a dozen young women chatting and sewing, while a tall, middle aged, motherly woman snips out of yards upon yards of black, white,  and brown cloth patterns of shrouds. Shrouds with long skirts, shrouds with short skirts, shrouds with no skirts at all. Shrouds for the rich and shrouds for the poor. And such patterns they are.

This elaborate design in white satin, with soft ruching around the neck and fleecy ruffles around the wristbands, is modeled after a wedding gown as nearly as is possible considering the different use it is to be put to. It will grace the funeral of some rich patron of a fashionable undertaker. This plain black garment, with a false shirt bosom and a collar which ties behind with a cord, is patterned after an evening suit. It is quiet and eminently respectable. It is intended for a man of middle age and costs quite as much as a suit worn in life. Besides these there are robes of brown and combinations of brown and black, some faced with satin, some with silk, and others plain even to severity. These form the cheaper grade of goods and are worn by men or women of advanced years. The white robes are all intended for the young. Some of these are marvelous pieces of work, and if embroidered by hand would cost a small fortune. This little gown would hardly reach from your hand to your elbow. The tiny neckband is ruffled and tied together in front with a white satin bow. The little sleeves are covered with embroidery and the skirt is elaborately trimmed with lace. It is a baby shroud and is the smallest size that is made.

The styles in shrouds are continually changing. Every fashion used by the living contributes to the robing of the dead. Each large factory has its ‘special designer,’ and not even death can still the competition between them. Benjamin Northrup in St. Louis Republican. Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, TN] 14 July 1888: p. 6

Let’s finish with this tongue-in-cheek look at the practical reasons behind “sham burial suits.”  The reporter mentions suits displayed in glass-topped boxes. You can see an example of a child’s burial dress in a box here.

SHAM BURIAL SUITS

Robbing the Grave of Valuable Raiment—Another Step Toward Economy in Funerals—How a Body May be Arrayed Without Waste of Wardrobe—A Real Masquerade of Death

Of late years the fashion in funeral wardrobes has materially changed. Where our ancestors used to be put to their last quiet bed in a plain shroud, their descendants make the same journey in full dress. In the case of a gentleman, a black coat and pantaloons, with a white vest, shirt and tie have been defined as the last tribute of decency he can pay to the social system from which he has departed. A lady is required to be attired in attire whose quality is generally decided by her dressers, but which is of a sober hue.

There are few men who would through choice wear a dickey over their breasts instead of a suit on their bodies. Yet the sham burial suits are nothing but dickeys. A Sunday News reporter saw one in an undertaker’s window the other day, or rather he saw two. One was intended for a gentleman, and the other for a lady. They were inclosed in neat boxes with glass covers, and would have been quite pleasant to look at if it hadn’t been for the coffins which formed a background to them, and the photograph alongside of an embalmer inspecting the corpse of a man who, if looks go for anything, must have been hanged for slaughtering three or four infant schools from a tub of chemicals through a garden house. At first sight they seemed to be what they were evidently intended to represent. The reporter was examining them, when a rosy man, who had been telling a story to several cheerful gentlemen, who laughed heartily at it, called form his arm-chair in the doorway, “What do you think of them, eh?”

“They seem to be real nice,” The reporter responded.

“Nice!” repeated the rosy man; “Why, they’re just bang up. Look at ‘em in here close to. How is that for high, eh? Only take that in.”

‘And yanking what had seemed to be a black coat, vest, shirt, collar and tie complement from its case, he waved a fluttering rag over the reporter’s head. The arrangement was simply a front, no longer than a waiter’s jacket, and with tapes behind to tie it to the body. “Nobody ever sees the back of ‘em,” said the rosy man, “and half of the lid covers ‘em up to the waist. So what’s the use of buying a forty-dollar rig or so when you can get one of these for ten dollars, I want to know? Ain’t the deceased loss enough without chucking his clothes in too, eh?”

The reporter admitted that, taking this view of the subject, the idea was certainly an admirable one. Encouraged by this indorsement, the rosy man sent a rosy boy, who was cracking peanuts and throwing the shells into an open casket, for a pint of beer and went into details. He had long noticed with pain that the poorest of people buried the best suits of clothes they could obtain with their dead. According to a computation he had made with great care, something over $3,000,000 was squandered annually in this way, literally thrown to the worms. This was very wrong. It was an outrage on the whole system of social economy. Somebody could wear those garments, and get more good out of them than the man or woman who had them on. Then why didn’t they wear them?

They didn’t wear them because they were “down on” shrouds, and couldn’t bury the “diseased” with nothing at all on.

But the present improvement supplied a happy medium. It arrayed the body in a stylish garb wherever the body was seen. In the hidden recesses of the casket, where no eyes had access, it didn’t matter in the last how it was dressed. One of these suits only cost from $5 to $15, according to its quality. Ladies’ dresses, constructed on the same plan, rated according to the same schedule. The idea was a new one, but it had made a hit, and the sham suits were selling, to use the narrator’s own picturesque figure of speech, “like hot cakes.” The illusive garments were made in all styles to suit all tastes. One dress had lately been made for a young lady who desired to be buried in pink. Her family were going to sacrifice her best dress when this substitute was suggested to them.

‘And her sister wore that dress to a ball last week,” said the rosy man, triumphantly. “Simmy seen her in it, didn’t you?”

“Simmy set down the beer and responded in the affirmative. As the reporter prepared to depart he asked:

“Are they patented?”

“You bet,” replied the rosy man. “When you need one, let your folks give us a call, will you? Simmy, hand the young man a card.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 October 1880: p. 12

On Thursday, I’ll be posting on supernatural stories connected with shrouds. Mrs Daffodil has more on shrouds here. Check all of Mrs Daffodil’s posts under the “mourning” category for stories about mourning boudoirs, diseases spread by mourning clothing, and more.

Portions of the post above appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.

 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 

The Inconsolable Grief Department – Shopping for Mourning Goods

 

mourning for families Jay's warehouse 1880s
1888 advertisement for Jay’s General Mourning Warehouse, London

FASHIONABLE MOURNING. THE HABILIMENTS OF GRIEF,

FROM A COMMERCIAL POINT OF VIEW.

On the occasion of a recent visit to London, whilst I was debating with myself over the breakfast things as to how I should spend the day, I received by the post a letter deeply bordered with black, evidently a messenger of affliction. I tore the white weeping willow upon a black background which formed the device upon the seal, and read the contents. It proved to be an intimation from a relative of the sudden death of her brother-in-law, and a request that, under the circumstances of the sudden bereavement of the widow, I should undertake certain sad commissions relative to the articles of mourning required by the family. I at once set out upon my sad errand.

I had no difficulty in finding the maison de deuil to which I had been referred. It met me in the sad habiliments of woe; no vulgar colors glared from the shop windows, no gildings amazed with its festive brightness. The name of the firm scarce presumed to make itself seen in letters of the saddest gray upon a black ground. Here and there heads of white set off the general gloom of the house-front, like the crape piping of a widow’s cap. The very metal window frames and plates had gone into a decorous morning–zinc having taken the place of what we feel, under the circumstances, would have been quite out of the character: brass.

On pushing the plate glass door, it gave way with a hushed and muffled sound, and I was met by a gentlemen of sad expression, who, in the most sympathetic voice, inquired the nature of my want, and, on my explaining myself, directed me to the Inconsolable Grief Department. The interior of the establishment answered exactly to the appearance without. The long passage I had to traverse was paneled in white and black borderings, like so many mourning cards placed on end; and I was rapidly becoming impressed with the deep solemnity of the place, when I caught sight of a neat little figure rolling up some ribbon, who on my inquiring if I had arrived at the Inconsolable Grief Department, replied almost in a tone of gaiety, that that was the half-mourning counter, and that I must proceed further on until I had passed the repository for widowsilk.

Following her directions, I at last reached my destination–a large room draped in black with a hushed atmosphere about it as though somebody was lying invisible there in state. An attendant in sable habiliments, picked out with the inevitable white tie, and with an undertakerish eye and manner, awaited my commands, I produced my written directions. Scanning it critically, he said: “Permit me to inquire, sir, if it is a deceased partner?” I nodded assent. “We take the liberty of asking this distressing question,” he continued, “as we are extremely anxious to keep up the character of our establishment by matching, as it were, the exact shade of affliction. Our paramatta and crapes give satisfaction to the deepest woe. Permit me to show you a new texture of surprising beauty and elegance manufactured specially for this house, and which we call the inconsolable. Quite a novelty in the trade, I do assure you, sir.”

With this he placed a pasteboard box before me full of mourning fabrics.

“Is this it?” I inquired, lifting a lugubrious piece of draping.

“Oh, no!” he replied, “the one you have in your hand was manufactured for last year’s affliction, and was termed, ‘The Stunning Blow Shade.’ It makes up well, however, with our sudden bereavement silk- a leading article–and our distraction trimmings.”

“I fear,” said I, “my commission says nothing about these novelties.”

“Ladies in the country,” he blandly replied, “don’t know of the perfection to which the art of mourning genteelly has been brought! But I will see that your commission is attended to to the letter.”

Giving another glance over the list, he observed; “Oh! I perceive a widow’s cap is mentioned here, I must trouble you, sir, to proceed to the Weeds Department for that article–the first turning to the left.”

Proceeding, as directed, I came to a recess fitted up with a solid phalanx of widow’s caps. I perceived at a glance that they exhausted the whole gamut of grief, from the deepest shade to that tone which is expressive of a pleasing melancholy. The foremost row confronted me with the sad liveries of crapen folds, whilst those behind gradually faded off into light, ethereal tarleton, and one or two of the outsiders were even breaking out into worldly features and flaunting weepers. Forgetting the proprieties of the moment, I inquired of the grave attendant if one of the latter would be suitable.

“Oh! no, sir,” she replied with a slight shade of severity in the tone of her voice; “You may gradually work up to that in a year or two. But any of these,” pointing to the first row of widows’ weeds- -are suitable for the first burst of grief.”

Acquiescing in the propriety of this sliding scale of sorrow, I selected some weeds expressive of the deepest dejections I could find, and having completed my commission, inquired where I could procure for myself some lavender gloves.

“Oh! for those things, sir,” she said, in the voice of Tragedy speaking to Comedy, “you must turn to your right, and you will come to the Complimentary Mourning counter.”

Turning to the right, accordingly, I was surprised, and not a little shocked, to find myself amongst worldly colors. Tender lavender, I had expected; but violet, mauve, and even absolute red, stared me in the face. Thinking I had made a mistake, I was about to retire, when a young lady, in a cheerful tone of voice, inquired if I wanted anything in her department.

“I was looking for the Complimentary Mourning counter,” I replied, “for some gloves; but I fear I am wrong.”

“You are quite right, sir,” she observed. “This is it.”

She saw my eye glance at the cheerful colored silks, and with the instinctive tact of a woman guessed my thoughts in a moment. “Mauve, sir, is very appropriate for the lighter sorrows.”

“But absolute red!” I retorted, pointing to some velvet of that color.

“Is quite admissible when you mourn the departure of a distant relative. But allow me to show you some gloves?” and, suiting the action to the word, she lifted the cover from a tasteful glove box, and displayed a perfect picture of delicate half-tones, indicative of a struggle between the cheerful and the sad. “There is a pleasing melancholy in this shade of gray,” she remarked, indenting slightly each outer knuckle with the soft elastic kid as she measured my hand.

“Can you find lavender?”

“Oh, yes! but the sorrow tint is very slight in that; however, it wears admirably.”

Thus, by degrees, the grief of the establishment died out in tenderest lavender, and I took my departure deeply impressed with the charming improvements which Parisian taste has effected in the plain, old-fashioned style of English mourning.

The Christian Recorder 19 September 1863

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For more about the Byzantine conventions of Victorian mourning see Mourning Becomes Elective. For a look at a strange garden party at the London home of the Duke of Sutherland, promoting funeral reform and wicker-work coffins, see Wicker Man. The story “Crape” in the neo-Edwardian collection A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales , tells of the revenge exacted from beyond the grave by an aunt determined to be “mourned relentlessly.” For further reading, see Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History, by Lou Taylor.

The piece above appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, and crape.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.