The Plague Shawl: 1878

Did the gift of a shawl bring the plague to Russia?
Did the gift of a shawl bring the plague to Russia?

Mrs Daffodil must once again beg the indulgence of her readers. Something has gone wrong with the pneumatic tubes that deliver Mrs Daffodil’s work to the public, so she has asked that scribbling person over at the Haunted Ohio blog for the loan of a post to fill the gap. Here, then, without further ado, is “The Plague Shawl.”

Today’s post returns to one of my favorite themes: deadly clothing. We have covered the perils of poisoned stockings and noxious hairpieces. The history of disease is filled with cases of contagion spread by textiles:

In 1665 at Eyam, in Derbyshire, a tailor received a flea-infested shipment of cloth from London. He was dead of the plague within a week. Heroically, the villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves to keep the disease from spreading—at a fearful cost: at least half of Eyam’s inhabitants died.

At Fort Pitt, in 1763, two Native American chiefs were given blankets and a handkerchief from smallpox victims, possibly causing an outbreak of the disease and extensive casualties among the Indians.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1838 story, “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” tells of a richly embroidered cloak believed to have brought the smallpox to Boston. The story is fiction, but Hawthorne’s readers’ belief in an infected cloak causing an epidemic was not.

In 1872, Ipswich was hit by an outbreak of smallpox, blamed again on textile infection:

During Christmas week two imported cases occurred…a young man brought a bundle of infected linen with him from London, and had it washed in Ipswich. Twelve days after, the servant who washed the linen showed symptoms of small-pox. In another case, a woman, who had been at Highgate Hospital, brought with her a shawl which she had worn during convalescence, but had not been disinfected; and in fourteen days her sister, who washed the shawl, was attacked, and a boy also in a house to which the sister went before the rash appeared upon her. This case might also have been caused by the infected shawl. The disease shortly afterwards broke out in Harwich and was very fatal, as 24 per cent. of the cases admitted died in the hospital. The Sanitary Record, Vol. 8, 1878

In a very recent case, in September of 2012, a young girl contracted the plague from her sweatshirt which had been laid by a decomposing (and flea-ridden) squirrel.

Then there is this story from 1895 illustrating the improbably long shelf-life of smallpox:

TENACITY OF GERMS

How an Old Lady and Her Little Shawl Carried Death With Them.

The tenacity and virility of smallpox germs are to the medical fraternity one of the wonders of contagion, and were never made apparent so startlingly as a few years ago in the little village of Hector, this state, says the New York Sun. This is an isolated place, being at the time of the smallpox epidemic there twenty miles from any railroad, and its people rarely traveled far from home, and few strangers were visitors there. Early in the fall smallpox broke out in the village. The disease was not known to be anywhere in the vicinity. How it happened to appear there was a mystery that remained unsolved for months, but was at last cleared up through the investigation and inquiry of Dr. Purdy of Elmira.

Dr. Purdy learned that one day in the winter preceding the breaking out of smallpox in Hector a passenger on an Erie railway train was taken violently ill just after leaving Salamanca, and a physician who was on board the train discovered that the passenger had the smallpox. When this became known the other passengers in the car hurriedly left it for another one. The car containing the smallpox victim was placed on a siding when the train reached Hornellsville, where it was quarantined.

Among the passengers who left the car when the case was made known was an old lady who had a ticket for Elmira. Her seat had been the one behind the one where the man with the small-pox sat. She had with her a small shoulder shawl, which had hung on the back of the seat ahead of her. When she left the train at Elmira she placed the shawl in her hand satchel. At Elmira she took a Northern Central train for Watkins, the nearest station to Hector, to which place she was going on a visit to her son’s family. She remained there until the following fall when she was driven by her son to visit another son some miles distant. The day was extremely cold, and her son’s ears being in danger of freezing she took the shoulder shawl from her satchel, where it had been ever since she put it away on leaving the Erie train at Elmira the previous winter, and wrapped it about his head.

A few days after the son returned home to Hector he became violently ill. Before it was known what his ailment was he was visited by various neighbors. Then his disease was pronounced smallpox, and it was such a malignant case that he died within a few days. The disease became epidemic and was not eradicated until the following summer. Every family in the village and immediate vicinity lost at least one member by the disease. That the first case originated from the germs collected by the shawl in the railroad car near Salamanca months before there can be no doubt. Idaho Register [Idaho Falls, ID] 15 February 1895: p. 6

I say “improbably long shelf-life” of smallpox, but the virus is capable of prolonged survival. Excavators in the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 1984-86, for example, took special precautions, not only against the lead dust from the coffins, but against potentially viable smallpox from dead victims of the disease buried there. And in 2011, an 1860s smallpox scab was seized by the CDC from an exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society.

In Russia, the Plague of 1878-79 was reported to have had its origins in a lethal sweetheart’s souvenir.

A COSSACK FROM THE WAR Brings to His Lady Love

A Costly Shawl Which She Wore Two Days,

Then Sickened and Died, and in this

Lies the Origin of the Present Russian Plague.

London, Feb. 3. The origin of the plague in Russia is thus given: A Cossack, returning from the war to Wetlisuka, brought his lady love a shawl which she wore two days and then sickened with all the symptoms of the plague and died. The following four days other members of her family died. The disease spread rapidly, the local authorities not paying any attention to it till half the inhabitants had died and the remainder were unable to bury them. Then, when the epidemic had assumed serious dimensions energetic means were taken for preventing its spreading, and strict quarantines were established: firstly in towns and villages, shutting off streets where the plague reigns from the rest of the place and secondly by surrounding the villages with troops, so that nobody is allowed to pass in or out.

The panic in Russia is almost incredible. Every class and station in life have petitioned for the entire cessation of all intercourse even postal communication between the rest of Russia and the Volga. Letters from Astrachan and Zaritzin are not received by persons to whom they are addressed. Some people even refuse to take money, fearing the germ of infection might be communicated through it. It is almost impossible to describe the terror which has taken possession of the people.

The Russian Sanitary Commission has proposed to shut off the Volga line from all intercourse with Western Russia and permit communication only under quarantine. Russian railway cars are not admitted to German territory. The export of grain from Poland will suffered severely from this restriction. The Roumanian government are discussing the expediency of prohibiting the transit of Russian provisions sent to victual the Balkan army.

(This appears to be a paraphrase of a New York Times article of 2 February 1879. It appeared in the Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 3 February 1879: p. 1)

The Russian plague caused panic throughout Europe, which feared the spread of an epidemic on the scale of the Black Death. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica observed that the Russian wave of the disease killed about 362 victims out of a population of about 1700.

It is, of course, impossible to tell if the story of the deadly shawl is more than a fanciful legend, although the story is repeated in a scholarly article: “The Russian Plague of 1878-79,” Hans Heilbronner, Slavic Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar., 1962), pp. 89-112 in the note on pp. 91-92.

A story was bandied about in 1879 that a Cossack, returning to Vetlianka from Turkish Armenia, brought a scarf to his fiancée as a present. She supposedly wore it for a few days, then developed fearful symptoms of an undiagnosed nature, and died within a few days. The members of her family contracted the same disease and so did some neighbors. Refugees from the village reportedly carried the affliction to other Volga towns and villages.

Strangely, the story is also the subject of a poem by Ohio poet Sarah Piatt

THE STORY OF A SHAWL

[1879.]

My child, is it so strange, indeed,

This tale of the Plague in the East, you read?

This tale of how a soldier found

A gleaming shawl of silk, close-wound,

(And stained, perhaps, with two-fold red)

About a dead man’s careless head

He took the treasure on his breast

To one he loved. We know the rest.

If Russia shudders near and far,

From peasant’s hut to throne of Czar

If Germany bids an armed guard

By sun and moon keep watch and ward

Along her line, that they who fly

From death, ah me ! shall surely die.

This trouble for the world was all

Wrapped in that soldier’s sweetheart’s shawl.

Pray God no other lovers bring

Some gift as dread in rose or ring.

Poems, Vol. II, Sarah Piatt (London: Longmans, Green and Co.) 1894

If you have an interest in the historical aspects of Russian shawl production, please see http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1563&context=tsaconf for “Luxury Textiles from Feudal Workshops: 19th Century Russian Tapestry-Woven Shawls” by Arlene C. Cooper of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

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.

Trouble Arising from a Doll’s Funeral: 1899

http://www.liveauctioneers.com
http://www.liveauctioneers.com

HOW THE VILLAGE WAS UPSET

CONSEQUENCES OF A DOLL’S FUNERAL

In front of the Stoners’ house two little girls, children of a neighbour, were playing with their dolls, when suddenly the younger of them said,

“I’ll tell you what—let’s play funeral.”

“How?” “Well, we can play that my Josephine Maude dolly died, and that we buried her.”

“That will be splendid! Let’s have her die at once.”

Immediately after the death of Josephine Maude her grief-stricken mother said:

“Now, Katie, we must put crape on the door-knob to let folks know about it. You run over to our house and get the long black veil mamma wore when she was in mourning for grandpa.”

Katie went away, and soon returned with a long black mourning veil. It was quickly tied to Mrs. Stoner’s front door bell; then the bereft Dorothy’s grief broke out afresh, and she wailed and wept so vigorously that Mrs. Stoner put her head out of an upper window and said:

“You little girls are making too much noise down there. Mr. Stoner’s ill, and you disturb him. I think you’d better run home and play now. My husband wants to sleep.”

The children gathered up their dolls and playthings and departed, sobbing in their disappointment as they went down the road.

Mary Simmons, who passed them a block above, but on the other side of the street, supposing the children to be playing at sorrow, was greatly shocked. She came opposite the house to observe the crape on the door knob.

“Mr. Stoner is dead,” she said to herself. “Poor Sam! I knew he was ill, but I’d no idea that he was at all dangerous. I must stop on my way home and find out about it.”

She would have stopped then if it had not been for her eagerness to carry the news to those who might not have heard it. A little further on she met an acquaintance.

“Ain’t heard ‘bout the trouble up at the Stoners’, have you?” she asked.

“What trouble?” “Sam Stoner is dead. There’s crape on the doorknob. I was in there yesterday, and Sam was up and round the house; but I could see that he was a good deal worse than he or his wife had any idea of, and I ain’t much s’prised.”

“My goodness me! I must find time to call there before night.” Mrs. Simmons stopped at the village post office, ostensibly to look for a letter, but really to impart her information to Dan Wales, the talkative old postmaster.

“Heard ‘bout Sam Stoner?” she asked.

“No. I did hear he was gruntin’ round a little, but—“

“He won’t grunt no more,” said Mrs. Simmons solemnly. “He’s dead.”

“How you talk!”

“It’s right. There’s crape on the door.” “Must have bene dreadful sudden! Mrs. Stoner was in here last evening, an’ she reckoned he’d be out in a day or two.” “I know. But he ain’t been well for a long time. I could see it if others couldn’t.”

“Well, well! I’ll go round to the house soon as Mattie comes home.” The news spread now from another source.

Job Higley, the grocer’s assistant, returned from leaving some things at the house full of indignation.

“That Mrs. Stoner hain’t no more feelin’ than a lamp-post,” said Job, indignantly, to his employer. “There’s crape on the door knob for poor Sam Stoner; an’ when I left the groceries Mrs. Stoner was cookin’ a joint, cool as a cucumber, an’ singing’ “Ridin’ on a Load of Hay,’ loud as she could screech, an’ when I said I was sorry about Sam, she just laughed an’ said she thought Sam was all right, an’ then if she didn’t go to jokin’ me about my courting Tildy Hopkins!”

Old Mrs. Peavey came home with an equally scandalous tale.

“I went over the Stoners’ soon as I heered ‘bout poor Sam,” she said, “an’ if you’ll believe me, there was Mrs. Stoner hangin’ out clothes in the back yard. I went roun’ to where she was, an’ she says, jest as flippant as ever, “Mercy! Mrs. Peavey, where’d you drop from?’ I felt so s’prised an’ disgusted that I says: ‘Mrs. Stoner, this is a mighty solemn thing,’ an’ if she didn’t jest look at me an’ laugh, with the crape for poor Sam danglin’ from the front door bell-knob, an’ she says, ‘I don’t see nothin’ very solemn ‘bout washin’ an’ hangin’ out some o’ Sam’s old shirts an’ underwear that he’ll never wear agin. I’m goin’ to work ‘em up into carpet rags if they ain’t too far gone for even that.”

“’Mrs. Stoner,’ I says, ‘the neighbours will talk dreadfully if you ain’t more careful,’ an’ she got real angry, an’ said if the neighbours would attend to their business she’d attend to hers. I turned an’ left without even goin’ into the house.”

The “Carbury Weekly Star,” the only paper in the village came out two hours later with this announcement in bold type:–

We stop our press to announce the unexpected death of our highly respected fellow-citizen, Mr. Samuel Stoner, this afternoon. A more extended notice will appear next week.

“Unexpected! I should say so!” said Mr. Samuel Stoner in growing wrath and amazement as he read this announcement in the paper.

“There is the minister coming in at the gate,” interrupted his wife. “Do calm down, Sam! He’s coming to make arrangements for the funeral, I suppose. How ridiculous!”

Mr. Haves the minister was surprised when Mr. Stoner opened the door and said: “Come right in, pastor; come right in. My wife’s busy, but I’ll give you the main points myself if you want to go ahead with the funeral.”

For the first time he saw the crape, and, taking it into the house, he called to his wife for an explanation. Later, they heard Dorothy Dean’s childish voice calling: “Please, Mrs. Stoner, Kate and I left mamma’s old black veil tied to your door-knob when we were playing over here, and I’d like to have it.”

Current Opinion, Vol. 17 1895

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: In this era where black is more likely to be worn by bridesmaids than those attending a funeral, it is almost impossible for us to imagine the shock and dismay occasioned by the appearance of a crape streamer on the front door. It is difficult to think of a modern example of a similarly alarming object: an ambulance at a neighbour’s, or a parking ticket on the wind-screen only approximate the horrifying effect of crape on the door and the assumptions it generated.

Mrs Daffodil told of another crape contretemps involving a hungry goat in “The Goat Ate the Crape.”  And that crepuscular person over at the Haunted Ohio blog told of a terrifying example of how crape hung on the door could be a threat, in “The Thornley Crape Threat.”

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.

You may read of other funeral contretemps, as well as stories of corpses, crypts, and crape in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Heartless Wife: 1850

Black silk plaid mourning gown (possibly another gown dyed and with the trimmings removed) c. 1850 https://www.augusta-auction.com/component/auctions/?view=lot&id=4676&auction_file_id=8
Black silk plaid mourning gown (possibly a previously-made gown dyed and with the trimmings removed) c. 1850 https://www.augusta-auction.com/component/auctions/?view=lot&id=4676&auction_file_id=8

Going Into Mourning

A few weeks ago, our friend Clark was lying sick with the bilious fever. The attack was severe, and he believed death was near. One morning he awoke from a short sleep, to hear a hurried and smothered conversation in the adjoining room, in which his wife took part. The first words that Clark caught were uttered by his better-half.

“On that ground,” said she, “I object to mourning!”

“Yes,” replied another, “but the world looks for it—it is fashionable, and one might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion.”

“Here,” thought Clark, “is a nice wife. She thinks I am about to die—to be planted, if I may use the expression, in the cold earth, and yet she refuses to go in mourning for me. Ah, me!”

“Now that I am here, perhaps I had better take your measure.”

“The unfeeling wretch!” exclaimed Clark, “to think of sending for a dressmaker before I am dead! But I’ll cheat her yet! I’ll live in spite!”

“Well,” mused the wife, “I believe you may measure me. I will let you buy the trimming, and let it be as gay as possible.”

“What heartlessness,” groaned Clark. “Woman-like, though. One husband is no sooner dead than they set about entrapping another. I can scarcely credit it.”

“Of course you will have a flounce?”

“Two of them; and as the body is to be plain, I wish you to get wide gimp to trim it.”

“How will you have the sleeves trimmed?”

“With buttons and fringe.”

“Well—well—this beats all,” sighed poor Clark.

“When do you want the dress?” inquired the mantua-maker.

“I must have it in three days. My husband will then be off my hands, and I shall be able to get out!”

“Oh, horrible—horrible!” ejaculated the sick man; “I am only half dead, but this blow will kill me.”

His wife heard him speak, and ran quickly to his bedside. “Did you speak, my dear?” said she, with the voice of an angel.

“I heard it all, madam,” replied Clark.

“All what, my dear?”

“The mourning—gay dresses—fringe—every thing. Oh! Maria—Maria!”

“You rave!”

“Do you take me for a fool?”

“Certainly not, my dear.”

“You expect me to be out of the way in three days, do you?”

“Yes, love; the doctor said you would be well in that time.”

“What means the dress?”

“It is the one you bought me before you were taken sick.”

“But you were speaking of mourning!”

“We were talking of Mrs. Taperly.”

“Oh, is that it?”

“Yes, love. You know she is poor, and her family is large, and it must inconvenience her very much to find mourning for them all. On this ground alone, I oppose it.”

“So—so—that’s it, is it? I thought you were speaking of me, and it distressed me. Let me beg of you to be more careful for the future.”

Clark was out in three days, and he now laughs at the matter, which then appeared so horrible.

The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 7 May 1850: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  One quite understands the gentleman’s distress. Taken in the context of a dying husband, the lady’s remarks would have seemed the height of social depravity, although, to judge from the many jocularities surrounding “Merry Widows” in the papers, such things were not uncommon. And fringe, although popular on early 1850s gowns, was certainly not approved for mourning.

Of course, there was also merit to Mrs Clark’s opposition to the wearing of mourning, although she seems to regard it as the purview of those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. It is true that the practice weighed most heavily on the poor as this Spiritualist publication wrote:

 How sadly out of place, then, are the milliner and the dressmaker, the trying on of dresses and the trimming of bonnets. There is something profane in exciting the vanity of a young girl by fitting a waist, or trying on a hat, when the corpse of a father is lying in an adjoining room. It is a sacrilege to drag the widow forth from her grief to be fitted for a gown, or to select a veil. It is often terribly oppressive to the poor. The widow, left desolate with a half dozen little children, the family means already reduced by the long sickness of the father, must draw on her scanty purse to buy a new wardrobe throughout for herself and her children, throwing away the goodly stock of garments already prepared, when she most likely knows not where she is to get bread for those little ones. Truly may fashion be called a tyrant, when it robs a widow of her last dollar. Surely your sorrow will not be questioned, even if you should not call in the milliner to help display it. Do not in your affliction help uphold a custom which will turn the afflictions of your poorer neighbour to deeper poverty, as well as sorrow. The Spiritual Magazine, Vol. 5, January 1870: p. 28

Mrs Daffodil has previously posted about the sartorial excesses of enthusiastic widows in “The Mourner a la Mode,” “The Mourning Boudoir,” and a cutting dialogue between pieces of mourning stationary over their mistress’s grief or lack thereof.  The latter two pieces and similar stories of the happily bereaved, as well as widow jokes and discussions of funerary excess may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 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.

 

Mourning Clothes as a Source of Infection: 1877

birmingham mourning warehouse 1877

MOURNING CLOTHES AS A SOURCE OF INFECTION.

BY HENRY R. HATHERLY. Medical Officer of Health, Lenton.

I should not presume to call the attention of your readers to the possibility, not to say probability, of infection being disseminated by the use of hired mourning clothes, if it were not that this possible source of infection appears to have been altogether overlooked by sanitarians and health officers.

My attention was first called to this subject some time since. I was visiting a poor person’s child suffering from scarlet fever; the case was an isolated one in the midst of a densely populated neighbourhood and my efforts were at once directed to the discovery of the source of infection. On investigation I could only find one likely source of infection, viz., that an aunt of the child had been to the funeral of a scarlet-fever patient, had returned home with the mourning clothes on, and had taken the child on her knees to nurse it. The aunt unhesitatingly attributed the infection to having neglected to exchange her mourning for her every day clothes. In fact the original idea that mourning clothes could convey infection was hers not mine. I am not inclined to place much reliance upon the opinions of the working classes on sanitary matters, especially when such opinions are the results of attempts to reason, but, when such people do not reason or attempt to reason, a sort of natural instinct will often lead them to very accurate conclusions. I have no doubt that in this particular instance the woman was right; knowledge of the social customs of her own class led her to detect a source of danger which I had not until then suspected. By a few questions I elicited the fact that the practice of hiring mourning clothes for funerals was common amongst the working classes in my district.

By subsequent inquiries I ascertained the following facts:

  1. That palls, scarves, hoods, and other mourning finery are hired from the undertakers.
  2. That certain shopkeepers hire out mourning dresses and suits.
  3. That the practice of borrowing clothes from one another prevails largely amongst the poorer classes.

I can vouch for these three practices being common in my district, and have little doubt that similar customs will be found to exist in other poor districts, by anyone sufficiently interested to inquire.

If a modern Asmodeus could follow the travels of some of these hired garments, he might introduce us to some strange scenes and to some strange people, we might see some of the darkest phases of human misery, some of the most grotesque forms of expressing sorrow for the dead, and some of the most unwholesome social customs; the sanitarian might have many strange facts disclosed bearing more or less upon public health.

Amongst the very poor, comforts and even necessaries during life have to make way for the requirements of a decent burial. I have frequently been surprised at the inconsistent display of pomp at the funeral of a pauper, who had died in the workhouse, but whose relatives shrank from the last disgrace of a pauper funeral. How to reconcile the so-called ‘ decent burial’ to very limited means is a social problem which has been solved by the mutual kindly feeling of the poor towards each other in times of trouble, and by the practice of hiring instead of buying mourning. To the initiated a good funeral need cost but a very small sum.

It is not my wish to expatiate upon the desirability of simple and inexpensive funerals, especially for the very poor, but rather to show that many mysterious outbreaks of infectious disease may be accounted for by the practices alluded to above.

Such a train of circumstances as the following are far from infrequent in my district: one or more members of the same family are afflicted with scarlet fever, measles, or some other infectious disease, a bed is made up in the ordinary day room for convenience of the mother who has other duties besides those of nurse to perform. One child dies and arrangements are made for a funeral. The guests assemble clothed in hired or borrowed mourning in the very room where another living child is still a centre of infection. The funeral over, the mourning is returned to the owners and lenders without disinfection. This is not a fanciful case, and I could multiply examples if there were any advantage in so doing.

Having now pointed out a possible, and in my opinion a very probable and frequent source of infection, I will briefly refer to the practical question which more immediately concerns the medical officer of health, viz., how to guard against the danger. This question is not so easily answered as might at first sight appear. The 126th clause of the Public Health Act gives ample legal powers, but legal proceedings should be the last resource of preventive medicine.

In some districts hospitals exist to which infectious cases can be removed, and means of disinfection are provided at the public expense, but a vast number of sanitary authorities have not hitherto taken any steps in either direction.

Assuming that means of isolation and disinfection are both provided, the next difficulty, probably the greatest, is to prevail upon the poorer classes who are most concerned to avail themselves of them. A singular affection is often developed by illness towards those who in health may have been sadly

neglected; parents refuse positively to allow their children to be removed from their care, and cannot be persuaded to part with them for a time, however much it may be for their own good. This circumstance I frequently observed during the last small-pox epidemic. About two years since I was required to visit a woman who had just been delivered, and I had the greatest possible difficulty in procuring the removal of a child suffering from malignant scarlet fever, who was actually in the same bed.

Again, as regards disinfection, there seems to be a want of faith in its efficacy, perhaps, with too good reason in many instances. Poor people will run any risk of infection rather than sacrifice useful garments. They are fully alive to the value of clothing, but are sceptical as to the value of disinfection. It seems to me, therefore, that whatever system of disinfection is adopted, the materials submitted must be neither injured nor destroyed.

If compulsory powers as regards isolation and disinfection were exercised, especially at the very inopportune time of a funeral, they would be met by concealment and a secret stubborn resistance. A woman who candidly admitted to me that her son’s trousers had been out at funerals for a fortnight, would not have made such an admission had I previously explained to her the possible penalties which might have been incurred under the 126th section of the Public Health Act. I believe that one or two successful prosecutions would render it almost impossible in a district to obtain the necessary evidence for future ones.

I hold strongly that the first steps towards stamping out the spread of any infectious disease should be taken by the sanitary authority. Means for isolation and systematic thorough disinfection ought to exist in every district and combination of small districts. Then undertakers and second-hand clothes dealers ought to be cautioned against lending or selling any clothing likely to have become infected, and prosecuted if wilfully careless. The private lending system amongst neighbours and friends would be still a difficulty; free disinfection (without injury to the garments) might be urged by handbills or other means. I trust that these few remarks, however crude and imperfect, may suffice to direct the attention of other health officers to the subject of mourning clothes as a source of infection, and I think it more than probable that in addition to ordinary zymotic disease, some forms of skin and parasitic disease, and even venereal disease, may be traced to funeral customs amongst the lower classes.

The Sanitary Record, Vol. 6, 1877 pp. 67-8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil dislikes contradicting a district Medical Officer, but fears that Dr Hatherly’s education has been neglected if he believes it likely that venereal diseases may be acquired from hired garments. Nothing is impossible in this world, (and Mrs Daffodil can, regrettably, envision a person with inadequate undergarments donning hired trousers) but although small-pox and the plague have been passed via textiles, the likelihood of catching the pox from a mourning veil is so slight as to be non-existent.  Dr Hatherly, with his contempt for the reasoning powers of the lower classes, seems to have a bee in his (mourning) bonnet.

Even the “lower classes” felt pressure to conform to the rituals of “upper-class mourning.” Households often went into debt to furnish themselves with proper mourning costume and there was much clucking from the philanthropic classes over mourning excesses committed in the name of propriety. However, some widows were bullied into compliance, as in this example:

A superior servant, a mere girl, married a house-painter. Within a year of the event the husband fell from a ladder and was killed. The poor little widow bought a cheap black dress and a very simple black straw hat to wear at the funeral. Her former employer, who had much commended this modest outlay, met the girl a few days later swathed in crape, her poor little face only half visible under the hideous widow’s bonnet complete with streamers and a veil… She explained that her neighbours and relations had made her life unbearable because she did not want to wear widow’s weeds and at last she had to give in. “They said that if I would not wear a bonnet, it proved we were never married,” she sobbed.  Funeral Customs, their Origin and Development, Bertram S. Puckle, (London: T. Warner Laurie, 1926)

Mourning warehouses and hired clothing were not the only ways to aquire mourning dress. Lou Taylor, in her admirable book, Mourning Dress, A Costume and Social History, tells of a simple black wool dress, shawl and bonnet, which the Dockers Union, London, loaned out to members’ widows from 1880 to 1914.

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.

For more about mourning costume, ritual, and oddities see  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. Various excerpts from the book may be found on this site under the topic of “mourning.”

A Mourning Envelope and Paper Discuss a New Widow’s Grief: 1880

Black-bordered mourning stationery.
Black-bordered mourning stationery.

MOURNING STATIONERY.

“Dear me,” said the Paper, “I feel awfully queer—so stiff round the edges. What is this black band for?”

“Hush!” said the Envelope; “don’t you know? Her husband is dead.”

“Well?” said the Paper.

“Well,” said the Envelope, “how stupid you are. The black is mourning for him, that’s all.”

“Good gracious!” said the Paper; “does she do it like this? Do you suppose it comforts her to see a black edge on her stationery? How very funny!”

“It’s the proper thing to do, at any rate,” said the Envelope, sharply. “You haven’t seen the world, evidently.”

“But it is not my idea of grief,” persisted the Paper. “If I were sad I would go away from everybody and keep quiet.”

“You are very simple-minded,” said the Envelope. “Who would see you if you mourned like that? I knew a widow once who was very angry because she found a card with a wider black edge than her own. She said she had told Tiffany to send the widest that was made, and here was one wider. She almost cried, and measured the edges to make sure. That was grief, now.”

“Was it, indeed?” said the Paper. “Well, times have changed, I suppose. Once when a woman lost her husband her eyes were so full of tears that she could not see how to measure black edges. This is the age of reason, I am told. All feeling is treated as weakness and soothed away by ignatia.”

“Oh, people feel, I suppose,” said the Envelope, a little ashamed; “but, really, there are so many things expected of one now when one’s friends pass away, that there isn’t as much time for grief. Just look at our poor lady to-day. At nine the undertaker came upon a matter most painful. It was—well, the mountings on the casket. She was going to have hysterics, but couldn’t, because he was waiting for her decision. Then the florist came to know about the decorations for the house. Then Madam Lameau with boxes upon boxes of dresses, wraps, bonnets, etc., and although our lady did sigh when she saw the deep black—tears spoil crepe, you know, and madam quickly diverted her mind by showing Lizette how to drape the long veil becomingly. Then came the jeweler with the latest design in jet, and her diamonds have to be reset now, you know, in black claws. After this the mourning stationery was sent with the crest in black, and all sorts of cards and letters had to be written. Then the servants’ new mourning liveries and carriage-hangings were selected. When dinner was served, our lady was so exhausted by all this that she felt faint, and ate a really good dinner to sustain life. Now I should like to know what time she has had for grief, poor thing!”

“Don’t say no time for grief!” said the Paper, rustling with indignation; “say no soul for it, and you will be nearer the truth. When a woman can choose bonnets and jewelry, her husband lying dead in the house, there is not much sadness in her heart. I see that she needs the black-edged paper to express herself. She might as well give up all this miserable farce and enjoy herself at once. Let her give a ball instead of a funeral, and show her diamonds in their new claws.”

“Oh, dear me, do hush!” said the Envelope.  “A ball in crepe and jet jewelry; you are not even decent; you don’t seem to understand things at all.”

“I don’t, that’s true,” said the Paper, “and I hope I never will; when women have got to mourning by sending out black edges and wearing the latest thing in jet, I give them up. I never shall understand.”

“Emotional people always make difficulties for themselves,” said the Envelope, coldly. “I accept things as they are, and adapt myself—Hush! she is coming, and crying, too, I declare, after all.”

“Well, really, Lizette,” said a voice broken with sobs, “you are very thoughtless. How should I remember, in my distracted state, to say twelve-buttoned gloves? and here they are only six-buttoned; it is too bad. But every one takes advantage of me now. I am alone—forlorn—desolate,” and the sobs redoubled.

“Poor thing,” said the Envelope.

“What hopeless grief” said the Paper. “I pity her.”

Arthur’s Home Magazine, Volume 48, 1880

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Such surprisingly scathing social commentary from stationery! Mrs Daffodil trusts that the Hall stationery will keep its opinions to itself, but one had no notion that stationery could be so censorious.

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available at Amazon and other online retailers, and for Kindle. 

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.

 

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.

Detritus of the Dead

Detritus of the Dead, a dead infant’s photo framed in a coffin-like shadowbox by a fabric flower wreath. Former eBay listing.

In the theatre noir of Victorian mourning, textiles took center stage, providing backdrop, scenery, costume and props.  Crape, the quintessential mourning fabric, darkened clothing, doorknobs, and public building facades. Textiles veiled the widow, covered the coffin, and enshrouded the corpse. The hairwork wreaths and mourning embroideries created by mourners to enshrine the memory of the dead, might be framed with the coffin plate of the late-lamented and hung in the front parlor as a kind of domestic reliquary.

Today, of course, crape has rather fallen out of fashion as a mourning textile. In fact the only mourning textiles we find these days are “funeral blankets,” also called “sympathy” or “memorial throws.” These ghastly objects are often printed with angels or the “Footprints” poem, and may be personalized with the name and dates of the deceased. A far cry from crape fluttering ominously from the doorknocker.

Detritus of the Dead Memorial wreath made from the deceased man’s ties and displayed first on his coffin and then at his former place of business. https://twitter.com/attyfay/status/1017610721071333376

So  I was intrigued to find a return to the spirit of Victorian mourning textiles in some recent examples of very personal mourning art: first, the wreath above, made of the deceased’s ties, which I find both attractive and touching, and second, the work of an artist who “forms severed tree stumps from pieces of her late father’s clothing…The works address the passing of time and allude to the body returning to the environment after death.”

There must be many other bereaved artisans creating similar intimate memorial works from family garments. Unsurprisingly, this thread of mourning arts and crafts runs back many years.

FLOWERS OF FLANNEL

An Up-Town Artists Who Makes Gorgeous Posies of Peoples’ Old Clothes.

ART THAT OUTSTRIPS NATURE
Gaudy Wreaths Evolved From the Depths of the Family Rag-Bag.

“Remember the Loved Ones! Memorial Flowers Made of Your Deceased Friends’ Clothing.” This is the simple inscription on a tin sign, nailed against the front of a private residence on Columbia avenue, near Twenty-second street. A passing reporter saw the sign and sought an interview with the person who puts sentiment into old clothes. The bell was answered by an artistic-looking lass, who ushered the scribe into the studio to await the advent of the master, who happened to be the mistress of the establishment. Around the apartment there were distributed glass shades covering specimens of unnaturally luscious-looking fruit and supernaturally bright-colored flowers, all wax. On the walls hung several frames containing what looked like somber tinted prints of mournful weeping willows, monuments, crosses, wreaths, and other mortuary emblems, which proved, on inspection, to be human hair wrought into these various cheerful shapes. While the reporter was still inspecting these works of art and remembrance the lady of the house entered.

A LEADING FEATURE.

“Good morning. You’re looking at some of my relics, I see. Pretty, aren’t they?” was her greeting. Without ascertaining her visitor’s wishes she began to explain the various designs and to tell how many premiums she had taken at country fairs.

“Do you really make flowers of old clothes?” asked the curious newspaper man.

“Yes, indeed; that is a part of my business. In fact, it is the feature that I want to make the leading one. It is a new departure, and there is no limit to its possibilities.” Before the reporter had left he was fain to believe there was not.

A great many people don’t like hair work, and some say preserved flowers have too much of the waxy look of a corpse. The prettiest natural flowers are only emblems, after all; but bouquets made from clothes worn by those we wish to keep in remembrance are almost a part of our friends themselves.”

The floral artist then proceeded to prove in a most conclusive manner what could be done by showing what had been done already, and when all is known it is as simple as it is ingenious. Samuel of Posen could not make a necktie out of a pair of socks with more ingenuity. Given a sufficient quantity of old garments and the skill imparted by the artist at one dollar a lesson, the problem of how to make the flowers is easily solved. The process is much like that of making artificial flowers for ladies’ bonnets, the difference being that instead of selecting the colors to suit the design to be wrought the design must be made to suit the materials at hand. Right there is where the skill of the manipulator to adapt means to end [sic] of ribbons and scraps of cloth comes into play.

DAISIES FROM WHITE DRESSES.

Two wreaths, in which the artist takes especial pride, were shown to the reporter to illustrate this point. One was made from the clothing once worn by a dead grandchild. It contained, besides a number of roses fashioned of the white muslin of tiny skirts, a number of odd-shaped leaves made by cutting out the pattern of the embroidery upon the edge of the same. A daisy’s blossom had the white stuff of a baby stocking cut in strips for petals and a yellow-covered button for a center. There were queer-shaped botanical specimens evolved from striped and plaid percale, and unnameable blossoms in navy blue and cardinal wool that only the brain of a grower of flannel flowers might conceive. The second wreath, the admiring newspaper man was told, contained flowers made of the clothing worn by the artist’s own first infant. In this white blossoms predominated, as was explained by the proud mother, because “there is not so much variety in an infant’s dress as in an older person’s. But white flowers are so much more appropriate for a little babe that is all innocence and purity, and besides, they never will fade, you know.” The skeptical scribe didn’t pretend to know. With pride the mother proceeded to point out a pale buff pansy made of the kid of a tiny shoe, and a few little snowdrops of cotton that had been stuffed into the toe of the shoe to make it short enough for baby’s foot. The gem of the whole collection and the one which was shown with most gratification was a cream-colored lily on the inner circumference of the wreath, which the loving parent triumphantly explained was a part of the crape scarf that hung on the door-knob when the little one lay cold in its casket.

TROPHIES OF THE LIVING

Another wreath, more gaudy in color and more cosmopolitan in make-up, was one of all the shades of the rainbow and several others besides. It was in itself a whole family history. “A red, red rose” was a part of her married daughter’s last new bonnet, and a delicate white blossom called to mind the dress she wore when she was made a wife. A wild-looking tiger lily was once part of a colored underskirt. The blossoms that old the story of the rest of the female side of the house were in such colors as were not found in all the bright robes worn by Solomon in the days of his glory.

“But only feminine apparel can be utilized for bouquets,” objected the reporter. “That’s just where you are wrong!” the artists exclaimed. “Why, think of the colored shirts, flannel drawers, neck ties and stockings. They furnish an unlimited supply for as bright bouquets and rosettes as you could wish. I made a beautiful bunch of pansies not long ago of bits of a gentleman’s kid gloves. Many of the pieces were the right shade, but a few had to be colored to suit. I am about to make a large bouquet for a down town women whose husband belonged to the old Moya Hose Company and was afterwards a soldier. The centre will be a large hollyhock. His red fireman’s shirt will come into play here, don’t you see? I can surround this by blue glowers of some kind. I liked best to make them according to my own ideas. Some people think they can tell just how it ought to be done. Why this woman, whose husband was a firemen, wanted me to make a lot of forget-me-nots and lilies of the valley of her husband’s blue uniform and a white flannel shirt. Such blossoms would do for a baby or a love sick girl, but for an old fellow that used to run with the masheen it makes my head ache.”

TIGER LILIES FROM COATS.

Just at this point a Columbia avenue dude passed the window. The disgusted artist espied him and exclaimed: “Wouldn’t I like a chance to make a bouquet for him out of his clothes? That spotted jacket would be just lovely worked up into tiger lilies and sunflowers and his legs would make elegant stems for the flowers if they were a little thicker and not so crooked.

The many advantages of the faille and linen flowers are causing the trade in them to grow and the florist who now does the chief business in growing them has confidence that as soon as their virtues become more widely known some of the florists will be compelled to shut up shop for lack of something to do. When it is considered that they don’t fade or wilt under the hottest rays of the sun or freeze though attacked by the coldest blasts of winter, the mall sum of $20 asked for making a medium-sized wreath sinks into insignificance and it will be admitted that the genius that originated the idea of remembering dead friends by their old clothes is a benefactor of the race.

The Times [Philadelphia, PA] 24 June 1883: p. 3

Most readers would have nodded knowingly at the first level headline.  Flannel—also known as shrouding flannel—was formerly the main textile used for shrouds.

Some relicts were not content just with flowers made from the deceased’s wardrobe, but added the detritus of the dead to their memorial collages. This widow, with an eye to future historians, carefully labeled all the artifacts.

A NOVEL MORTUARY WREATH.

The Unique Memorial of a Connecticut Widow,

From the Boston Herald.

A unique piece of handiwork has just been completed by Mrs. Sophia Laramore of Waterbury, Conn., who is now approaching her 70th year. It is a mortuary wreath In memory of her husband, who was dead nearly five years before the curious symbol was begun. She made it of relics of her late husband, and of articles which were the property of the wives who preceded her. The frame is of putty, into which while soft the widow placed, among others, the following articles: In the center of the top cross piece are the spectacles of her late lamented and a small vial containing the pills which were left over from his last Illness. Besides these the Hartford Courant says there are many small stones which he had treasured during life, his jackknife. a piece of candy, which she says be had left uneaten; buttons of all kinds from his old clothing, and a small bottle containing cheese made by his first wife. All of this collection is labeled, as, for instance. “The smelling bottle used by the wife before me.” Inclosed in the frame is a picture of him whose memory the wreath is supposed to perpetuate. The wreath above the portrait is composed almost entirely of flowers and leaves, each of these made either of some portion of his coat, waistcoat, trousers, neckties or suspenders, and worked together artistically. The shirt in which he died is honored by having made from it a showy bird, too wonderful and strange for description. Just outside the wreath are placed suspender buckles and watch chains entwined with the hair of the mother of his first wife. Some of the hair of his own head has been made into tendrils, and the stamens of one of the flowers is of the material that lined the coffin. On another side of the wreath is a bunch of raisins he bought her the winter before he died, saying: “Now don’t cook any of these, but eat everyone.” Balancing the raisins are three wires, each supporting one of his teeth, and behind them the last toothpick he ever used.

St. Louis [MO] Post-Dispatch 16 January 1890: p. 11

And this Vermont widow found solace in a mixed-media memorial to her husband made from all manner of sentimental scraps.

A Widow’s Fad.

Near Vergennes, Vt., lives an old widow, Mrs. Parthena Barton, who has just completed a novel memorial to her dead husband. This memento takes the shape of a wreath and the articles in it would start a junk shop. There are many different kinds of flowers composing the wreath, each one made of a bit of the neckties or trousers, or suspenders, which the deceased Barton had worn in life; the centers of the flowers are tender souvenirs in the shape of collar or coat buttons. The spoon with which Mr. Barton took his medicine, the cough drops and boxes of pills are all enshrined in the memorial wreath, as are a motley collection of watch keys, and samples of all the kinds of garden seed he last saved. There’s a bit of the cushion of the church pew in which he sat Sunday after Sunday, a section of the saw he used in providing stove wood, and the awl and bristles he used in mending his boots. Indeed to make the memorial as complete as possible, the good widow included in the collection a souvenir of his first wife in the shape of a smelling bottle, and a match box some one had given Mrs. Barton No. 2, while for herself she only put in a lock of her hair. This huge wreath is enclosed in a frame and hangs on the wall. Both wreath and frame were made by the old lady herself, who views her work with much pride and says: “Taint natural to build monuments and put flowers on the graves of friends. What you want is something to remind you of them. That’s why I made that wreath. Everything’s got a history.”

The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 7 November 1888: p. 4

The latter two stories remind me of African-American conventions of leaving objects important to the dead person at the burial place. As James M. Davidson writers in “Keeping the Devil at Bay: The Shoe on the Coffin Lid and other Grave Charms in Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century America,” sometimes the last items used by the deceased–medicine bottles, dishes or spoons–were interred with them or carefully positioned on the grave. (You can find a contemporary description of the practice as found in Washington D.C.’s Mount Zion Cemetery in The Victorian Book of the Dead, where the stories of the Pennsylvania wreath-maker and the Vermont widow also appear.) I should emphasize that the making of these unconventional wreaths was certainly not a widespread practice, but it was novel enough to interest the press.

Other examples? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who has a brimming junk drawer handy for post-mortem use.

 

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.

He Saw Crape on the Door: 1890

white crape jacob riis 1890 mourning
White crape hung for dead child. Jacob Riis, 1890 “Baby mourning badge on mouth of Mulberry Street Alley, flashlight at 3 a.m.” http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWRC85RW2&SMLS=1&RW=1033&RH=709

THINKING HE SAW CRAPE ON THE DOOR

A Hasty Conclusion Which Gave a Father Much Pain—An Irishman’s Waistcoat the Cause of It All.

N.Y. Tribune. A young husband and father was hastening along in a suburban town one afternoon not long ago to cover the short distance between the railroad station and his home. When he started for business in the morning his little son was ill with a fever, so anxiety had driven the father from his office at an earlier hour than usual. As he caught sight of his cosey home, in its setting of greensward, ivy and shade trees, he could not help thinking how blessed he was to have such a place to live in, and, above all, that there were awaiting him within it a loving wife, a handsome son and the prettiest, sweetest, cunningest baby in or out of Christendom.

As the reason of his early coming home crossed his mind, however, a cloud spread over his joy, and he quickened his pace to put an end to his suspense. He had come within half a block of his home, on the opposite side of the street from it, when he saw something white on its door-bell knob. He imagined he saw the object sway gently in the breeze. Gazing intently on it, he had walked a dozen paces when of a sudden he felt a sinking in his heart, an indefinable impression of fear, of poignant grief and desolation.

In another instant the feeling had transplanted into words, “My God, it’s crape, Arthur is dead,” and the breath seemed to leave his body. Pictures of hopes, and hopes destroyed, of a happy hearth and a desolate one, of a sunny smile with an aureola of curls and a little face pale and cold in death, lacerated his soul like so many knives, as they flashed across his brain with the rapidity of sparks from an electric machine.

“Why did they not telegraph? Perhaps they did, and the telegram did not reach me. It takes me an hour to get home. How will Mary bear up under it? Perhaps it has killed her, too! No, no; she wouldn’t die. She would live for baby. O, God, why did you take my first born? Why did you not take me instead? All my dreams for his future, all, all for naught.” It can not be said that he thought these things. The impressions that gleamed across his consciousness would have translated themselves thus had they not succeeded one another too rapidly to be put into words.

He had slackened his gait, casting his eyes on the ground, but now he hurried along, and summoned up courage to look at the white object again. It did not seem to be crape now, as he neared it, but what else could it be? A puzzled uncertainty lightened his load of grief, but not until he had crossed the street and entered his gate did he solve the mystery.

The white cloth was a waistcoat turned inside out, which an old Irishman had hung on the doorbell knob while he was cutting the grass. It did not take the undeceived father long to tear the waistcoat down, fling it clear over the fence into a neighbor’s yard, rush into the house and ask breathlessly.

“How is Arthur?”

“Why, he’s much better. What is the matter, John?”

John at first felt heartily ashamed of himself, but as he looked at his wife, who still wore a gaze of troubled inquiry, at the baby in her arms and at Arthur, whose arms were about his legs and whose mouth was turned up to receive the kiss which would follow mother’s, a feeling of thankfulness overflowed his heart at the thought that after all his grief might have had sufficient ground, and he kissed wife and children heartily.

When he told his wife the story she did not scold him for his foolishness, but, moving closer to him, said:

“How thankful we ought to be that it isn’t so!”

Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 4 November 1890: p. 2

There are a number of 19th-century tales of the panic caused by seeing what was believed to be crape hung on the door to mark a death.

Mrs Daffodil shares a similar story of misidentified crape in The Black Alpaca Coat.

Susanna Cornett shared this awkwardly spelled version of a popular hymn on the subject: “Ring the Bell Softly (There’s Crape on the Door.)”  I imagine it was set by a half-drunk compositor while the printer’s devil snickered.

crap on the door

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.

Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 4 November 1890: p. 2

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.

 

Christmas Mourning: 1895

1895 mourning accessories. 65.231.4a-b 0004 http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/156835?rpp=30&pg=3&ao=on&ft=mourning&pos=69

ONLY A MOURNING VEIL

Glimpses at a Modern Pawnbroker’s Sale in New York.

BAB BEFRIENDS A WOMAN

It Was at the Humane Establishment on Fifth Avenue and Many Unredeemed Pledges Were at Auction

A Pathetic Christmas Story of a Fallen Daughter.

 New York, December 20, 1895

It was a very queer crowd—in the extreme front were the pawnbrokers from off the Bowery. Among them, and around them, were fashionable women, who looked frightened because their sables were a little too close to shabby coats, and because their ears were shocked by loud voices. It was the sale of society’s pawnshop—that is to say, the pawnshops that society, properly enough, is backing. The pawnshop permits you to get back whatever you pawn on the installment plan, and all the percentage that is asks is a very small one, so that your heart’s blood is not dragged from you, and there is some chance for the poor. But there were so many things no called for, and there had to be a sale. To be in harmony, this sale took place in a fashionable auction room on the Fifth avenue. The day before some beautiful pictures were sold, and the newest beauty flirted with the handsomest millionaire, and there was a mixed odor of violets and sable, while the seats were filled by the people who at night occupy boxes at the opera. The Four Hundred usually go to this auction room, but to-day it was the representatives of the four million who were there.

How the dealers did lean forward to look at the diamonds! They were so eager that they were told to sit down. And such pitiful diamonds as they were! Good enough stones, but those in rings were set as you remember your mother’s engagement ring was. Those in brooches were in the deep, old-fashioned way that didn’t bring out the brightness of the stone, but which was though very smart fifty years ago. There were old-fashioned breast-pins, such as gentlemen used to wear in their scarfs; there was a flounce of Spanish lace—whose dress had it trimmed? There was a little watch with an open face, and on the back engraved “To the One Woman from Him” –who was she?

Poverty at the Sale.

My neighbor on my right was a shabby woman, not pleasant to look upon. She was thin, she was tall, her features were sharp, and she had that peculiar air that one sees among the people of the other side of never having been satisfied. Never having been warm enough, never having had clothes enough, and never having had quite enough to eat. She had on a black alpaca dress, a miserable looking black crape bonnet, while a shabby blue and green shawl was wrapped around her shoulders. She pushed her way through the crowd, bringing a stool with her, shoved me closer to the wall, placed her stool and seated herself. Then she borrowed my catalogue. She turned over several pages, and I heard her say to herself, “’Taint come up yet.” She continued talking, and although I did not understand every word, I did heard her say, “if I’d a got here before the sale commended, there’d a been no trouble; but when you hire out for a day, people they say ‘gimme a day,’ but I was bent on comin’ here this afternoon to get that.”

Rings were sold, watches were sold, there were so many wedding rings sold, and then there was a child’s necklace put upon a string of coral beads with a tiny enameled clasp. I glanced at my neighbor, thinking it was that in which she was interested, but no; she evidently cared nothing for it. In a few minutes I felt her touch me on the arm. I looked around and smiled. She said, “Lady, would you be afraid to bid on anything?” I told her I wouldn’t, and then she asked, “If I start and don’t get right will you straighten me?” I promised. Then I heard her say, “I had enough to pay for the ticket, but a handsom’ thing like that—well, there’s no telling what some of these fashionable folks will do.”

Bid All the Money She Had.

Suddenly the auctioneer said: “I am not in the habit of selling dry goods, but—“

There was a hush, and for once the brokers were silent. And I knew, in some queer way, some inexplicable way, that what my neighbor had come for was put up. It was not a diamond ring, it was not a beautiful watch, it was not a long gold chain; it was only—a mourning veil. For a second—and it seemed like an hour—nobody bid. Then the auctioneer said, “Won’t somebody start this?” Somebody did for 50 cents. In a second my neighbor was on her feet, and it was raised to 75 cents. Her opponent called out a dollar. She raised it a quarter. He made it a dollar and a half. She raised it another quarter. He made it $2. She sat down, the tears streaming down her face. I heard her say, “I ain’t got a penny more, an’ can’t get it.”

I lifted my muff way up in the air. The auctioneer saw it, and the veil was knocked down to me for two dollars and a half. She looked at me quickly. She saw the smile on my face, the smile that struggled with tears for supremacy, and she realized the truth. Grasping my gloved hand in her hard, rough one, she said: “I’ll work it out.” But I whispered good-by, gave my card to her, and was glad that I had been of use to somebody in the world.

The next morning I went in to pay my bill, and the cashier said to me: “There is a woman here, a woman who was here when we opened the door, and she is waiting for you.” It was my friend of the day before. I felt that she was unusual in her desired to say “thank you,” for experience has taught me that thanks are the scarcest things in this world and yet they cost the least. But here she stood, stiff and starved looking, and with the precious veil in her hand. After the ordinary thank you, she said to me, “You must let me pay you the money I’ve got, lady, and as I told you yesterday, I’ll work out the rest.” I told her it was not necessary, that I was glad to think I had been able to make her happy. And then she began to cry.

Her Daughter an Actress.

She said, “It mayn’t seem much to you, but it’s a great deal to me. Times has been hard with me, else this’d never gone into the pawnshop. I’m common, lady, but I had a girl and you’d never thought she was my girl. And she was like you and the other ladies and wore soft furs, and dresses that rustled, and always had a nice perfume all around her. She was pretty when she was a baby, and when her father died some kind people got the Sisters interested in her, and they took her in the school for nothin’. An’ she was so bright and pretty that they taught her to play on the piano, an’ she could sing and talk to the laundress that lives in the same house with us, and who comes from way off across the sea just as well as she could to me, though the langwidges was different. I always thought she was goin’ to be a teacher, an’ when she came home to my poor place, just one room, I used to think how comfortable we’d be when she got a situation an’ we could take a cheap little flat and enjoy ourselves. But no, she said she was goin’ to be an actress. I don’t know how she managed it. No, I never went to see her act. Somehow it didn’t seem right to me. But she sent for me once, an’ I went to a big hotel, an’ there she was lookin’ like a queen, an’ she told me she was married, an’ showed me the picture of a handsome young man. An’ she wanted to give me some money, but I said ‘No, my dear, I know just how fussy some son-in-laws are, an’ this one shan’t say that your mother’s interferin’ with you.’

“I could always keep myself decent, but I just made up my mind I’d have to give her up. Once in a while the neighbors would show me a paper, where there would be a picture of her, and it’d tell how she played and sang and how much people liked her. But I never saw her again ‘till one night last winter near Christmas. I’d gone to bed. There was a knock at the door, and who should it be but my girl.

She and the Baby Died.

“I saw she was in trouble, and when she says to me, ‘Mother, I’m a bad girl, but I have come back to you,’ I remembered that story in the Bible where his father went far out to meet him, an’ I never blamed her. She had a few trinkets, and they went first to get medicine. Then came that awful night when her baby was born. They both died. The poor little baby seemed to know it wasn’t wanted in this world, an’ it just opened its eyes an’ closed them again. But she, she said to me,’ Mother, I don’t want you to forget me’ an’ I promised her I wouldn’t. An’ to show I didn’t, I got this crape bonnet and that veil and wore them to the funeral. That was Christmas Eve she died, nearly a year ago, and during the year I have been strapped pretty tight, and I bundled up a lot of things and took them to the pawnbroker so I might square myself with the undertaker. They was things I didn’t care for, but he wouldn’t gimme enough on the, so I just yanked off my veil and left it. An’ I have been worrying for it ever since. I thought I’d get here in time to redeem it, ‘cause I kept my ticket, but I appreciate your kindness, lady, an’ I think you can understand why just when it was getting’ near Christmas I wanted to have my veil on, ‘cause it seemed to tell those people who knew her that, no matter what she was, no matter how she acted, she was my girl, an’ I wore the veil in memory of her. God give you and yours a happy Christmas.”…

It is strange how that spirit of Christmas brings up in our hearts the desire to keep before us always those for whom Christmas was made joyful many years ago. There are processions of children who are thought of, and the memory of each one comes back to the mother heart that has each missed a little child. And that mother heart can sympathize with the hard, common-looking old woman who longed so for her black crape veil that she might show on Christmas Day she had not forgotten her daughter….

The Washington [DC] Post 22 December 1895: p. 22

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the desperate desire by the poor for respectful and respectable mourning. To those comfortably well-off, it seemed a foolish mania to spend all the burial club money on crape and display. This struggling woman, however, points the moral that wearing mourning was not always about what the neighbours thought, but of love for the unforgotten dead.

For more on mourning veils and Victorian mourning, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/156835?rpp=30&pg=3&ao=on&ft=mourning&pos=69

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.