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.

The Inconsolable Grief Department – Shopping for Mourning Goods

 

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

FASHIONABLE MOURNING. THE HABILIMENTS OF GRIEF,

FROM A COMMERCIAL POINT OF VIEW.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you find lavender?”

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

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

The Christian Recorder 19 September 1863

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

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

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

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

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

Ghosts in Grave-clothes

 

Ghosts in Grave-clothes John Donne in his shroud, engraved by Martin Droeshout. He posed in his shroud for the portrait on which the engraving is based in and then kept it on until he died, five weeks later. National Portrait Gallery
Ghosts in Grave-clothes John Donne in his shroud, engraved by Martin Droeshout. He posed in his shroud for the portrait on which the engraving is based in and then kept it on until he died, five weeks later. National Portrait Gallery

A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.

“Lost Hearts,” M.R. James

Recently I’ve been digging up the dirt on burial shrouds, trying to determine exactly what the well-dressed corpse was wearing and when. While there is no doubt a certain esoteric charm in studying Z-spun tabbies and shrouding flannels, what I found even more fascinating was the ghosts who appeared clothed in their grave-clothes, often of a markedly archaic pattern. Andrew Lang gives us an striking example:

The most impressive spectre he [Andrew Lang] had ever heard of, he says, in substance, appeared in an English village. Half a dozen children who had been playing together in a house rushed out through the open door in a frightened state of mind, and one of them fell down in a fit. A lady who was driving through the village stopped, attended to the child who was lying on the ground before the horses, and asked the other children as to the cause of the panic. They said they had been playing on the staircase when “a dreadful woman” suddenly appeared among them. The only reason they could give for saying that the woman was dreadful was that she wore a long woolen robe and had her brow and chin bound up with white linen. “In fact,” says the writer, “she was a walking corpse come back from the days when the law compelled us to be buried in woolen for the better encouragement of the wool trade. This wandering old death, seen in the sunlight by the children, has always appealed to me as a very good example of ghosts and of their vague and unaccountable ways. For it is most unlikely that the children knew anything of the obsolete law of the ancient English mortuary fashions.” Religio-Philosophical Journal 7 February 1891: p. 578

“Buried in woolen” refers to the Burial in Woollen Acts of 1666-1680, requiring burial in a shroud of pure English wool.  The acts were resented and were largely ignored after the late 18th century. They were repealed in 1863. Obviously the walking dreadful woman was one of the unhappy woolen-shroud wearers.

Some of you may be familiar with the statue of John Donne depicted in his shroud, which is knotted on top of his head, as pictured in the engraving above. This ghost, seen in a church chancel, presented a virtually identical appearance, as well as making a curiously incongruous rustling noise.

Out of the Long Ago

In 1907 my late husband and I were visiting some friends when the subject of ghosts arose in conversation. My husband did not believe in spirits appearing from another world. I did, for I had seen my father who had, at the time, been dead over twelve months. He also spoke to me. I knew I was awake when I saw the apparition, for I awoke my husband to tell him, as I was frightened. As soon as my husband spoke, the apparition vanished. My mother also saw my father’s spirit twice, and she was the least imaginative of women. My husband’s friend, a young man of about thirty-two, said he believed in ghosts, for he himself had seen one when a boy. He then went on to elate the following remarkable story. I have put it down just as he gave it, without embellishments of any kind. “When I was about twelve or thirteen,” he said, “I visited some relatives in a village near London. About eleven o’clock one morning, I went with the vicar’s two boys, with whom I was friendly, to get a book from the vestry of the church where their father officiated. The elder of the two boys went to get the book, whilst the younger one and I went down the aisle to wait, and to pass the time until the book was found. Hearing a sound, I thought my playmate was coming for us, and looked up towards the chancel. Walking across the chancel I saw a tall figure shrouded in a sort of blanket affair, dull and drab and gathered on the top of the head, and tied in a bunch from which it hung down in folds over the figure, which was walking or gliding toward the vestry door. There was no sound of foot-falls, but, as the apparition moved, it made a sort of rustling noise, like walking amongst dry withered leaves. Thinking some one was playing a trick I followed, hoping to see the fun, but the figure vanished at the vestry door. I looked inside and asked my friend, who was not quite ready to leave, if any one had been into the room, and told him what his brother and I had seen. He answered that he had not seen or heard anything unusual. The church, for certain reasons, was always, except when in use, kept locked. My playmate of the church aisle was full of our adventure, and he told the vicar what we had seen. He strictly forbade us to repeat the story to any one, and went on to say if we did he would be exceedingly angry. His reason for keeping such a tale secret was obvious. When I grew up to manhood,” the narrator continued, “I received a letter one day, from a gentleman who lived, or had lived, in the village where I had seen the ghost in the church chancel. He enclosed me a sketch of the apparition, which he himself had seen when about sixteen years of age. He wanted to know if the drawing was like the figure I had seen. I wrote that it was exactly the same, except for the side face, which I did not remember to have seen. The side face was thin and keen, and the nose thin also, and very prominent. The writer went on to explain that he had heard I had seen the ghost and, like myself, in the broad daylight, and that he was very interested in looking the matter up.”

“In 1911 we called to see the relator of this story, when he at once mentioned that there had been further development in his ghost story. The gentleman who had sent him the sketch had written to inform him that the apparition had again been seen. He was inquiring the time and date of the previous appearances as he was anxious to ascertain if the uncanny visitor came at stated intervals. The shroud that covered the ghost was probably one of the very old-fashioned shrouds that used to be tied on the top of the head. Uncanny Stories Told by “Daily News” Readers, S. Louis Giraud, 1927: p. 30-31

Sometimes even the minutest details of the shroud were noted by a witness.

SPECTRAL ILLUSION

The following is one of the most remarkable of the ghost stories in Sir David Brewster’s late book:

About a month after this occurrence, [the appearance of her husband’s doppelganger] Mrs. A., who had taken a somewhat fatiguing drive during the day, was preparing to go to bed, about eleven o’clock at night, and, sitting before the dressing-glass, was occupied in arranging her hair. She was in a listless and drowsy state of mind, but fully awake. When her fingers were in active motion among the papillotes,[papers for making butterfly curls] she was suddenly startled by seeing in the mirror, the figure of a near relation, who was then in Scotland, and in perfect health. The apparition appeared over her left shoulder, and its eyes met hers in the glass. It was enveloped in grave-clothes, closely pinned, as is usual with corpses, round the head, and under the chin, and though the eyes were open, the features were solemn and rigid. The dress was evidently a shroud, as Mrs. A. remarked even the punctured pattern usually worked in a peculiar manner round the edges of that garment. Mrs. A. described herself as at the time sensible of a feeling like what we conceive of fascination, compelling her for a time to gaze on this melancholy apparition, which was as distinct and vivid as any reflected reality could be, the light of the candles upon the dressing-table appearing to shine full upon its face. After a few minutes, she turned round to look for the reality of the form over her shoulder; but it was not visible, and it had also disappeared from the glass when she looked again in that direction. On the 26th of the same month, about two P. M., Mrs. A. was sitting in a chair by the window in the same room with her husband. He heard her exclaim, “What have I seen?” And on looking on her, he observed a strange expression in her eyes and countenance. A carriage and four had appeared to her to be driving up the entrance-road to the house. As it approached, she felt inclined to go up stairs to prepare to receive company; but, as if spell-bound, she was unable to move or speak. The carriage approached, and as it arrived within a few yards of the window, she saw the figures of the postilions and the persons inside take the ghastly appearance of skeletons and other hideous figures. The whole then vanished entirely, when she uttered the above-mentioned exclamation. The Schoolmaster, and Edinburgh Weekly Magazine, Volumes 1-2, John Johnstone, Publisher, 1832: p. 221.

If the date on this story wasn’t much too early, we might suggest that Mrs. A. had been to Paris’s Cabaret du Neant and seen the coffined living decomposed to a skeleton and back in just minutes!  To be Relentlessly Informative, the “punctured pattern” was an eyelet-like effect punched in the cloth with pinking irons. It was a cheap way to achieve a lacy look for grave-clothes and linens.

Ghosts in Grave-clothes This post-mortem negative from Norway shows the "punchwork" commonly used on shrouds and grave-clothes http://digitaltmuseum.no/011015155636
Ghosts in Grave-clothes This post-mortem negative from Norway shows the “punchwork” commonly used on shrouds and grave-clothes http://digitaltmuseum.no/011015155636

In some variants of this next story, which was a popular urban legend, the ghost was recognized by a particular detail of the shroud.

A woman not far from Emly, buried her husband, a few months ago. A knock came to the door some night last month. She asked who was there. A hollow voice answered, “I am your husband, whom you buried, and I am very miserable in purgatory till my debts are paid. Sell the two pigs you have, and be sure you have the money for me on such a night when I call.” The poor woman did as he required, and felt happy at being able to meet his request, either through fear or love (as he appeared with his shroud and pale face.) Between the first and second visit of the ghost, the poor woman went and told her story to the priest; he told her it was all very good, but at the same time to have two policemen in the house when she would be giving the money. Accordingly, after getting the money, the purgatorial and shrouded ghost came and was arrested by the police and lodged in Limerick jail, there to undergo a little more purgatory till his trial comes on. This ghost turned out to be a near neighbor, who is god-father to one of her children. The Weekly Vincennes [IN] Western Sun 15 March 1862

In this account from the séance-room, an apparition draws attention to her burial robe as proof of her identity.

The next one who appeared was Mrs. Mary Ann Waugh, wife of the late John M. Waugh, of Rock Island, who died about thirteen years ago at this place; a sister of Mrs. Hill’s, and also sister of mine. The test in this case was remarkably good, principally in her general appearance of features and the manner she used to wear her hair, and some peculiarity in her burial robe, in the material used, and something very peculiar in the style and make, which she seemed very desirous of my wife seeing, as she assisted in the making of it.  Religio-Philosophical Journal 20 March 1875: p. 2

The shroud was also regarded as an infallible, if nuanced, death token in stories of second sight,  presenting a sort of sliding scale of death.

The event was usually indicated by the subject of the vision appearing in a shroud, and the higher the vestment rose on the figure, the event was the nearer. ‘If it is not seen above the middle,’ says Martin, ‘death is not to be expected for the space of a year, and perhaps some months longer. When it is seen to ascend higher towards the head, death is concluded to be at hand within a few days, if not hours, as daily experience confirms. Examples of this kind were shewn me, when the person of whom the observation was made enjoyed perfect health.’ Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution, Volume 3. Robert Chambers, 1861: p. 290

This seeress predicted the death of a young boy without giving her reasons. After his death, she explained what she had seen:

I carried the boy’s corpse aboard with me, and, after my arrival and his burial, I called suddenly for the woman, and asked her, what warrant she had to foretell the boy’s death? She said, that she had no other warrant, but that she saw, two days before I took my voyage, the boy walking with me in the fields, sewed up in his winding sheets, from top to toe: and that she had never seen this in others, but she found that they shortly thereafter died: and therefore concluded, that he would too, and that shortly. Light 9 February 1889: 66-67

One of these seers had his vision calibrated to a nicety.

Two seers at work, one a gentleman and the other ‘a common fellow’, who were both visiting the manse of an Inverness minister. All at once the common fellow began to weep and cry out that a certain sick woman about five miles away was either dead or dying.

The gentleman seer—naturally the expert—replied, ‘No, she’s not dead, nor will she die of this disease.’

‘Oh?’ said the fellow. ‘Can’t you see her covered in her winding sheet?’

‘Aye,’ replied the gentleman, ‘I see her as well as you do, but do you not also see that her linen is wet with sweat? She will soon be cooling of her fever.’ And so it turned out. The Revd Hector Mackenzie vouched for the story’s truth. Ravens and Black Rain: The Story of Highland Second Sight, Elizabeth Sutherland, p. 62

Shrouds seen via second sight might not only predict a death, but the form or color of that winding sheet.

“Florence MacLeod, spouse to the present minister of St. Kilda, informed me lately, that her mother Elizabeth MacLeod, a gentlewoman distinguished from sevrals for piety and good morals, having come out of her house at Pabbay in the Harris, with a clear moon-shining night, and having sat down to enjoy the pleasure of a calm serene air, and the beautiful prospect of a glittering starry firmament; both of them observed a domestic girl, who had been a native of St. Kilda (they had left the house), issuing from it, covered with a shroud of a darkish colour, and stalking across the distance betwixt them and the house as if she intended to frighten them, and after continuing in this manner for some time, disappeared. Upon their return to the house, the said Elizabeth, challenged the girl for her frolick, who affirmed, with many asseverations, she had not left the house all the time her mistress and daughter were absent: to which the other servants gave testimony. In a short time thereafter, the same girl died of a fever, and as there was no linen in the place but what was unbleached it was made use of for her sowe, [winding sheet] which answered the representation exhibited to her mistress and the declarant as above.” Light 9 February 1889: 66-67

Today, although shrouds are making a comeback in the context of green burials, most people go to their final rest in their own clothing.  Although I haven’t done a scientific survey, I’ve heard from people who have seen apparitions of friends and relatives wearing the same clothes they were buried in. That would not be particularly remarkable–if you saw the clothes at the viewing or funeral, you might picture the visitation wearing those clothes. Where that logical argument sometimes breaks down is when the witness did not go to the funeral or have any information about what the dead person wore in their coffin, but could describe the burial clothing anyway. Such anecdotes reopen the whole question of why ghosts are seen wearing clothes and why, if, as some psychic researchers used to suggest, the dead can project whatever image they want to those they visit, they choose to wear their last outfit?

Other stories of ghosts in grave-clothes or burial garments?  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

I’ve written before about shrouded specters and superstitions involving shrouds.

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

The Mourning Boudoir: 1889

chambre de deuil
A much older “Mourning Boudoir” at the Chateau of Chenonceaux. The Chambre de deuil of Louise de Lorraine

A MOURNING BOUDOIR

The Latest Alleged Absurdity in Grief for Lamenting Widow

“Come upstairs until I show you my room. It has all been done over in the neatest fashion, and is too sweet for anything,” said a fashionable widow to our sweet girl reporter.

The handsome leader of fashion, who had been widowed for a year or so, led the way to a large room on the second floor.

The door was thrown open and the reporter took one glimpse and then started back. The place at first sight looked like the inside of a hearse.

“It’s the latest English don’t you know, and so in keeping with my crape gown. I did not like it at first, but I do not believe I could sleep in colors again.” The room was furnished with a handsome suite of white enamel and the bedspread and the pillowshams were of black satin merveilleux, embroidered in black velvet applique with silver thread, the monogram of the widow being worked in silver on the centre of both spread and shams. The toilet table and little escritoire were draped in the same manner, and at the windows were thin curtains of black liberty silk against white lace.

“Look here,” said the pretty widow, and she threw back the bed covers, displaying sheets of black silk hemstitched in white, and black silk slips on the pillows.

“I dress in black from top to toe,” she continued. “I wear black silk underclothes, black satin corsets, and a black silk petticoat, and I even have my gowns lined with black. My friends tell me they would sleep as comfortable in a coffin as in my bed, but I find it a delightful resting place.

“And do you know” she continued, “a friend, who has just been made a widow, is having a room fitted like mine, only with black jet monograms. A great many English women who are not in mourning have black rooms, and that is where I got my idea.”

Then she led the way into the boudoir all furnished in vivid yellow, even to the two canaries that piped in their golden cages.

“Yellow is the next color to black you know,” she explained. “And then my husband was a Baltimorean, and I have the oriole colors, black and yellow, too, you see.” The Upholsterer

St Paul [MN] Daily Globe 14 May 1889: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It was an old French custom that a widowed Queen must be isolated for 40 days in a black-draped chambre de deuil. This was to ensure the paternity of any heirs-to-be, a notion which Mrs Daffodil finds laughably optimistic considering the notoriously lax morals of the French court. Mrs Daffodil suggests that the lady in the account above—whose emphasis seems to lie on the “departed” portion of “The Dearly Departed”—was thinking more of how the black silk sheets and black satin corsets enhanced her milky complexion than of her loss.

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

 

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.

White Mourning as a Symbol of Sorrow: 1903, 1912, 1917

white mourning hat and veil 1917
White crape mourning hat and veil, 1917

WHITE MOURNING GAINING FAVOR AS SYMBOL OF SORROW

Whether it be the weeds of woe dictated by the heart’s agony over the loss of a beloved one, or the conventional mourning imposed by state or custom, the sartorial symbols of grief vary with times, places and people. Only in deepest, most lusterless black have we Americans of the nineteenth century been able to show to the world how great was the loss imposed upon us by the death of those dear to us.

Since the twentieth century came in there has been a noticeable tendency toward the lightening of the outward gloom, the sign of our inward grief. An increasing number of persons have protested against donning prescribed mourning, and a still larger number, while adhering in the main to the old order, have modified it so as to make their mourning less oppressive to the wearer and to all beholders.

That black clothes are not the only means of expressing sorrow of the dead is evident if we take into consideration the mourning colors prevailing in other lands and in other times. White is the official mourning of China, as impressive and less depressing than our black. Violet, which we recognize as a minor degree of mourning, is deep mourning in Turkey. Shades of yellow, merging into brown, have expressed the sorrow for loss of life in several eastern countries, including Egypt and Persia. Blue and scarlet have also had sanction as mourning colors in the past.

1912 white mourning Delineator vol 80
1912 white mourning

So, intrinsically, the hue of the garb has no significance other than convention gives. If one has courage one may refuse to accept the dictum of convention. When it was announced recently that Mrs. Madeline Force Astor, the youthful widow of John Jacob Astor, would wear white instead of black, a sigh of relief went up from many who shrink from the somber robes and suffer from their discomforts in warm weather. If one of such social standing could so break with conventions others would surely follow her example. The announcement did not mean that Mrs. Astor would not wear any black during her period of mourning. On ceremonial occasions she will doubtless conform to the prevailing custom and wear black to escape being conspicuous, but she will have a supply of white gowns, hats and accessories which will be easily distinguishable form white wear which is not mourning. All of the white garments worn by her will be guiltless of sheen or luster. Flowers and lace are taboo; white crepe and all kinds of dull, soft white materials ware employed….

This summer more white appears in mourning outfits than has been seen for a long time. Most of it is intended, of course, for young girls and for persons who have completed the regulation period of “deep mourning.” What that period is depends upon adherence to the rules made by the combined opinions of milliners, modistes and public, especially that part of it that we call “society.” It is only slowly that the two years formerly religiously required of a widow for the wearing of crepe veil and all black outfit is being modified. Sticklers for etiquette still adhere to this rule. Greater elasticity in mourning apparel is allowed to other bereaved persons. A mother, a duaghter, a sister may shorten the period of her mourning and modify its lugubrious character with less reproach. Relatives of more remote degree are no longer compelled by censorious opinion to wear black unless their inclinations or interests dictate it….

Nothing is considered by the milliners real mourning except the heavy English crepe, although the dull silk nun’s veiling is preferred by many persons, not only because it is less expensive, but because they shrink from the feeling of crape. When the widow’s deep mourning is laid aside, Brussels or other net with a crepe border is substituted. This is also worn as first mourning by those of a lesser degree of kinship to the deceased.

White in mourning millinery makes its appearance in the becoming “widow’s cap.” Next it is found as the facing of the all black hat, which, by the way, is very popular this season. Then there are the lighter combinations of black and white; the white hat (dead white, it must be) with dull black roses or other flowers which may be worn with black or white gown; the dull black straw with trimming of white crepe or tulle and perhaps some such feather as the marabout, and the all-white hat to be worn with white frocks, especially by the young girl. These white hats are trimmed sometimes with a band and bow of white crepe or with French crepe, which, of course, expresses a less degree of mourning than the regular English crepe. Sometimes French crepe and lusterless white wings are used on a young girl’s hat.

White mourning veils are usually made of net with a white crepe order, the length of the veil and the width of the border indicating the period of mourning. Bands of white crepe on dull finished white gowns are correspondingly graduated….

White mourning gowns may be of any material that does not have a sheen, and they should always be guiltless of lace, embroidery or any sort of decorative garniture. Tucks, pleats and folds are the proper trimming. Inserts of net are also permissible. A handsome mourning costume of dull silk had the yoke made of a small figured net having almost the effect of crepe, but not so heavy. Bands of this net were also inserted in the skirt. The long coat to be worn with this gown was made of the same kind of silk, with folds, binding and buttons of the same.

Another gown was of the new dull finish Alaska satin trimmed with broad bands of white crape.

The various nets make very pretty summer gowns alone or in combination with thin silks or muslins. The tucks are varied in width and grouping to relieve the plain effect caused by lack of other trimming.

The white mourning accessories are shown in an attractive variety. For the deeper mourning white crape is used with good effect for neck and sleeve bands or for deep flat collars. In combination with tulle, French crepe, lawn and other thin white fabrics, it has a wider range of usefulness. These are used, too, without the crepe for mourning that is past its deepest stages, and are accounted proper mourning as long as they are made with a deep hem as a finish and with no more decoration than pleats or tucks afford.

White mourning parasols are made of lusterless silk, plain or with tucks, and have dull finished white handles.

The San Francisco [CA] Call 7 July 1912: p. 32

vogue vol 59 widow white mourning
White mourning from 1922

The fad for wearing white mourning received a decided impetus when Mrs. John Jacob Astor, whose husband was lost on the Titanic, donned it as an expression of her widowhood. Many women who already had a positive dislike to black mourning, followed her example, but the fact remains that black is more in consonance with the feelings of those in grief, while white mourning is passe at the present time and can be procured only with difficulty on special order.

Nevertheless, for certain climates and seasons, white mourning, when worn with white hats and costumes, is not only beautiful and suitable, but eminently smart. In California, or Florida, it may be worn appropriately by a young widow or young girl throughout the year.

White English crape is now made in the same perfection by Courtauld as the black, a secret process which that firm has not divulged for more than 100 years.

Very few white veils are made entirely of this white crape, but it is used as a border—one and one-half inch wide—on veils of white shadow mesh or craquele or filet, or hexagonal mesh, or Georgette crepe, or white Brussels net, and makes charming borders on white costumes, and on collars of white chiffon or Georgette crepe. Face-veils made of any sort of quiet-patterned mesh veiling, without figures, and bordered on one side and the two ends, is stylish and proper, when applied to an all-white hat and worn with an all-white costume. No flowers, not even white ones, are permissible, and no jewelry except a strand of pearls. White shoes or spats, stockings, handbag, gloves, handkerchief are absolutely de rigueur, if white mourning be attempted at all.

Millinery Trade Review, Volume 42, 1917

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  “White mourning,” only truly came into favour in the early 1910s.  As noted, the young Mrs John Jacob Astor, who was only 19 when widowed in the Titanic disaster, set the trend. However, only about a decade earlier, the style was regarded with suspicion.

“White” Mourning

All-white crepe is now advocated by a New York fashion writers for widows during the summer. She says: “For a summer outfit for a young widow gowns trimmed with white crape, made of white crape, hat with a long white crape veil, a white crape parasol and everything to match, is immensely smart, and, be it added, very becoming.” Imagine such a thing! The uninitiated would surely wonder what a woman so attired was trying to impersonate. She would seem a cross between a bride, wandering about without her bridegroom, and a tragic actress doing Lady Macbeth off the stage.

The aforementioned New York writer of fashions must be possessed of a sense of humor which is, in vulgar parlance, “a dandy.”

There are widows to-day who do not wear mourning as is mourning at all, but at least they do not make themselves conspicuous in a bizarre costume like that described.

The white mourning costume is never likely to be popular until women lose their ideas of appropriateness altogether.

Charlotte [NC] Observer 1 July 1903: p. 7

“White mourning,” was known as the prerogative of royalty: the so-called deuil blanc, which we note in some portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots. A more recent manifestation of white mourning was the spectacular “White Wardrobe” created by Norman Hartnell in 1938 for her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, whose mother died just before a state visit to France. And at the 2004 funeral of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, her daughters all wore white mourning.

royal family in church white mourning Queen Wilhelmina

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 

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.