No Flowers: 1891

all flower gates ajar
Gates Ajar funeral flower arrangement, private collection

NO FLOWERS AT FUNERAL

But You Can’t Defeat an Enterprising Florist

[Chicago Mail.]

“Remember that that ‘Gates Ajar’ must go up to Brown’s before 9 o’clock to-morrow morning,” said a Wabash-avenue florist to one of his employes the other afternoon, “and don’t forget that it is to be an n.f. affair and that you’ll have to keep our eyes open.”

“What is an n.f. funeral?” I ventured to ask, after the young man addressed had left us.

“No flowers,” sententiously answered the proprietor.

“That means, then, that you are taking flowers to a funeral where they are prohibited?”

“Precisely.”

“Do so frequently?”

“Every day.”

“Then ‘no flowers’ really doesn’t mean no flowers after all, does it?”

“It doesn’t if we can help it—rest assured of that. We are here to sell flowers. The funeral trade forms an important part of our business, and we have to protect ourselves against the anti-floral cranks as best we can. The ‘no flowers’ order is a fashionable fad and nothing else. It originated in New York years ago at a funeral of one of the Vanderbilts, who requested that no flowers should be displayed during his obsequies. I was working for a new York florist at that time, and I well remember what a flutter this innovation caused among the tradesmen in our line of business. They did not care about losing the single Vanderbilt job, but they feared that such an example in the ultra-fashionable world would be followed by its general adoption. Thus a whim of fashion might deal a severe blow to the floral trade. The leading florists immediately held a conference and it was unanimously decided that the great funeral must not be permitted to set the fashion and inaugurate an anti-flowers era. Several very costly and elaborate floral pieces were prepared, but I spite of all we could do the orders of the deceased were obeyed to the letter and we were unable to get a solitary flower inside the Vanderbilt residence. An attempt to bribe the servants failed, as they had received ironclad instructions not to permit a floral offering of any kind whatsoever to be taken inside the house. This ultimatum fell like a wet blanket upon our hopes, but still we determined not to quit the field without making one last bold ‘bluff.’ A magnificent ivy cross was made—one of the finest that ever was seen in this country. I was about six feet high and was composed of a mass of English ivy leaves and tendrils. It represented a good round sum, let me tell you, and a good deal of work. But there was not a bud or a flower in it anywhere. Just before the time appointed for the exercises to begin we took the cross to the Vanderbilt residence, and, as we expected, were stopped at the door by a liveried lackey, who denied us admission.

“But there must be no delay about this matter, we insisted. ‘It must go in and at once. Come now; we have no time to parley with you.’

“’You can not come in.’

“’We must.’

“’I have strict orders not to admit any flowers. I can not do it.’

“’But there are no flowers in this. Look at it for yourself. It was built entirely in accordance with the wishes of the family. You have no orders against admitting ivy, have you?’

“He hesitated. Just then something round and hard dropped into his hand. He was lost. A moment later that beautiful cross stood at the head of the casket. I shall always remember the remark of my companion as we left the house: ‘Well, Jim. We’ve beaten the old man cold at his own game.’”

Talk about push and business enterprise! Are there any limits beyond which they can not go?

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 8 August 1891: p. 11

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The “anti-flower cranks” came in several flavours:  reformers who felt that the tributes contributed to the extravagance of Victorian funerals; those who found them vulgar; and those who had medical grounds. Here is an argument from the latter:

The reformers suggest that the notice of the death which appears in the papers should end with the announcement: “No flowers.” A novel argument against the sending of these tributes is that the petals of the flowers serve to keep the germs which are given off from the dead body, and in the case of people who died from infectious diseases they may become a positive source of danger, and…be absolutely death dealing. Then again the custom of preserving these wreaths is denounced by many medical men, who contend that they, containing as they do morbific bacteria, are a constant source of danger and a menace to the healthy life of those who afterward occupy the rooms. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 14 February 1891: p. 12

“No Flowers at Funeral” is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, which contains other stories about floral tributes at funerals in its look at the popular culture of Victorian death and mourning.

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.

 

Fiends for a Funeral: The Amateur Mourners

mourning print widow by grave 1846
Mourning Print, 1846, complete with swooning mourner.

In the 19th-century press there was a slight, but revealing collection of stories about funeral fanciers. These were mourners without portfolio, who attended funerals merely for the fun of the thing. As this fashionable undertaker reports, they do not seem to be ghouls, but are generally sympathetic souls.

FASCINATED BY FUNERALS

People Who Are Mourners Regularly, and Find Comfort in so Being.

[New York Sun.]

“Do you see that nice-looking little old lady over by the stained window?” asked a fashionable undertaker of the reporter. “I mean the quaint, respectable-looking little personage, with the black satin dress and the black crape shawl.”

The reporter saw her.

“Well,” continued the undertaker, with an appreciative smile, “she’s as fine a regular attendant as any establishment in this city can produce. I send her an invitation to all my nice funerals, and I have sometimes sent a carriage for her when I knew mourners would be scarce. She is never really happy unless she is at a funeral. She won’t touch weddings, as most women will; her sole amusement, so to speak, is a first-class funeral;” and the undertaker looked over to the old lady with a tender professional interest.

“I have some other nice people on my list,” he went on. “One of my most graceful mourners live in Forty-eight street, and seldom gets down this way, but she hardly ever passes a day without a funeral, and I never saw her at one when she couldn’t’ shed tears with the best of them. She’s one of the heart-brokenest ladies I ever had for a ‘regular.’ Does she really feel badly? Well, I should say she did, most decidedly. She always has a word to say to the family, if she thinks they need comforting, and is very careful to learn all the particulars. Why, she can tell me all the details about some of my own funerals that I had forgotten years ago. She’s as good as a set of books.

“Oh, no, there’s nothing hysterical about these cases at all. I’ve got some men that do just the same thing. There is one now. He’s a curious customer. I sometimes lose sight of him for six month, and then all of a sudden he’ll turn up and not miss a funeral. Of course, I couldn’t ask the women folks why they came, but I asked him one day. He said he couldn’t describe exactly the kind of feeling it gave him, but he thought it sort of quieted his mind and soothed his feelings like. He made one remark about it that I never could quite get the hang of, though I dare say it had a certain sort of meaning for him. He said, ‘ I haven’t got any friends at all myself, and so I like to go to funerals.’ A lady volunteered almost the same kind of remark to me once after she had been to four or five of my best funerals. She said, ‘It makes me feel kind of friendly, you know, and then they are kind to me, and, besides, I feel afraid and solemn, and it always does me good.’

“I think it would be unjust to call it mere curiosity that brings them here, though I have noticed that some of these people watch every detail with the most intense curiosity. They seem fascinated by the presence of death, and their sympathies are moved by the grief of the living. You might think they were very solemn people but the contrary is the case. Some of them are remarkably cheerful, in fact. That little old lady is always very pleasant and vivacious after the ceremony is over. She always comes up and shakes hands with me and is as agreeable a person as one would wish to meet.

“There’s an unusually lively and pleasant gentleman living in the Ninth Ward who occasionally drops in at my funerals. He does not make it a point to go to them, but, as he says himself, he can never get past them. He told me he was obliged to go in; no matter how important business might be, he would forget all about it as soon as he saw the hearse and carriages. The first time I saw him at a funeral I thought he was certainly one of the nearest relatives. He is a very large, round-faced, benevolent-looking gentleman, that would be observed in any crowed. On this occasion, after he had looked at the deceased person for a few moments, he became greatly overcome with emotion, and someone led him to a chair. Each one of the mourners supposed, of course, that he was known to the others. He wept throughout the discourse, and after it was over shook hands all around with the mourners, and showed a good deal of fervent, and, I have no doubt, genuine sympathy. I did not know until some time after that he was a dummy—that’s the name we sometimes call them by. This man is really as jolly a fellow as you ever met, and they say he has been requested to leave theaters more than once, in case he would not subdue a particularly substantial laugh which he possessed. In fact, most of these people who love to go to funerals are good-hearted people. It is not true, as has sometime been said, that they are touched a little in the head. The fact seems to be that they are emotional and sympathetic, and are strongly affected by any awe-inspiring scene. Even young girls and boys have now and then a fancy for funerals, though none of them can say why. Most of them say it makes them feel better, but if you ask where or how, they cannot say. They all watch everything as though in a sort of a dream.

One of my best hearse drivers used, as a boy, to be a regular attendant at funerals. One day he came around to my stable and asked if he might help us. I let him do so, and after a while he used to take a hand regularly in keeping the hearse in order. When he got old enough to go to work his father had to bring him to me—he wouldn’t work any-where else. If you ask him why he likes this business, he’ll tell you he don’t know.”

A slim, middle-aged man here addressed the undertaker, and was received by that personage in a most friendly manner. The slim man suggested that there might be some way he could be of use before the services were done.

“Now, there’s a man,” said the undertaker, “who is interested only in the mechanical part of the business. He goes to almost all my funerals, but seems to feel no special sorrow or sympathy. His whole mind is taken up with the conduct of the funeral. To suit him, the business must be done with the most solemn exactitude. He said to me the other day that if he could only once have complete charge of a large funeral he would be happy for the rest of his life.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 25 August 1883: p. 11

Mrs Daffodil has also posted about “Fiends for a Funeral.”

Moving beyond the amateurs de deuil, there were also hired professional mourners (some cities had mourners’ unions!) and, of course, con-men–and con-women, who followed the coffin.

AT MANY FUNERALS

When Arrested She Wails Some More and Borrows From Judge.

LIVED OFF HER TEARS

Wore Reversible Coat With Gray Inside to Turn When Work Was Done.

It will be some time before Clara Howell, professional mourner and weeper at funerals, will be back at her vocation again. She has been arrested by Policeman Burdette and was released by Justice Gavin on her promise to go to Littleton, where she has relatives, and remain there. Incidentally she “touched” the justice for 25 cents to pay her fare out of the city.

Clara Howell continually wears a black scarf, which extends over her head and under her chin. She never has been seen on the street or at funerals without it.

She was arrested at Miller’s undertaking establishment, Seventeenth and Curtis streets, by Burdette, who had been watching her.

She has been in the habit of begging, says the policeman, and never overlooks a chance to ask for money. But it in the role of professional mourner that she shines.

Slipping quietly into an undertaking chapel or even a private home where funeral services are being conducted she would take a seat and begin to weep. Naturally some of the relatives of the deceased person would be anxious to learn the identity of the mourner and in many cases would address her, whereupon the disconsolate one invariably would say that she was acquainted with the departed one and incidentally call attention to her own poverty.

On such occasions it was easy to beg or borrow and, in this manner, Clara Howell succeeded in “getting the coin.”

The woman wears a reversible coat, one side being black, for mourning purposes, and the other gray, for street wear.

Policeman Burdette received many complaints concerning the woman from undertakers and finally decided to arrest her on a charge of vagrancy.

The Denver [CO] Post 8 March 1910: p. 6

Shirley Jackson has written about 1960s funeral fanciers who were in it for the food following the obsequies.  I have heard from a woman who lives in Manhattan, that there is an entire class of women who scan the obituaries for women’s funerals. Then they attend and condole with the bereaved husband, pretending to be a good friend of the deceased wife. Object: matrimony with the hapless widower.  Apparently these women recognize that there is a limited window of opportunity in which to snap up the grieving male before he is captured by some casserole-toting neighbor.

Are you a fiend for a funeral? Did you meet your spouse at a wake? Put on an expression of genuine sympathy and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Similar (and more bizarre) stories are found in my book: 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.

Something Advantageous: 1840s

Lizars, William Home, 1788-1859; Reading the Will
Reading the Will, William Home Lizars, 1811 https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/reading-the-will-212575/view_as/grid/search/keyword:will/page/1

SOMETHING ADVANTAGEOUS;

OR, A FAMILY FRACAS.

I once attended a very poor old man of the name of Jordan, in his last illness. I call him poor, but yet he was not in want, and had about him the comforts of life. When he was near his end, he said to me—

‘Doctor, I want to know the truth from you. I am not in the habit of being flattered by the world. There was a time, indeed, when it ‘fooled me to the top of my bent;’ but that was long ago. Do you not flatter me, but tell me your real opinion. Shall I soon die, or shall I linger on a brief career, in a world I am quite willing to be done with?’

‘You desire me,’ replied I, ‘to be candid with you, and I will. You are on your death bed.’

‘How soon shall I be immortal?’

‘That I can not say. But your hours, so far as human experience can teach me to predict, are numbered.’

He was silent for a few moments, and a slight spasm passed across his face.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it is the lot of all. I have lived long enough.’

‘Is there no friend or relation, Mr. Jordan,’ said I, ‘to whom you would wish to send? You are here, as you have often told me, quite alone in lodgings. Perhaps you would like to revive some old recollections before you leave the world.’

‘Not one,’ he said.

‘Are you so completely isolated?

‘Most completely. I have tried all relations, and found them wanting. But still I have remembered them, and made my will. It is now between the mattress and sacking of this bed, and Mr. Shaw, the only honest attorney I ever met with, and who resides in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, will carry my intentions into effect I was rich once in early life. How dark a day.’

‘What day?’

‘To-day. How dark and misty it has come over, doctor.’

His sight was going fast, and I felt certain that it would require but little patience, and a small sacrifice of time to see the last of Mr. Jordan.

‘Yes,’ he continued, speaking in an odd, spasmodic fashion. ‘Yes, I was rich, and had many a crawling sycophant about me, many smiling faces at my board; but there came a reverse, and like fair flowers at a sudden frost, my kind friends hid their heads. I was nearly destitute, and thinking and believing that the ties of blood would be strong enough to bind to me, in my distress, those with whom I claimed kindred, and who had been delighted to claim kindred with me, I went to them, a visitor.’

‘And failed.’

‘And failed, as you say. They dropped from me one by one. Some remembered slight offenses; some were never at home; some really thought I must have been dreadfully improvident, and, until they were convinced I had not, could not assist me. Doors were shut in my face—window blinds pulled down as I passed. I was shunned as a pestilence — my clothes were in rags — my step feeble from long want of common necessaries. And then an old school companion died in the West Indies, and left me £20,000, which I received through the hands of Mr. Shaw.’

‘A large fortune! And your relations?’

‘Heard of it, and were frantic. I disappeared from them all. From that day to this, they have not heard of me. Do you love wild flowers?’

‘Wild flowers?’

‘Yes. Here are heaps just from the teeming garden. Look, too, how yon cherub twines them in her hair. The stream flows deep to eternity!’

‘Mr. Jordan, sir,’ I cried. ‘Mr. Jordan, do you know me.’

‘Come hither, laughing, gentle spirit,’ he said, ‘bring with you your heap of floral gems. Yes, I know this is the sweet violet. Mary, my Mary; God knows I love you.’

It was a strange thing but, at the moment the blind of the window, which I had drawn up to the top, came suddenly rattling down, and the room was quite dark. I raised it again, and then turned to the bed,

Mr. Jordan was a corpse!

What a remarkable change had in these few moments come over the old man’s face. The sharp lines of age had all disappeared, and there was a calm, benign expression upon the still features, such as in life I never saw them wear.

‘A restless spirit is at peace,’ I said, as I felt for the will where he told me it was placed, and found it. It was merely tied up with a piece of red tape, and addressed to Mr. Shaw, 20, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields; so I resolved to trust no other messenger, but to take it in my hand myself. I told the landlady of the house that her lodger was no more; and that she would no doubt hear immediately from his solicitor, and then I left.

‘Well, Mr. Shaw,’ I said, after I had mentioned to him the manner of Mr. Jordan’s death, ‘here is the will, sir, and I presume I have nothing further to do than to thank you for your courtesy, and bid you good evening.’

‘Stay a moment,’ he said. ‘Let me look at the document. Humph! a strange will. He leaves the form of an advertisement here, which is to be inserted in the morning papers, calling his relations together, to here the will read.’

‘Indeed!’

‘Yes, Well, I shall, as I see I am named trustee, do as he wishes. He states that he is very poor.’

‘Why, he spoke to me of £20,000.’

‘Did he really? A delusion, sir, quite a delusion. £20,000! He had that amount twenty-five years ago. But, sir, as you have attended him, and as I happen to know he had a high opinion of you, I should like you, as his friend, to be with me, as it were, in future proceedings connected with his will!”

‘In which there is a mystery, eh! Mr. Shaw!’

‘A little—perhaps a little bit of post mortem revenge, that is all, which I am not now at liberty to descant upon. But I will take care to coincide with you, and I shall hope that you will follow the old fellow to the grave.’

I promised that much, and duly attended the funeral. It was a quiet, walking affair, and from the manner of it I felt quite convinced that there were not funds to make it otherwise. A mound of earth alone marked the spot in the little church-yard at Barnes, where Mr. Jordan slept the sleep that knows no waking. A drizzling rain came down. The air was cold and eager, and I returned home from the funeral of Mr. Jordan, about as uncomfortable as I could.

o o o o o o

The next day the following advertisement appeared in a morning paper, and caught my eye as I sat at breakfast:

‘If any of the relations of Mr. John James Jordan, deceased, will call at the office of Mr. Shaw, 20, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, they will hear of something advantageous.’

I made up my mind to call upon Mr. Shaw during the day, and about three o’clock, I reached his chambers, or rather I reached the stair-case leading to them, and there I had to stop, for it was quite besieged by men and women, who were all conversing with great eagerness.

‘What can it mean?’ said an old woman; ‘I’m his aunt, and of course I speak for my Ned!’

‘Well, but bother your Ned,’ said a man, ‘he hardly really belongs to the family. I’m his brother. Think of that, Mrs. Dean.’

‘Think of what, you two-legged goose?’

‘Pho, pho,’ said another man, ‘I knew him very well. I’m his cousin. Hilloa! what’s this? Who are you?’

A woman in tattered garments, but who still looked like a beautiful one, stood hesitatingly at the foot of the stairs.

‘Is this Mr. Shaw’s?’ she said. ‘Hush, Mary, hush! don’t my dear.’ ‘But I am hungry, mamma,’ said the little girl, who was holding her by a handful of her dress.

‘Oh, Mary—do not dear; we—we shall soon go home. Hush, dear, hush, hush! Is this Mr. Shaw’s?’

‘Yes,’ said a fat woman, ‘and who is you, pray?’

‘I—I saw an advertisement. I am his aunt Grace’s only child. My name is Mary Grantham. This is my only child. She—she is fatherless and has been so for many a day,’

‘What,’ cried a man, ‘are you the Mary he broke his heart about?’

‘Broke his fiddlestick,’ said the fat woman.

‘Good God, do I live to hear that!’ exclaimed the woman with the child.

‘You had better go up to the solicitor at once,’ whispered I. ‘Come, I will show his door,’

I made a way for her through the throng of persons, and we soon reached the chamber.

‘Here is another of Mr. Jordan’s relations, Mr. Shaw,’ said I, ‘I find you have had quite a levee.’

‘I have indeed, doctor. You must come at twelve o’clock, next Monday, madam, when the will of Mr. Jordan will be read by me to all around.’

‘I thank you, sir.’ She was about to leave the chambers, when I interposed.

‘Pardon me, madam,’ I said. ‘But as I was the only person with Mr. Jordan, at the time of his decease, I wish to ask you a question. If I mistake not, your name was the last that passed his lips. ‘Mary, my Mary,’ he said, ‘God knows that I loved you!’

She sank into a chair, and burst into tears.

‘You, then,’ I added, ‘are the Mary whom he loved. Ah, why did you not, if you can weep for him now, reciprocate the passion?’

‘I did love him,’ she cried; ‘God knows, and he, who is now with his God, knows how I loved him. But evil tongues came between us, and we were separated. He was maligned to me, and I was wearied by entreaties and tears, until I married another. She, who has turned me from him, and severed two hearts that would and should have been all the world to each other, confessed the sin upon her death-bed.’

‘Who was it?’ said Mr. Shaw.

‘His mother! From no other source could I have believed the tales I was told. But I did not then know enough of the world to think that there were mothers who could malign their own children. We were separated–my husband died, leaving me that last little one, of many. We are very, very poor—no one will help us—an acquaintance showed me the advertisement, and urged me to come—it was a false hope. But I find that there are strong arms and brawling tongues below, that I can not contend against.’

‘Never mind that,’ said the solicitor; ‘it is my duty to read the will on Monday, and as a relation it is your duty to attend at the same time. I tell you to have no expectations.’

I saw Mr. Shaw try to slip some money into her hand, and I saw a crimson flush come over her face as she said, ‘We can still work:’ and then, fearing she had been harsh to one who wished to be kind, she shook his hand in both of hers, and said. ‘God bless you, sir, I thank you from my heart.’

Bang, bang! came to the door of the chamber, a minute after Mary had left, and upon its being opened, a man of about six and thirty made his appearance.

‘Something advantageous!’ he gasped, for he was out of breath; ‘what—what is it? Give it me, give it me! How much? Good God, don’t let any body else have it. I’m his youngest brother—give it to me.’

‘If you will attend here at 12 o’clock on Monday, the will will be read.’

Bang, bang, bang!

‘I’m thoroughly besieged,’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘now, madam, who are you?’

‘Something advantageous,’ screamed a masculine looking woman;

‘I’m a relative—what is it? Come on, my dears. Here’s my five dear daughters, and my baby—come along.’

‘Be off with you,’ cried the younger brother.

‘Did you speak to me, you wretch,’ said the lady, and she planted a blow in his face that made him reel again. ‘Take that; I know you are a sneaking hound; you used to be called the chimpanzee in the family, you poor, scorched-up-looking bundle of cat’s-meat.’

Several more arrivals now took place, and poor Mr. Shaw was fairly bewildered. Sounds of contention arose on the staircase—shrieks from family combatants came upon our ears, and finally, I advised Mr. Shaw to paste a placard on the outer door of his office, on which was written,

‘The will of Mr. Jordan will be read here on Monday next, at twelve o’clock, precisely.’

The riot gradually subsided. The evening came on, and all the relations of the deceased had been and gone. Mr. Shaw and I supped together, and I promised to be with him punctually at twelve o’clock on Monday, for I was as curious as anybody could be to hear the will read, and at all events, anticipated a bustling scene upon the occasion. I was not doomed to be disappointed.

o o o o o

It is a habit of mine rather to be too soon than too late, and in the present instance I found it a most useful one, for I really almost doubt if I should have got into the chambers of Mr. Shaw at all, if I had been later than I was.

I had fairly to push Mrs. Mary Grantham in, despite a vigorous opposition; and a man stopped my own entrance, crying—

‘Who are you? What relation are you?’

‘His grandfather’s uncle,’ said I; ‘and if you don’t make way I’ll pull the nose off your face.’

It was well that Mr. Shaw occupied very spacious chambers, or otherwise he could not have accommodated one-half of the persons who came to the reading of the will; and never in all my life did I see such malignant looks pass from one to another, as shot from the eyes of the relations. It was a most pitiful picture of human nature.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘ahem! ahem!’

There was a death-like stillness.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am commissioned to read to you the—the —what shall I call it?—it is hardly a will—of the late Mr. Jordan. No, it certainly ought not to be called a will, for a will, properly speaking, is a testamentary—”

‘Read, read, read!’ cried a dozen voices.

‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am glad to see you are all in respectable mourning.’

‘Except one,’ said the younger brother; ‘there’s his Mary, that he was so fond of. Oh, dear me! she only comes for what she can get.’

Mrs. Grantham burst into tears. There was a little shabby piece of black crape upon her arm, and another upon the arm of her child.

‘I—I could not,’ she said; ‘ I could not do more. God help me! I had not the means!

‘Read, read, read!’ cried all the voices.

‘Ahem!’ said Mr. Shaw, reading; ‘I, John James Jordan, being very poor, and having in vain called upon every relation I have in the world, for assistance, and found none, have to state that my heart was filled with bitterness and uncharitableness toward them. But still I think that they are not dead to all feeling; and this being my last will and testament, I desire that my debts, amounting to the sum of one pound, three shillings, and eight pence, be paid forthwith of my estate; that my funeral be strictly private, in Barnes churchyard, where I last parted with one whom I loved, but who has gone abroad, I am told; and to that one of my relations who will erect a tombstone, I bequeath—

‘Hark! will you!’ cried one; ‘be quiet. Go on—yes, yes. Oh: you wretch, where’s your feelings! Go to the devil!’

‘Really, ladies and gentlemen,’ said I, ‘this is most indecorous.’

‘I bequeath,’ continued Mr. Shaw, ‘my dying blessing and forgiveness.’

Mr. Shaw then folded up the will and put it into his pocket, saying— ‘I wish you all good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I sold the few clothes and other matters he died possessed of, and paid for the funeral, and his debts; being myself minus one shilling and four pence, which I hope you will some of you pay.’

It is quite impossible by any words to fairly depict to the reader the appearance of Mr. Jordan’s relations at this moment. If the fabled Gorgon’s head had suddenly appeared, and transformed them all to stone, they could not have looked more completely paralyzed and panic-stricken.

‘A tomb-stone!’ shrieked twenty voices. ‘A tombstone!’

‘A tombstone!’ said Mr. Shaw. ‘A small one would not cost much. You could put on it a suitable inscription. Here lies—’

‘Lies here—never mind,’ said the brother. ‘Never mind. I—I—Oh, that’s all, is it.’

‘You are a humbug,’ said the masculine woman to Mr. Shaw, ‘and so was old stupid Jordan.’

‘Go to the deuce, all of you,’ shouted another; ‘a tombstone indeed.’

Mr. Shaw was wiping his spectacles.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to add,—’

‘Oh, stuff, stuff! Bother! A tombstone indeed; I shan’t stay another moment. An old thief. I wish a tombstone had been down his throat. Come on! Come on! It’s all a do.’

‘But, ladies and gentlemen.—’

They were quite deaf to the remonstrances of Mr. Shaw, and in a few moments the chambers were quite clear, with the exception of Mrs. Mary Grantham, who was sobbing bitterly. She then rose, and looked at me hesitatingly. Then she looked at Mr. Shaw, and she seemed to be struggling to say something. She placed her hand in her bosom, and drew forth a ring tied to a black ribbon, and then, with a convulsive effort she spoke.

‘This—this ring—it is my only valuable possession. It was given to me thirty years ago, by him who is now no more, my cousin John, who loved me. I have clung to it in pain and in sorrow, in difficulty and in distress; I have never parted with it. I seemed to be but only separated from him while I had it near my heart. But now, great distress forces me—to—to part with it. Will—will neither of you gentlemen buy it of me. I—I shrink from its going into the hands of utter strangers.’

‘Humph!’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘there are a couple of sovereigns for it.’

She took the money, and then, after one long, lingering look, and a fervent kiss at the ring. she laid it on the table. and tottered from the place. I was about to follow her, but Mr. Shaw held me back.

‘Hold! hold!’ he said.

‘You are a brute sir,’ said I. ‘Take your hands off me; I will buy the ring of you and give it back to her. It breaks her heart to part with it, I see,’

‘I shan’t part with it,’ he said; ‘you are a very hasty man, doctor.’

I was very angry, and bounced out of the office. I looked eagerly about for Mrs. Grantham, but could not see her. I walked hurriedly across the square, and as chance would have it. I went in the same direction she did. My first impulse was to speak to her, and my second thought was to follow her, and to see where she went. She crossed Holborn, and traversed some of the long streets that lead into the New Road, where she arrived at last, and finally paused at a stone-mason’s yard.

I could have shed tears at that moment, for now I felt why she had parted with her cherished ring. She stayed about a quarter of an hour at the stone-mason’s, and then she came out and walked slowly away. I did not follow her further, but I went into the mason’s yard, and said to him—

‘Did that lady give you an order?’

‘Why, yes, sir, such a one as it is. She has got me to do a stone for two pounds, and she’s paid me. I’m to meet her at the churchyard at Barnes to-morrow morning at nine o’clock with it. and put it up. It’s only to have on it the name of John James Jordan. and under that. ‘God bless him.’

I walked away with a sort of mist before my eyes, and it was an hour before I recovered my composure. ‘I will meet her,’ thought I, ‘at the grave of her last love, and I will be a friend to her, if she never have another in the world. She shall have her ring again, if I force it from the lawyer. She shall have it. I’ll go and get it now, at once.’

I suppose I looked in a very tolerable passion when I got back to Mr. Shaw’s chambers, for he got behind a table when he saw me, and said— ‘Come, come, no violence.’

‘Hark you, sir,’ said I; ‘you have got the ring. There’s your money. Give it me directly, sir. Mrs. Grantham, poor thing, is going tomorrow morning, at nine o’clock, to place a stone at the grave of Mr. Jordan, and I intend to be there and give her her ring.’

‘Oh! very well. Bother the ring. I don’t want it. It ain’t worth half the money I gave for it. There it is; don’t bother me.’

I took up the ring, then put down two sovereigns, and casting upon him a withering look, which, to tell the truth, he did not seem much to care about, I left the chambers.

o o o o o

A soft. damp, white mist covered up all objects, and made the air uncommonly raw and chilly, as on the following morning, just as the clock of the church at Barnes chimed the three-quarters past eight, I entered the churchyard.

The first thing I then did, was to fall over somebody’s grave, for I was looking for Mrs. Grantham, instead of minding where I was walking; and then a voice said—

‘There you go again, as violent as usual, doctor;’ and in the dim mist I saw Mr. Shaw, the solicitor, to my great surprise.

I was going to say something, but at the moment I was nearly knocked down again, by some one brushing past me. A gleam of sunshine came out, and the mist began to clear away, when a most singular scene presented itself. A few yards off was the grave of Mr. Jordan, and kneeling by it was Mary, his first love, with her child by her side. Mr. Shaw stood to my left, and at his feet there knelt a respectable looking young man—I recollected him as Mr. Shaw’s clerk.

“Good God! Richards,’ said Mr. Shaw, ‘is that you? What is the matter?’

‘Oh! sir,’ said Richards. ‘I have come to ask your forgiveness. The spirit of my poor old father stood by my bedside all night. Oh, God! oh, God! it was dreadful; and I knew what it was for. Oh! sir, forgive me. I—I peeped into the will, sir, while you went out to dinner—Mr. Jordan’s will—and—and I went round to all the relations, and sold the secret for two pounds a-piece, and—and—’

Mr. Shaw gave a jump that astonished me.

‘Doctor, doctor,’ he shouted; ‘for God’s sake run down the London road and bring the man with the gravestone. Oh! good gracious. Oh! d——n you, Richards. Ha! ha! ha! Oh! here he is. Oh! bless you for a prudent stone-mason; you shall get well paid for this job. Hip! hip! Hip!—hurrah!’

I thought, to be sure, that Mr. Shaw must have gone mad. There was a man looking over the railing of the church-yard, with a spade on his shoulder; to him Mr. Shaw said—

‘Five guineas for that spade.’

The man thought he was mad, and tried to run away; but he dropped the spade; and in another moment Mr. Shaw’s coat was off, and he was digging away like fury.

‘Where’s the stone!’ he cried: ‘bring the stone. That’s right. Poke it in—prop it up. That’s the thing—all’s right. Here we are. Another knock. All’s right—all’s right.’

‘Lor!’ said the stone-mason, as he lifted up his hands; ‘look there!’

I looked in the direction he indicated, and there, to my astonishment, I saw arriving, carts, coaches, cabs, and wheel-barrows, and each containing a tombstone. A regular fight ensued at the entrance of the churchyard; and engaged in the fight I recognized the relations of Mr. Jordan. Heavens, how they cuffed each other!

‘Hold!’ cried Mr. Shaw; ‘you are all too late, although you had information you ought not to have had. There is already a stone on Mr. Jordan, and placed, too, by the only one who knew not what you all know. Listen to the conclusion of the will—‘And to that one of my relations who will erect a tombstone to my memory, I bequeath my blessing and forgiveness, and eighty thousand pounds in bank stock.’ ‘Madam,’ to Mrs. Grantham, ‘I congratulate you.’

‘And there’s your ring.’ said I; ‘Mr. Shaw, let us shake hands; I understand you now.’

‘Ha! ha!’ said Mr. Shaw, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you had better all of you keep the tombstones for yourselves. You can get the name altered, for if you don’t, I’m very much afraid you will not find them

SOMETHING ADVANTAGEOUS.’

The Cincinnatus, Vol. 1, 1857: pp. 31-40

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending…. Except, possibly for Mr Shaw’s clerk, who will, it seems likely, lose his situation.  And possibly for the greedy relatives, although, to be fair, tombstones can be easily altered or even re-sold to recoup their losses. One predicts that some of the tombstones will be soon needed, as Mr Jordan’s volatile relations succumb to chagrin-induced apoplexies.

 

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.

A Baby in Mourning: 1889

Baby with mourning bows. http://collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/resource/B+47559
Baby with mourning bows and a black petticoat http://collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/resource/B+47559

A BABY IN MOURNING

TRAPPINGS OF WOE WHICH WERE DECIDEDLY OVERDONE

The wearing of black fabrics, especially of that particularly somber black fabric known as crape, as emblematic of mourning has long been a much-mooted question. Even those who have taken a decided stand against such as would abolish the custom, on the ground that in too many cases it savored of mawkish sentiment, have agreed that its excessive use is revolting. Perhaps a more aggravated case of revolting excess in this direction was never witnessed than that which was necessarily endured by a carful of passengers on a Sixth-avenue L train yesterday.

A woman, whose face was lit up with more than ordinary intelligence, got on the car at Fifty-ninth-street with two children, a girl about four years old and a babe in arms. Under different circumstances the hearts of those who saw this mother must have gone out in kindly sympathy, for she was young and a widow, as was evidenced by the fact that her dress was of the deepest black and her headgear a long crape veil, reaching far below her waist. The three should have formed a most attractive group, for the children were unusually bright and pretty, but it is doubtful if the passengers, judging from the expressions on their faces, ever looked upon a picture that filled them with greater disgust. The mother’s “weeds” should and would have commanded respect, in spite of their superabundance, had it not been for the fact that she advertised her bereavement by arraying her little ones in costumes which, because of the contrast, were even more somber than her own.

The little girl, whose hair was so golden that it seemed as though the sun was streaming through it, had not a touch of color about her, except that which came from her hair and bright blue eyes. Her dress was of black cashmere, with a heavy drapery of crape, and she wore a black hat, also trimmed with crape. Even the little pin that fastened her somber dress at the throat was of jet, and she carried a black-bordered handkerchief. The climax was reached, however, in the clothing of the babe in arms, a swaddling robe of unrelieved black crape, the little head covered with a baby’s cap of the same material. The effect was positively ghastly, and there was a sign of relief when the widow and her two little ones left the car.

New York [NY] Times 5 August 1889: p. 5

A child's mourning bodice, c. 1845-60 http://museums.fivecolleges.edu/detail.php?museum=all&t=objects&type=all&f=&s=mourning&record=11
A child’s mourning bodice, c. 1845-60 http://museums.fivecolleges.edu/detail.php?museum=all&t=objects&type=all&f=&s=mourning&record=11

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: How very unkind of the passengers to be “disgusted” by a bereaved lady with two very small children!  To be fair, there was much controversy over whether it was healthy to put children into full mourning. Crape was considered depressing to health and spirits in adults and it was feared that the effects would be magnified in vulnerable, impressionable children and infants. Despite this, it is possible that the widow was pressured by an officious mother-in-law or well-meaning friends to clothe her little ones in black as a mark of respect for their departed father. There was much anxiety among the bereaved about “correct” mourning, Common sense was sometimes sacrificed on the altar of propriety.

A child's mourning dress, c. 1882. It shows signs of being hastily made. http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/50734/
A child’s mourning dress, c. 1882. It shows signs of being hastily made. http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/

No Crape for Children

It is fortunately no longer the custom, as a general thing, to put little children into black, and even when it is done crape is no longer employed, even as trimming, and black cloth coats and hats and black ribbon sashes are the greatest concessions that are made. The St Paul [MO] Daily Globe 13 January 1895: p. 13

A child's black velvet dress. This was a mourning dress for a little boy, Travers Buxton, who wore it on the death of his mother in 1871. http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/658369
A child’s black velvet dress. This was a mourning dress for a little boy, Travers Buxton, who wore it on the death of his mother in 1871. http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/658369

Official Court Mourning: The children all wear black sashes on their white dresses; black gloves, black veils, and black ribbons on their straw or Leghorn hats. La Belle assemblée: or, Bell’s court and fashionable magazine, 1824

A child's half-mourning dress and bolero c. 1850-60 http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1362562
A child’s mourning or half-mourning dress and bolero c. 1850-60 http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1362562

Young persons, or those who are in mourning for young persons, frequently wear a good deal of white, as for instance, white ribbons, handkerchiefs, and white gloves sewed with black: very young children, only wear white frocks and black ribbons. The Workwoman’s Guide, by A Lady, 1838

Children are, as a rule, dressed in white when they are placed in mourning, as so many people feel that black is out of harmony with their tender years and bright feelings, which can happily be only temporarily damped. Bruce Herald 7 April 1899: p. 6

A shirt for a baby trimmed with black mourning ribbons. https://www.modemuze.nl/collecties/jurk-baby-rouw-van-wit-linnen-batist-met-zwarte-kettingsteek
A shirt for a baby trimmed with black mourning ribbons. https://www.modemuze.nl/collecties/jurk-baby-rouw-van-wit-linnen-batist-met-zwarte-kettingsteek

And then the girl remembered that she had seen a baby downstairs decked out in crape and black ribbons, and she knew that this must be Jacky’s baby sister. How could this mother be so very foolish?  Star 26 January 1901: p. 1

For more details on Victorian mourning see The Victorian Book of the Dead and posts on this blog labeled with the topic “mourning”.

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.

 

Such a Very Little Coffin: 1901

beautiful detail boy in coffin

“JACKY”

[Pall Mall Gazette.]

“Yes, Miss, I’m glad the Society can send me and Baby to the ‘Ome for a bit; but won’t you walk upstairs?”

So spoke Mrs Hunt, a sad-looking young woman with a quiet voice, to the girl standing beside her, and they began to toil up the many stairs of a model lodging-house. At last Mrs Hunt stopped at one of the doors, but before turning the handle she hesitated a moment and said, “You know I lost my Jacky yesterday. You won’t mind, will you?” And then she led the way into the dingy little top back room.

The girl glanced around almost nervously, for this was one of life’s realities that she had never met before; but there was nothing alarming in the sight of the little coffin resting on two chairs. Yet, somehow it made her feel strange, perhaps because it was such a very little coffin. Mrs. Hunt, however, did not seem to notice the addition to her furniture, for she asked abruptly, “Will they want me to take slippers to the “Ome, for I ‘aven’t got none,” and her voice was quite composed, though a trifle dull and hard. So the girl pulled herself together and a serious discussion followed as to the advisability of buying cheap shoes in the Edgware Road, or of getting a second-hand pair “off a friend.”

But all the while that she was speaking, the girl could not keep her eyes from wandering every now and then towards that other corner of the room, and suddenly she began to realise with astonishment that the coffin, though small, was made of polished oak with silver-plated fittings, and it rested on small black draperies. And then the girl remembered that she had seen a baby downstairs decked out in crape and black ribbons, and she knew that this must be Jacky’s baby sister. How could this mother be so very foolish? For Mrs Hunt was a widow, who supported herself and her little ones by doing mangling. If she worked all day and the greater part of the night she could not hope to earn more than eight or nine shillings a week. And yet she could afford to indulge in high-class funerals.

And as the girl thought on these things her heart hardened, and she deemed it her duty to give the woman a few words of advice on the subject of her extravagance. But the words would not come. For somehow that inconvenient little lump in her throat would return when she thought of this woman’s desire to honour her dead even at the cost of starving. She could almost hear her say, “Has my little boy had so many luxuries that you grudge him a decent burial?” And the girl could not speak.

Now, when she had turned to go, and had even laid her hand on the door, Mrs Hunt said suddenly, almost harshly, “Perhaps you’d like to see ’im.” And before the girl could reply, the lid of the coffin was drawn back.

What! Was that still little form that white face, almost terrible in its loveliness—was that the noisy, dirty imp she had seen not many days before? I seemed incredible. She remembered in wonder that she had tried to bring herself to kiss the face that had been almost repulsive in its filth and ugliness; and had tried and had failed. And now she would fain have knelt and have pressed her lips to the little white hand, humbly, reverently, as to something sacred. She would not dare now to touch the face that she had turned from in disgust; it looked so white, so pure, he would have feared to defile it. “Defile!” Yes, that was the word that kept beating itself on the girl’s brain as she stood there looking down. “Undefiled, undefiled, a little child undefiled.”

And where were now her sapient remarks as to the desirability of cheap funerals for the poor? Gone, utterly gone. She was indeed stricken dumb and stood there silently gazing, her eyes wet with tears. And at last, as many before her have done when the feelings of their littleness is borne home to them, she unconsciously used the words of another: words, old indeed, but true for all time, for all men—

“For of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”

But some one heard her. There was a sudden sob, a sound as of the breaking of an ice of distrust and despair, and the mother turned away, her shoulders heaving, her face buried in her apron; and a cry rang out, an exceedingly bitter cry:

“Oh, I wants ‘im! ‘E weren’t much to nobody but me, but I loved ‘im an’ I wants ‘im!”

And this is how it came to pass that the inquiry officer of a certain society failed in her important duty of advocating thrift and economy among the London poor.

Star, 26 January 1901: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One likely possibility that the young inquiry officer did not consider is that many of London’s poor subscribed to Burial Societies. In the 1840s there were over one hundred Burial Societies in London alone. A small sum paid weekly–from a half-penny to a penny and three half-pence and twopence in 1844–ensured that the all-important decent funeral would be within reach.  The pauper funeral held as much horror for the Victorian poor as the Workhouse and was to be avoided at all cost.

It was found in 1907 that eighty-three per cent of all English decedents carried insurance. The authors of that study added severely, “It would seem that the insurance policy lure prompts to funeral extravagance, and that the pitiless extortions consequently exacted from the poor by a certain class of undertakers aggravates needlessly the anguish of the bereaved, and calls for indignant protest from the public upon whom, in some instances, the victims immediately thereafter become a charge.” Preventable Death in Cotton Manufacturing Industry, Arthur Reed Perry, 1919

For more information on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, Mrs Daffodil recommends The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, also available for something called a Kindle.  Mrs Daffodil understands the principle of paper-making using wood-pulp, but fails to see where kindling comes into it.

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 Mourner A-la-Mode: A Satirical Poem: 1871

mourning walking toilettes The Milliner and Dressmaker, Goubaud

THE MOURNER A-LA-MODE.

By John G. Saxe

I saw her last night at a party

(The elegant party at Mead’s),

And looking remarkably hearty

For a widow so young in her weeds;

 

Yet I know she was suffering sorrow

Too deep for the tongue to express.

Or why had she chosen to borrow

So much from the language of dress?

 

Her shawl was as sable as night;

And her gloves were as dark as her shawl;

And her jewels that flashed in the light,

Were black as a funeral pall;

 

Her robe had the hue of the rest

(How nicely it fitted her shape!)

And the grief that was heaving her breast,

Boiled over in billows of crape.

 

What tears of vicarious woe,

That else might have sullied her face,

Were kindly permitted to flow

In ripples of ebony lace!

 

While even her fan, in its play,

Had quite a lugubrious scope,

And seemed to be waving away,

The ghost of the angel of Hope!

 

Yet rich as the robes of a queen

Was the sombre apparel she wore;

I’m certain I never had seen

Such a sumptuous sorrow before;

 

And I couldn’t help thinking the beauty,

In mourning the loved and the lost,

Was doing her conjugal duty

Altogether regardless of cost!

 

One surely would say a devotion

Performed at so vast an expense,

Betray’d an excess of emotion

That was really something immense;

 

And yet as I viewed, at my leisure,

Those tokens of tender regard,

I thought:—It is scarce without measure

The sorrow that goes by the yard.

 

Ah! grief is a curious passion,

And yours—I am sorely afraid—

The very next phase of the fashion

Will find it beginning to fade.

 

Though dark are the shadows of grief,

The morning will follow the night,

Half-tints will betoken relief,

Till joy shall be symbol’d in white!

 

Ah, well! It were idle to quarrel

With Fashion, or aught she may do;

And so I conclude with a moral

And metaphor—warranted new.

 

When measles come handsomely out,

The patient is safest, they say;

And the sorrow is mildest, no doubt,

That works in a similar way!

The Spiritual Magazine 1 August 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Widows were often, alas, fair game for the Victorian press. Many marriages were not love-matches and many women were widowed quite young. In addition, there might be economic incentive to remarry. These circumstances led to the cliche of the “merry widow,” a woman who delighted in mourning finery and thought of nothing except bagging another husband. Tragically, the author, John G. Saxe [1816-1887] poet, wit, and satirist, knew too much about mourning. Only three years after this light-hearted poem was published, he began to suffer a series of losses: his youngest daughter Laura died of consumption aged 17 in 1874. His daughter Sarah died in 1879; his mother in 1880; another daughter, Harriet, his eldest son, John, and John’s wife also died of the disease in quick succession in 1881. In 1880, his wife collapsed with an apoplexy and died, worn out from nursing her sick children and husband. Saxe himself suffered head injuries in a train accident in 1875, sank into a reclusive melancholy and died in 1887.

Mead’s is “Paul Mead’s” a chop house in Brooklyn popular with lawyers and sporting men. The last stanza refers to the belief that if the rash of measles was somehow supressed or turned inward, it would go ill with the patient.

You may read more about mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available. A recent post satirizing the fashionable widow was this one.

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.

 

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.

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 Little Stranger: 1878

weeping boy 1848

The Little Stranger

[Detroit Free Press.]

There was a funeral on Prospect street yesterday—if you can call two or three mourners weeping over a little dead body a funeral. There were no hacks, no crape and no display. A passer-by saw a lad of twelve sitting on the door-step weeping and he halted to learn the cause.

“My bruther’s dead!” gasped the boy—“only one I had!”’

“How old was he?”

“’Bout five!”

“And what did he die of?”

“Scarl’t fever.”

“Well, he is better off,” sighed the man, as he looked around the gloomy yard and saw evidence of poverty in every pane of glass in the old house.

“That’s what we think,” replied the boy, “but—“

“But what?”

“But I’m afraid Heaven is laid out like a city, and if ‘tis little Billy will get lost, sure, for he couldn’t even find his way down to Gratiot avenue! I hope he got there early this morning, so he can find God before night comes on!”

The Cincinnati [OH} Enquirer 15 March 1878: p. 10

 

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.