Tag Archives: etiquette for widows

She Wanted to Be a Widow: 1889

 

She Made a Pretty Widow, c. 1890

She Made a Pretty Widow, c. 1890

Perhaps the queerest of tales is that of a young lady who had just attained her majority, and with it the unrestricted control of 100,000 dollars. This young lady’s sole desire was to become a widow. Weeds are so becoming. What is so interesting as a young bewitching widow, with a handsome fortune? Accordingly, to obtain the desirable result, she engaged the services of the real estate agent who managed her property to procure an accommodating moribund husband. The agent set to work, and, with the aid of a friendly physician (every apothecary and sawbones is a physician here), a suitable subject was found in the person of a destitute printer, who was supposed to be dying of whisky and consumption.

After a little inducement the dying man consented, knowing that he was on the verge of the grave, the prospect of being decently buried overcoming any repugnance he might have felt at such an unnatural wooing, and by his orders the fair would-be widow was asked to name the day. Thereupon the next day there was presented at the bed of the bridegroom the bride and a widowed friend, the dying man’s mother, the real estate agent, the doctor, and a Justice of the Peace. The blushing bride having satisfied herself that the man she was about to take for better or worse “would soon be where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest,” shyly consented to be united according to the Statute in such cases made and provided by the accommodating Justice, and without bestowing another look on her newly-acquired husband, the fair bride left the room, having left sufficient coin of the Republic to pay the present living expenses and the future funeral charges, which she fondly hoped would be at early date.

Time passed, however, and still the bride remained a wife, and not a widow, and days merged into weeks and weeks into months, and the lady was reminded of the existence of a husband by the frequent demands on her purse. At last, her patience being exhausted, she determined to visit her husband to ask him why he persisted in living, and when he intended to be ready to be measured for his coffin. With that intent she proceeded to take the train for ‘Frisco, her residence being Oakland, and just as she was stepping into the carriage, someone stepped in front of her with outstretched arms, and said, “Frankie, my darling, I have found you at last.” Frankie (the lady) took a good look at the speaker; it was her husband. She was too cool to faint that, of course, goes without saving, but her voice, husky with emotion, trembled as she said, “What, not dead yet”

“No,” replied her husband, “I have quite recovered. They told me they did not know your address.”

You can imagine the fair one’s feelings. After a stormy interview and a refusal by the husband of a substantial sum to permit a divorce, a compromise was affected, whereby the lady was to furnish so much a month to the husband for his needs, —meaning whisky, of course—and after two or three months of unlimited quantities of the aforesaid needs, death claimed the victim who had so nearly escaped him. And the fair widow furnished with unbecoming cheerfulness the necessary funds to inter her dear departed and now, the object of her life being attained, she is turning the heads of all young eligible men with her ravishing widow’s weeds. But enough of this. I know your readers will say I have been romancing, but I can assure them that the lady is now residing in Oakland, and has taken no steps whatever to contradict the story on the contrary, she is quite proud of her exploit. Funny taste, is it not?

Waikato Times, 14 September 1889: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is rare to find a young woman (particularly one in possession of such a large fortune) who knows her own mind so well. Not for her the siren-song of young and handsome. It is not entirely dissimilar to those young persons, poor in worldly goods, but bountifully equipped with feminine charms, who calculatingly marry elderly millionaires, although in those cases, the young persons crave the money rather than the weeds.  One must admire the young lady’s coolness, if not her kindly heart.

The bewitching widow was something of a cliché in popular mortuary literature:

We could hardly conceive how it was possible the head could think of the fashion of a bonnet if the heart were breaking, We for a long time supposed that the matter lay entirely with the milliner, but we were undeceived once by having to carry a mourning bonnet back, intended for a young and pretty widow, because it was not becoming, and another, as the funeral did not occur for two days thereafter, was forthwith made that suited to a charm. The Spirit Messenger, R.P. Ambler, Editor, 14 June 1851: p 361

and

It is in questionable taste for a young and pretty widow to wear her mourning after she has become reconciled to the death of her first husband and is quite willing to marry a second. A widow still wearing her weeds, and at the same time carrying on an animated flirtation with some new admirer, is a sight to make the gods weep…To angle for a second husband with the weeds worn for the first, because they are becoming, is a thing that should be forbidden by law. Social Customs, Florence Howe Hall, (Boston: Dana Estes & Co., 1911)

For more on mourning customs and bewitching widows, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, as well as this story, “The Widow’s Baby,” and “The Mourner a la mode,” a satirical poem about a fashionable widow.

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.

 

 

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“A Sufficient Degree of Grief–” The Five Stages of Mourning: 1854

A Weeping Widow c. 1897

A Weeping Widow c. 1897

ETIQUETTE FOR WIDOWS .— The following humorous hit is from a late novel by Alphonse Karr. We will not answer for its truth; but we will for its humor:

“Those who shall scrupulously observe certain simple and easy practices shall be considered to experience a sufficient degree of grief. Thus it is proper for a widow to mourn her husband a year and six weeks (a man only mourns his wife six months); that is to say, the widow, on the morning of the four hundred and seventy-first day, and the widower on the dawn of the one hundred and eighty-first, awakes in a gay and cheerful mood.

“Grief divides itself into several periods in the case of widows.

“1st period— Despair, six weeks.— This period is known by a black paramatta dress, crape collar and cuffs, and the disappearance of the hair beneath the widow’ s cap.

“2d period— Profound grief. Despondency, six weeks. Profound grief is recognized by the dress, which still continues to be of paramatta, and the despondency which succeeds to despair is symbolized by the white crape collar and cuffs.

“3d period— Grief softened by the consolation of friends, and the hope soon to join the regretted object of her affections in a better world. These melancholy sentiments last six months; they are expressed by a black silk dress; the widow’s cap is still worn.

“4th period— Time heals the wounds of the heart. Providence tempers the east wind to the shorn lamb. Violent attacks of grief only come on at rare intervals. Sometimes the widow seems as though she had forgotten her loss; but all at once a circumstance, apparently indifferent, recalls it, and falls back into grief. Yet she dwells from time to time upon the faults of the beloved; but it is only to contrast them with his dazzling virtues. This period would be tiresome enough for the world at large; therefore it has been decided to express it simply by half mourning.

“5th period.— There is now only a softened melancholy, which will last all her life— i.e. six weeks. This touching and graceful sentiment shows itself by a quiet gray silk dress; the sufferer less feels the loss than the actual deprivation of a husband.

“When the lady loses her husband, it is requisite either to pay her a visit of condolence, or address a letter to her. It is customary in these cases to make use of such language as admits the probability of the greatest possible grief— that of Artemisia, for example. Fontenelle, however, thought proper to send a blank letter to a young friend of his who had lost an old husband, saying he would fill it up three months afterwards. When he did so, he began, ‘Madam, I congratulate you.’ But this is quite contrary to custom. Therefore, when a widow loses an old, avaricious husband, from whom she inherits a large fortune, you ought not the less to entreat her not to give herself up to despair; and take care to look as though you believed it was law and custom alone which prevented her from burying herself with him.”

Godey’s Lady’s Book [Philadelphia, PA] September 1854

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Paramatta [also spelt Parramatta] was a light-weight mixture of wool and silk or cotton. Alphonse Karr was a French novelist, critic, and editor of Le Figaro. He also founded a satirical journal called Les Guêpes (The Wasps) and coined that useful epigram, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The French set the standard for strictly codified conventions of mourning with their list of requirements for the bereaved and the notion of funeral “classes,” as if death were a railway ticket office. The witty Fontenelle was Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, 18th-century French essayist, poet, and member of the Academy.

The grief of Queen Artemisia, who so desperately mourned her husband King Mausolus, was proverbial. She built an elaborate tomb for him (hence the term “mausoleum”) and supposedly drank her wine mingled with his ashes. In the face of such violent regret, untacking the crape from one’s gowns and ordering a violet mantle for half-mourning seem frivolously inadequate.

See the “Mourning” category for Mrs Daffodil’s frequent other posts on mourning costumes and customs.  Look also for The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, a book on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, telling of subjects such as widow humour; the uses and abuses of crape; edifying deathbeds; and unusual products for correct mourning, as well as stories of ghosts,  strange deaths, and grave errors. Mrs Daffodil fears that the author “wants to make your flesh crape.”

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

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

 

 

 

Why the Widow’s Hair Turned White: 1910

Women suffer things that men never have to. Fashionable femininity endures miseries in ways that its poorer sisters don’t have to. Wealth itself brings certain sorrows to the women who possess it. I met a widow just out of mourning garb and arrayed in gay colors. I hadn’t seen her since her bereavement. She had regained her old-time buoyancy and was having a good time at a dinner dance. Yet I observed gray hair in her coiffure that had not been there before and fancied that her voice had a note of grief.

“The loss of your husband has been a sad blow to you, my dear,” I said to be polite, although I knew well enough that he had been utterly uncongenial.

“I don’t feel that way about it,” she frankly replied; “he didn’t care for me, nor I for him. After using $20,000 out of his $250,000 for his mausoleum I felt free of further obligation and set out to have a good time with his fortune.” I was puzzled by the gray hair that had come on her head so quickly and asked her to explain it.

“It is the result of a shock,” she said. “You have read of persons whose hair, under intense terror or acute grief, turned all white in a single night? Well, only about one of my hairs in a thousand whitened, and it took a month for me to get as slightly gray as you see me, yet the bleaching was done by a mental shock. When the time approached for me to shuck the blacks in gowns and the blues in demeanor I planned a special toilet for the April Horse Show at Atlantic City. I sent to a famous Paris designer for drawings in water colors and samples of fabrics and adjuncts. I wanted to distinguish my ‘coming out’ as a widow with just the richest not only, but the best fitting and most becoming gown at the fair. The artist had my photograph, too, with all the particulars of complexion, hair and form from which to ‘create’ a triumphant toilet. The cost didn’t matter. It was enormous though, and included a whopping bill for cablegrams to close up the negotiations. One of my special stipulations was that the design should not only be original, but kept absolutely exclusive to me. The artist was bound to never duplicate or even imitate it.

“Well, my dear Clara Belle, the gown came all right. It was a dream of beauty—just odd enough to be unusual yet not gaudy; and after the final adjustments had been made by a skilled fitter here I was proud of myself as I looked into a mirror. I took it to Atlantic City in my motor car, instead of sending it by express with the rest of my wardrobe, so that it couldn’t go astray or get delayed. The opening day arrived warm and fair. The display of toilets in the boxes was fine for a lot of dressy women had come from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; and there was a big crowd of ordinary spectators, for an excursion train from the Quaker City had brought 1,000 sightseers.

“I posed a while at the front of my box and rivaled the horse exhibits as an object of interest. I mentally pinned a first prize ribbon on my breast and was exceedingly proud. Here and there among the swell Philadelphia women, whoever, I thought that I detected scrutiny that looked critical and sometimes two would whisper about me. What did it mean? After several competitions in the ring were over I went with my escort for a promenade on the lawn among the commoner folks—from the well-to-do to the barely-get there.

“Suddenly I got an awful shock. Along came a woman in a gown that, in everything except quality of material, was a counterpart of mine. The whole design was identical. I tottered and would have fallen if my companion hadn’t caught me. When the daze passed the woman was gone. Hadn’t she been a hallucination? I had begun to think so when another gown like mine came into view. The colors in this one were different, but it repeated the original otherwise. Within an hour I saw no less than five copies, and one in quite cheap stuff was worn by a girl as common as the goods.

“That fiend of a Parisian ‘artist’ had foisted on me as an ‘original and exclusive creation’ a design that he—or some one else—had made for an American manufacturer of gowns to be put on the market ready-made, and some big department store in Philadelphia had got a run on them. I went to my hotel in a state of nervous prostration, was no more than half conscious on my auto trip home and within a week these silver threads were among the gold of my hair.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 15 May 1910: p. C8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The occasion of a widow coming “out of mourning” was treated as tantamount to a debut by some widows, such as this lady. Like the debutante ritual, it showed that they were “back on the market,” to use an indelicate phrase. As an aside, 1910 was the year of “Black Ascot,” although this lady, being an American, would not have gone into mourning for the King.

Etiquette demanded that widows wear black–dull and crape-trimmed for the first year; shinier fabrics, white trim, jet jewellery, and a shorter veil for the second. After the two years, half-mourning: white, gray, heliotrope, and mauve could be worn as the widow emerged from her cocoon of black crape. These rules were not invariably followed to the letter, but the newspapers reported on the mourning fashions of prominent women and were often scathing in their criticisms. For example:

DECOLLETE GRIEF

A rather remarkable case is that of the recently bereaved Mrs. Marshal Field, of Chicago, who undertook to serve two masters by having her mourning gown cut décolleté. To the lay mind unacquainted with the awesome rites of fashion, the custom of rushing to the modiste when death is in the house smacks somewhat of flummery and frivolity. At the high tide of sorrow, the very crux of despair, gores, ruffles and tucks, sleeves and collars, would seem matters quite irrelevant; but this custom obtains in society and must be respected unless one is an out-and-out iconoclast and reckless heretic. The various stages of grief are furthermore shown to the world by a judicious handling of whites and grays, but it has been ordained always to be high-necked and long-sleeved grief.

Now, for any individual to change this order is a matter of fearful import; and the spectacle of Mrs. Marshall Field, at the end of a scant three weeks, breaking out all at once into bare neck and arms is a thing at once scandalous and deplorable. This still blooming widow, perhaps set upon her sorrowful and afflicted head a dull jet tiara; furthermore, perhaps about her drooping neck, sported some black pearls, which are de riguer, if you are fortunate enough to own them, at certain stages of melancholy. So perhaps she also wore black glace kids instead of dull suede. From such a spectacle one avert the eye; before such ill-considered vanity decorum goes into convulsions. That concrete grief should so far forget itself as to appear in a décolleté gown, albeit a very black gown, is a thing which makes the whole world stand aghast.

We live in parlous times, that is true, but never before has this been more openly shown than in this sad case of tearful innovation.

Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 16 February 1906: p. 2

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 more about Victorian practices in The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, which will be published in September of this year.