Tag Archives: mourning customs

Garters of Funereal Black: 1909

1910 french mourning catalog merry widow

A very merry widow from a 1910 catalogue of mourning goods.

A wife, pretty enough to warrant her desire for decorative garments, wasn’t appreciated by her grouchy husband. He was kicking hard at a batch of lingerie which she was trying to make him pay attention to. She appeared before him in a film of lace.

“What do you call that?” he growled; “it looks to me like a fishnet that has caught a mermaid.”

“I’ll swear solemnly that only one idea was in my mind when I had this sent home on approval,” she sobbed. “I said to myself, how proud it’ll make my husband to see me in it—in case of a fire.”

That plea won. The man bade her keep the garment. A pair of jeweled black garters were next to be offered for his scrutiny. Their price was $10.

‘I can see why those Rhinestone diamonds catch your eye,” he grunted, “But why, oh, tell me why, have jet-black garters on flesh-tint silk stockings?”

She took to weeping to get an idea. Her gasps and moans broke him all up, and he asked what she was crying about.

“If I must tell,” she slowly said, ‘twixt sobs, “I will, though I meant to keep the secret locked within my own breast. My dear brother, who died only a few weeks ago, was a stickler for all the conventional usages of mourning, while you disapprove strongly of wearing black in token of grief. Well, there I was in a dilemma. My dear brother would want me to put on black for him, but my dear alive husband would be offended by it. I hit on a way to honor bruddy’s memory without disregarding hubby’s desire. I wouldn’t change any of my garments to the hue of mourning, but, quite unknown to all save you, me and the spirit of my departed brother, I would wear these garters of funereal black. I was caught and rended between love and duty, and I fondly hoped I had solved a complex problem sentimentally. However, if you object, then—“

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 April 1909: p. 40

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  One can only admire the lady’s talent for improvisation and her patience with that growling husband….

Calls for mourning reform from those who believed it to be unwholesome and over-costly echo down the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Mrs Daffodil suspects that the husband above objected principally to the cost, although his ghost would have been greatly offended if his wife did not put on full mourning after his passing. Here is an eloquent plea for the mourning band:

How long are we all to slavishly bow to this unwritten law of mourning, which forces us to adopt a custom inartistic and unsanitary, a blot upon the beauty of the world. a depression upon the nerves and spirits of the entire family, and very often a cruel tax upon the purse, for “mourning” and debt are only too often interchangeable terms. Why can we not break away from this tyrannical old law? There are women who, being widowed, abandon colors utterly and absolutely, just as some mourning mothers find a sorry comfort in wearing densest black as an outward expression of “that within which passeth show,” and their sincerity lends dignity and pathos to the mourning garb. But only think of the thousands who, for aunt or uncle, cousin (distant or near) or for relatives by marriage, resentfully don the purely conventional mourning, that they hate as a restraint and loathe as unbecoming;

Why may we not adopt in such cases the mourning band about the arm, securely stitched to the left sleeve of coat or jacket? It is too modest to mar either costume or suit, while it quietly and effectively announces our loss and expresses our respect.

The etiquette of mourning, like the man who drinks, or is addicted to drugs, demands a steady “tapering off”.” You should pass from crape to plain black–thence to black and white–thence to lavender and gray, and thus gently glide into blues, pinks, etc. But sometimes the deepest mourning is the briefest.

The Pittsburg [PA] Press 3 June 1906: p. 41


For more on the nuances and curiosities of Victorian mourning, Mrs Daffodil recommends The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available for Kindle.

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

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

Summer Mourning: 1857-1910

A summer mourning bonnet for the young French widow, 1898.

Women readily exchange their winter garments for those suitable to summer; but, under circumstances of mourning, they are cruelly compelled by custom to move about under a load of black crape. It is to liberate them from this misery that the present article is written.

Many widows suffer from nervous headache in consequence of night-watching, anxiety, and grief; and this form of headache is converted into congestion of the blood-vessels of the head by exposure to the sun in black bonnets and dresses . There are numerous instances of widows remaining within doors for months together, to the great injury of their health, rather than endure the misery of sun broiling.

The remedy is very simple.

Let summer mourning become customary. Let light-coloured clothing be worn, trimmed with thin black edging.

There is such an article as white crape; but it indicates slight mourning. Either white crape should be worn as summer mourning, or small-sized black edging to light-coloured dresses; and bonnets should be introduced into general use for the purpose.

The Sanitary Review, and Journal of Public Health, 1857: p. 287

If in summer a parasol should be required, it should be of silk deeply trimmed with crape, almost covered with it, but no lace or fringe for the first year. Afterward mourning fringe might be put on.….

Collier’s Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information, Nugent Robinson, editor, 1882

Summer or winter, there was no consensus as to whether children and infants should go into black.

Though it is the custom to put children into black on the death of either parent, no crape is used on their gowns or coats or hats; and in summer they wear white with black ribbons. Children under ten do not wear black for any other relative. Young girls, even when in deep mourning, are permitted to wear white in summer, with black belt, tie, &c.; and for evening dress they can wear white. It may seem anomalous, but white is much deeper mourning than grey; the idea being to wear “no colour” and to attract as little notice as possible. Etiquette for Every Day, Mrs Humphry, 1904

Second Mourning “Magpie effect” toilette 1898


A Pretty Black and White Combination for Her Who Wears Second Mourning

The magpie contrast, which is the name given to the effect when black and white are brought together, is revived with great favor for the summer girl who is entering the second stage of mourning.

A near, but none the less dainty, magpie contrast is here portrayed. The toilette is developed in white dimity traced in swirling design. The tracery is of black silk somewhat raised, giving the effect of the new needle cord, which is seen in many of the nonwashable summer goods.

The skirt is gored to insure a smooth fit over the hips, and the fullness is underfolded at the back. It is sewed upon a waistband of black mourning silk ribbon which necessitates no other belt. Bands of the ribbon in a narrower width than the belt extend halfway down the sides of the skirt. These are caught by a rosette or ribbon or left to fly to the winds, the latter mode being more generally adopted because of its summery effect.

The bodice is made with a yoke of open work, through which narrow mourning ribbon is run. The sleeves are plain trimmed with bands of ribbon and their conjunction with the bodice is concealed under a double ruffle of the dimity. They are tight fitting and neatly trimmed with bands of black silk.

The collar is a soft band of linen finished with a black bow tie and the sailor is a jaunty affair in milk white leghorn finished with a mourning band.

Helen Gray-Page.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 6 June 1899: p. 3


So great is the dislike for a summer veil that many are leaving it off, though others feel more comfortable if the mourning hat or bonnet is properly veiled. For such head dress, the bonnet or hat proper is covered with ordinary black crepe, though the face covering is a very thin black chiffon. While these hats signal woe to the whole wide world, nevertheless they are graceful and to many quite becoming. The shapes are quite different from what they once were and some are really very artistic, though not noticeably so by any means. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times 25 June 1908: p. 8

For the ordinary run of people, the most serviceable dress is of black voile, and the changes may be rung with the woollen, silken, or cotton makes of it, according to the means of the purchaser. Black cotton voile will be used later on for half-mourning frocks, and it is a fabric that will probably be responsible for some of the most attractive frocks all the summer through. There are plenty with striped effects and floral patterns—black and white, white and black, grey and white, white and grey, to say nothing of all the varying hues of mauve and lavender—but such are not orthodox for immediate wear. New Zealand Herald, 2 July 1910: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Nothing is more trying for the bereaved than the burden of bombazine and crape in midsummer’s heat. Not only is the costume excessively warm, but perspiration often causes the black dye to stain the face beneath the veil, a distasteful and unhygienic situation. There were few alternatives if one wished to be “correct.”

When His Majesty King Edward VII died in 1910, his successor, King George V, thoughtfully shortened the official mourning period.

The King’s kindly thought in shortening the period of mourning by a full month will be greatly appreciated, not only by those who would have had to buy a complete summer outfit of black, but more by the tradespeople whose large stocks, bought months ago, would have presented only dead loss.

Full mourning now is only to last until June 17th, and half-mourning may end on June 30th, so that there will be little hardship in putting off the donning of summer finery for so short a time out of respect for the memory of the late King. New Zealand Times 6 July 1910: p. 11

White mourning was one possibility for the summer mourner, if one did not mind controversy:

“White” Mourning

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

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

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

The white mourning costume is never likely to be popular until women lose their ideas of appropriateness altogether. Charlotte [NC] Observer 1 July 1903: p. 7

A woman, who is in “second mourning,” hit upon a dainty idea for her summer clothes. She is wearing white this summer, but instead of the inevitable white shoes, she’s “gone in” strongly for gray shoes and stockings—silver gray—and is wearing exquisite belt buckles of silver as the only other note of color about her costume. The silver and white effect is stunning.” The Indianapolis [IN] Star 1 July 1905: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil will add what is perhaps the most vital hint on summer mourning. She has shuddered at white underthings under black voile and can vouch for this statement:

All the sheer black materials may be used, but black muslin or cambric underwear should be worn beneath them, for nothing is uglier than black over white. The San Francisco [CA] Call 10 July 1910: p. 20

One may read more about “correct mourning” in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which describes, among other abominations, a mourning bathing suit.

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 Heartless Wife: 1850

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

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

Going Into Mourning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course you will have a flounce?”

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

“How will you have the sleeves trimmed?”

“With buttons and fringe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All what, my dear?”

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

“You rave!”

“Do you take me for a fool?”

“Certainly not, my dear.”

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

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

“What means the dress?”

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

“But you were speaking of mourning!”

“We were talking of Mrs. Taperly.”

“Oh, is that it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Framed Coffin-Plate in the Parlor: 1905

wreath with coffin plateA

Rosemary for Remembrance


To those who had been acquainted with it under Mehitabel’s administration, the house itself seemed to have a word to say regarding Ira’s second marriage. Formerly it had been the model house of the neighborhood—the parlor never opened except for funerals or a pastoral visit. The family wash, impeccable as to color and general state of repair, might have been seen beating the air with impotent arms and legs every Monday morning at an hour when the average housekeeper is still dreaming of the horrors of wash-day.

That the present Mrs. Ira would never kill herself with housework, as her predecessor had done, was the verdict of the neighbors. Beyond an eagerness to dispose of the old-fashioned furniture that had exacted such care from the late Mehitabel, and with the proceeds to invest in brand-new Lares and Penates of plush and polished oak, the second Mrs. Ira took life very easily. She had been a seamstress from the adjacent town of Skipton Center, where they understood the value of “watered ” plush and brass nails better than they did in the country. From time to time the summer people called on the bride to bargain over a bit of flowing-blue or a splint-bottomed chair, and while never losing sight of a bargain, she made no apology for her preference for the distinctly modern.

Her latest customer—an energetic woman with a nose that seemed constantly to sniff bargains—had finally bought the Staffordshire candlestick, the purchase being effected only after innumerable encounters, in which neither side showed the inclination to yield one jot or tittle.

“Well, what do you want for that rocker?”

“Guess you might take it along for one seventy-five.”

Indifference now became a fine art with the buyer, the chair was so unconditional a bargain. But the trained haggler, placing her goal farther and farther beyond the bounds of human possibility, was not content. Stooping to examine the chair, she saw that the seat presented a mottled appearance where the paint was missing in patches; this she seized upon to offer a smaller amount. But the very cause that had deprived the chair of its coat of paint undoubtedly contributed to its value—not to the bride, certainly, but to people who liked old furniture with histories attached.

“Iry’s first had her stroke in that chair,—had it Friday, and they couldn’t git her up no way; Sunday she died, and when they pulled her out the paint come too.” She displayed the missing paint with the pride of a merchant exhibiting a hall-mark. But the customer began to count out the change for the Staffordshire candlestick.

“I got somethin’ I’ll sell real cheap; makes a han’some parlor ornament, but I can’t bear to see it ’round.” Mrs. Ira indicated the space between the two front windows, now occupied by a coffin-plate wreathed in wax flowers, covered with glass, and framed in black wood. “It come off Iry’s first. It’s han’some, you can see, but it makes me kinder nervous to hev it ’round. ’F I died, Iry’d hev his third—’tain’t no use sayin’ he wouldn’t.”

The story of the proffered coffin-plate made the rounds of the summer colony, and from thence it penetrated to the living-room of Mrs. Joshua Bigges, sister to the late Mehitabel. The news was brought by Amanda Mather, the neighborhood seamstress, who was regarded as a sort of peripatetic Doomsday Book of unabridged capacity and personal annotations.

Amanda had come primarily to the Bigges family to “lighten their mournin’” for the late Mehitabel. whose family had purposely prolonged their “first black ” till after Ira’s second marriage, as a mute and eloquent expression of their feelings.

“Land’s sakes! Hitty, d’you hear that? Emmeline Perch wants to sell your aunt’s coffin-plate—frame, wreath, an’ all—for a dollar! Why, the wreath alone cost us two seventy-five over to Skipton Center, an’ it must hev cost Iry three or four dollars to git it embammed an’ framed when his grief was fresh and flowin’, not countin’ the price of the plate, that was triple silvered.” Mrs. Joshua Bigges’s recital of the facts to her daughter, who had just come into the room to consult with Amanda about the advisability of putting heliotrope bands on her black China silk, would possibly have left an outsider in doubt as to which affected her the more deeply, the outrage of the proceeding viewed sentimentally, or the financial unwisdom of selling a mourning wreath at one-tenth its value.

The daughter was a tall slender girl with a droop to her red lips and an air of chronic repression. Had Skipton Center appreciated the picturesque, Mehitabel would have had an artistic value; but as it was, her red hair and fragility were regarded but temperately.

“Hitty Bigges wouldn’t be so bad-lookin’ if ’twa’n’t for her hair an’ the way she hunches,” Amanda had asserted from farmhouse to farmhouse. “’Tain’t no satisfaction to sew for her. I’ve fit that girl like an apple fits its skin, an’ the nex’ thing you know she’s shrivelled right up in her basque, an’ it looks all puckery, same’s if she was roasted.”

The girl, on hearing the incident of the wreath, looked in a puzzled way from her mother to the ambulant source of all knowledge. It took her several moments to grasp the enormity of the news; then she said: “It’s a wonder Aunt Hitty don’t haunt ’em. I would!” She was of an age when only the sentimental aspects of the case appealed to her. The relation between profit and loss as exemplified between the cost and the subsequent offer of the wreath passed without comment.

“Mehitabel Bigges,” said her mother, sternly, “never let me hear you say anything like that again; first thing you know folks’ll say that my pore sister has taken to ha’ntin’ the earth, which is a dreadful thing to be said ’bout a deceased member of any family. Let alone which, it will injure the value of that house, which comes to you on the death of Iry, by your aunt’s will.”

Mrs. Joshua caught herself up sharply. Not often was she betrayed into discussing family events before a stranger, especially Amanda. But that night, when the seamstress was safely ensconced in the second-best spare room, Mrs. Joshua put on her wrapper and felt slippers, and taking up her bedroom candle, crept to her daughter’s room for a secret conclave. She would not have dared to do this, knowing that Amanda would interpret a midnight confidence as a confession of anxiety over family affairs, had she not heard sounds coming from the second-best spare room that must be construed as the sleep of the just and those who keep their mouths open.

Mehitabel had not been asleep. She sat up in bed at the approach of her mother, one heavy braid of red hair thrown across her bosom, her eyes opening and shutting at the sudden appearance of the light.

“What d’you think of that?” demanded Mrs. Joshua, in a whisper. They had made no reference to “it” for eight hours, but there was no reason to be more specific.

“Something ought to be done,” assented Mehitabel, vaguely.

“That‘s what I say, something ought to be done. ’F it comes to that, th’ wreath b’longs to us, as we presented it; you wrote the card yourself, —‘Condolences to the B’reaved Husband from th’ Surviving Sister an’ Niece.’ Dun’no’ but, ‘bout the easiest way would be to walk right in a git it; Emmeline Perch is forever gaddin’.”

“Mother!” protested the girl. “You wouldn’t!” But Mrs. Joshua merely tossed her head to imply that the expedient held no terrors for her. She represented a militant type that the more pliable nature of her daughter found difficult to understand.

“’Sh-sh!” she commanded. “Has Amanda quit snorin’?” They huddled together, breathless. “I wouldn’t have her ketch us for a new black silk.” Amanda kept them in suspense for some crucial moments and then resumed operations.

“Ah!” breathed Mrs. Joshua, “there she is at it again, like a fog-horn.”

“Of course we could buy in Aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate, mother; I’ve ‘been thinking of that right along.”

This suggestion was considered too feeble-minded by Mrs. Joshua to warrant an immediate reply. She sniffed contemptuously before defining her policy. “You was thinking that, was you? Well, no money of mine is going to help pay for a plush parlor set for Emmeline Perch. Your pore aunt Hitty has passed out o’ this mess; ’tain’t goin’ to do her no good, whoever gits her wreath an’ plate.

“This ought to be a terrible warning to girls,” continued Mrs. Joshua, who had only been waiting the psychological moment to introduce a moral. “Ira was possessed about Hitty when they was courting, and she ain’t real good an’ cold ’fore be up an’ marries, an’ lets that Emmeline Perch offer her wreath an’ plate for a dollar. Girls can’t be too careful ’bout the men they marry.”

Mehitabel’s mouth drooped as she turned from the searching glance. Three months before, she had given up Lemuel Ames at the instigation of this masterful parent, and this had been sufficient, the girl thought, to prevent a constant recurrence to the broken engagement in the light of a deliverance. Lemuel had been a clerk in a hardware store at Skipton Center for five years, which in itself would seem to confer a patent of “steadiness”—the quality primarily demanded by Mrs. Joshua in a son-in-law. But unfortunately for the. flowering of his romance, Lemuel had a sense of humor; or, as Mehitabel’s mother expressed it, “he talked comical,” which seemed a highly dangerous innovation to introduce into a family that had never had any shortcomings of this kind to its discredit. The girl had given him back his ring and the red plush photograph-album that had looked so well on the marble topped centre-table, and had resigned herself to the inevitable with never an outward sign. Lemuel’s disappointment took a reckless form. With the money he had been saving for the past three years to go to housekeeping, he bought a “fast horse” and buggy.

Rumor said he was “waiting on” a girl in New York, and Mehitabel would hide for hours behind the lace curtains in the sitting-room in the dread hope of seeing Lemuel drive past with her metropolitan rival; but he was always alone, driving his fast horse furiously.

“ Well, I dun’no’ as settin’ here gassin’s goin’ to git back your aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate any sooner,” Mrs. Joshua remarked, when the hope of beguiling her daughter into some confidence respecting her feelings for Lemuel had quite expended itself.

“I dun’no’ as it will,” assented Mehitabel, who craved the grateful darkness as a cover for possible tears. Mrs. Joshua awaited the next blast of slumber from the second-best bedroom, and under cover of its volley beat a hasty retreat.

About a week later, on a certain moonless evening that afforded ample scope for things clandestine, Mrs. Joshua, with a manner that hinted at nothing less than regicide, told her daughter to take off the white dress she was wearing and put on something black.

Their goal was the house of Ira and Emmeline Perch, his wife. Even in the darkness it was quite apparent to the seeing eye that a new order of things had been introduced by “Iry’s second.” The blinds were up and at a convivial angle. The bride and groom were spending the evening in the parlor; worse than this, Ira was smoking, a leg thrown across the arm of the best chair. The conspirators had some difficulty in restraining exclamations of horror as they peeped through the window, actual witnesses of this sacrilege.

“Mother!” exclaimed Mehitabel, in a whisper, “Aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate have gone!”

“It’s a wonder to me the house ain’t struck by lightning! What hev they got in its place?” inquired Mrs. Joshua, overcome with curiosity, indignation, and short-sightedness.

“ They hev got one of them lions with iron bars put over the glass to look like a cage—they be the very latest things in art, Mandy Mather says.”

“For the land’s sake! Well, you just watch ’em; somethin’s bound to happen’ as a judgment on such goin’s on.”

“She is makin’ a yoke out of ribbon an’ cat-stitchin’,” faithfully reported the lookout.

“Then she be still takin’ in dressmakin’ on the sly,” commented Mrs.

Joshua. “She’d never put an openwork yoke over that old scrag-neck o’ hern. What be your uncle Iry a-doin’?”

“He’s readin’ to her out of a paper—”

“He was always possessed to read out loud; nearly drove your aunt Hitty wild. Would come into the kitchen when she was tryin’ a cake with a straw an’ want to read her a piece out of the paper.”

“Emmeline Perch seems to like it,” commented the watch.

“She was always triflin’—-”

Some movement from within caused the lookout to give the alarm. “Here, mother, mind the step; Emmeline is folding up her sewin’; they’ll ketch us if we don’t hurry.”

“Well,” exclaimed Mrs. Joshua, when they had gained a place of safety and watched the shutters being fastened, “I’d never suppose that folks who kept house like that’d bother to fasten it nights.” She drew from the pocket of her petticoat a large iron key, which she displayed to her daughter in significant silence. Mehitabel shivered slightly and glanced toward the house opposite.

“Does it fit ?” she inquired, feebly.

“It b’longs to it; your aunt Hitty had a present’ment that something’d go wrong after she was taken, so she give me this key to kinder keep ’n eye on Iry.”

“Mother,” said Mehitabel, when some moments had passed, “you’re not goin’ into their house, be you?”

“Mehitabel, I just hate that white livered way you have of shiverin’ an’ askin’ questions; you git it from y’r father an’ not from the Bengers, that’s always had grit enough an’ some to lend. Yes, I be goin’ into that house to hunt for your aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate soon as I’m sure they’re asleep. If they’ve taken it out of the sittin’-room, it must be in the dinin’-room or the south chamber; ’tain’t likely they hev got it in their room to ha’nt ’em, is it?” Mrs. Joshua, like some vengeful allegorical figure, stood, key in hand, waiting to fall upon the house opposite.

The moon kept dark, the katydids shrilled, the night wind whispered of graveyard things. At length Mrs. Joshua arose and indicated her policy.

“You set where you be. If I want you, I’ll come to the door and beckon.” The allegorical figure sneaked across the road, opened the door, and entered the house with a courage worthy of her. late boasting. Mehitabel, crouching in the shadow of the hedge, shivered.

Mrs. Joshua felt her way along the hall and entered the lately defiled sitting room. The air was close and heavy with the fumes of Ira’s pipe and of the lamp, whose wick had not been turned down after it had been extinguished. These evidences of housekeeping entered into lightly and without due consideration had all the charms of a scandal to Ira’s sister-in-law once removed. She sniffed the bouquet of them, and drew a sleuthlike finger across various pieces of furniture, and was rewarded with dust. So keen was her enjoyment of these discoveries that she-had been in the house quite ten minutes before the primary object of her quest occurred to her.

“Well, I never!” she exclaimed, holding the scrap of candle close to the picture that served as an understudy to the late Mehitabel’s framed coffin-plate—a lion with iron bars across the glass to simulate a cage. “This may be the latest in art, as Mandy Mather says. Likewise it is the very latest in men. A lion in place of his pore wife that saved nigh on to two thousand dollars for him!”

Carefully shading her candle, she crept to the dining-room, but there was no trace of the wreath and plate. She was rewarded, however, by a private view of the uncleared supper-table in all the fulness of its barmecidal conviviality. She rummaged through cupboards and closets, growing more and more reckless as each nook and corner failed to produce the object of her quest. The south chamber yielded nothing more satisfactory than evidences of bad housekeeping, and Mrs. Joshua turned toward the kitchen with something akin to discouragement. But the wreath was not there, the only object of art being a soap advertisement representing a tramp joyously discovering a cake of the soap thus heralded. She was leaving the kitchen, when the temptation to see how the bride kept her tinware closet—always an object of pride with the late Mehitabel—overcame her. Opening the door, with her characteristic freedom of movement, the entire gamut of pots and pans, casually thrust there by the bride from time to time, crashed forward in one thunderous bang of orchestration. Mrs. Joshua was within a decade of the limit of the age of man, as defined by the psalmist, but a witness of her exit would not have believed this possible. The wretched Mehitabel, who had lost all count of time, dumbly waiting in the hedge opposite, sprang up as the pots and pans crashed fortissimo. A moment later her mother appeared at the door and began to canter down the road, brisk as a two-year-old. Mrs. Joshua never glanced toward the hedge where she had hidden her wait, but Mehitabel did not tarry for an invitation. She overtook her mother, and neck to neck they gained the lane that led to their own premises. “Couldn’t you find it?” breathlessly inquired the girl, as they gained the shelter of their own porch.

“D’you think I’d hev come away ’ithout it if I could? To hear you talk, any one’d think I went there a-visitin’. Rip them heliotrope bands off your black Chiny silk fust thing in the morning, and we’ll have Mandy Mather back to replace ’em with black an’ white, an’ I’ll find out where that wreath an’ plate have went.”

But Amanda Mather, oracle and seamstress, could throw no light on the missing wreath, though she felt keenly the ignominy of being unable to furnish the desired information.

At this turn of events Mrs. Joshua lost heart and began to feel the need of swamp root. All the Bengers had great faith in the remedy; the first Mrs. Ira had just finished her twenty-seventh bottle when called to her final account.

“Seems like I can’t sleep nights thinkin’ of your aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate decoratin’ some fash’nable New York parlor. Oh, don’t tell me; I know them townfolks; they be just crazy over things they buy ’round here.”

“Guess I’d better get you a dozen bottles of swamp root to begin with, mother.” Mehitabel, arrayed in Amanda’s latest creation, was about to walk the three miles to Skipton Center to invest in the family’s favorite remedy.

“An’, Hitty, don’t be s’ white-livered; ’f any one wants to give you a lift t’ Skipton Center, you just take it; otherwise you’ll hev to hev them twelve bottles of swamp root sent by express. I declare, trouble never comes singly; fust, ’twas your aunt Hitty that was took, an’ the week followin’ the gray mare that we’d had since before you was born.” Mrs. Joshua, in urging her daughter to avail herself of any courtesy of the road, was not without strategy. Hiram Pollock, though old enough to have been Mehitabel’s father, was a man after Mrs. Joshua’s own heart. Half an hour before, she had seen him driving his sedate mare—he had no fast horse—in the direction of Skipton Center, and she hoped that her daughter might encounter him in that mart of trade.

Mehitabel had accomplished half the journey, when she discovered, in the cloud of dust sweeping toward her from the adjacent hill, not Hiram of parental choice, but Lemuel of individual fancy—Lemuel, whom rumor had accredited with being in New York on an errand sentimental.

The rejected of Mrs. Joshua pulled up with a staccato jerk of the reins that added greatly to the drama of the situation, but there his inspiration as a hero and rejected lover stopped. He longed for the gift of gallant speech; but so inbred was the quality of New England self-restraint that he confined himself to “Good ev’nin’, Hitty; nice weather we’re havin’,” and this in quite the same tone that he would have said to a customer, “Did you say a pound of nails?”

Mehitabel answered in the same tone: “Good ev’nin’, Lem. Yes, ’tis a nice ev’nin’.” And yet to both of them the situation was not without the crucial element. “Heard you was in New York,” said Mehitabel, not without a terrifying sense of what this implied.

“Heard you wast’t,” he answered, in dashing village repartee; then, seeing the troubled look on her face at the equivocal nature of his reply, he added promptly: “No, I ain’t ben to Noo York, Hitty; Skipton Center’s good enough for me. Guess you’d better git in an’ let me drive you.” He made room for her on the seat as the first movement in a persuasive pantomime.

With a diabolical perversity, Mehitabel remembered the injunction of her mother: “Don’t be s’ white-livered; ’f any one wants to give you a lift to Skipton Center, you just take it.” The blood of the Biggeses, subservient so long to Benger rule, experienced a moment of potential freedom. Then this weaker element, unaccustomed to decisions of any kind, wavered, while the iron hand of the Benger prompted her to say, as she turned from her lover, “Well, I guess I must be goin’.”

“Well, I guess you must be goin’ to git right in here.” And Lemuel sprang from the buggy and plied her with a multitude of masterful attentions. It was this determined action on his part that settled matters. No Bigges could withstand the cloak and panoply of authority; it was merely a question of who was wearing them at the time. And Mehitabel stepped into the buggy and forgot everything in the joy of driving with Lemuel behind the “fast horse.” She confided that her errand was swamp root—a dozen bottles of it.

“’Bout how many does she calc’late to take when she feels real poorly, if she has twelve to begin with? I s’pose she does take it,—or does she bathe in it, or fill the cistern with it? Or mebbe she’s thinkin’ of settin’ up a swamp root-fountain in the front dooryard ’?”

“Lem!” protested Mehitabel; but it was delightful to hear his “comical” talk again. The trouble with her mother, she told him, was the missing wreath an’ plate—that Mrs. Joshua couldn’t sleep for thinking of Aunt Hitty’s emblem decorating the parlor of some fashionable and unfeeling New-Yorker, who had not even known her.

“She needn’t fret herself; Noo-Yorkers shy clear off from undertakers’ novelties. No; there’s nothin’ ‘quaint’ nor ‘picturesque’ ’bout a framed coffin-plate, and them’s the worms the early cottager is up huntin’.”

“Law-me-suz! Lem, you ought to see the stuff they buy; ’tain’t half so han’some’s Aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate.”

“Why, I sell them people goods every day in the week. Got a load of truck settin’ out in the yard this minute, waitin’ for a spell o’ rain to turn ’em into antiques, but there ain’t no sacred-to-the-memory goods among ’ern. Gee-ap!” he adjured the “fast horse.” “Why, a woman come into the store the other day— a real bon-ton,—and she asked what that old rusty anvil was we keep outside for a sign. She was wearin’ a consignment of veils, and she had a pair of specs fitted to a stick ’bout a foot long. That kind is so dead easy, makes you feel like you was robbin’ a poor-box. ‘That, miss,’ sez I, ‘is an antique that money couldn’t buy; it’s th’ identical anvil that George Washington used to shoe his own charger on the eve of Valley Forge.’ Well, she got th’ anvil an’ I got the cash; there’s still a little. trifle comin’ to her in the way of experience.”

“It don’t sound fair dealin’ to me.”

“Why, you can’t help them Noo Yorkers from holdin’ up themselves at the mention of an antique.”

“Lem, I be awful scairt to let you drive that swamp root an’ me back to mother,” Mehitabel confessed, as they stopped before the red and green lights of the Skipton Center apothecary.

“Don’t you fret; I got somethin’ that’ll make your mother digest me all right. You hold the lines an’ I’ll get the swamp root. Then I got to run up the street an’ go in the store for a minute.”

Mehitabel leisurely drove the fast horse from the apothecary’s to the hardware emporium where Lemuel was employed, and waited for him to join her. She had no suspicion as to the object of his errand, and when he reappeared with her aunt Mehitabel’s framed and wreathed coffin-plate, her conflicting emotions found tears their only expression.

“Heard ’bout it bein’ offered for sale, and knowin’ what a store you set on your aunt Hitty, I bought it in.”

“’S awful good of you, Lem, an’ I know mother’ll be real pleased. I ain’t a bit scairt to go hum with you now.”

Mrs. Joshua was rocking herself on the front porch, when she heard the sound of approaching hoofs. “Land’s sakes! but I didn’t think that old horse o’ Hi Pollock’s hed s’ much ginger.”

“Lem, I be too scairt. Lem, I be too scairt to go in.” The voice of Mehitabel could be heard wailing in the darkness; but Lemuel walked straight up the garden path, bearing the mortuary peace offering in his hand.

“Lem! Lem Ames!” Mrs. Joshua began; but seeing the wreath, her manner changed.

“Why, I take this real kind of you, Lemuel. Land’s sakes! look at the dirt on that frame! Hitty, stop shakin’ like a fool an’ go for a duster.”

Harper’s Monthly Magazine, 1905 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: That triple-plated person over at Haunted Ohio recently wrote about the many singular uses for coffin plates and sent Mrs Daffodil this whimsical, if painfully spelt New England dialect story about a prized coffin plate in a frame. There was, indeed a vogue at this time among smart city- dwellers for hunting rural antiquities, leading to many a weathered object sold for a relic of the Revolution. Coffin plates were prized for their associations with a deceased loved one and were frequently framed, sometimes with a dried funeral wreath or flowers made of family hair, possibly the origin of the expression, “Hair today; gone tomorrow.”

For more on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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

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


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:


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.

A Mourning Boudoir: 1889

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

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


The Latest Alleged Absurdity in Grief for Lamenting Widow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article about the “mourning boudoir,” along with a myriad of other items on the oddities of Victorian mourning will be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, which is now available. The book is a look at the popular manifestations and ephemera of Victorian death culture. In addition to mourning novelties, burial alive, strange funerals, ghost stories, bizarre deaths and petrified corpses may be taken as read.

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


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.