Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was established in 1868, shortly after the Civil War ended. It was a time for the re-united nation to mourn and remember the more than 600,000 people who had perished during the war. Veterans’ graves were decorated with flowers, hymns were sung and public officials made speeches.
Even before the staggering losses of the Civil War, Americans were no stranger to death and mourning. Communicable diseases and difficult living conditions meant that early death was very much present in the everyday experience of our ancestors. Out of this harsh reality, the sentimental tradition of mourning jewelry – jewelry that commemorates the dead – was born.
Photographs, paintings, poems and locks of hair belonging to the deceased were tucked into brooches, lockets, ring and bracelets to comfort those in mourning after the loss of a loved one.
This piece from our collection is a typical mourning brooch of the late 18th century, featuring a miniature scene of a woman weeping graveside, while an inscription on the reverse states “Charlotte Hunt, obt. 1 Jan’y 1791 at 9.” The brooch is of either English or American origin, and is rather understated and elegant.
Returning to the 1860s, we see mourning jewelry move away from these subtle personal mementos and become a loud public statement drawing attention to one’s bereavement. In 1861, Queen Victoria’s beloved husband Albert passed away, and for the rest of her life the Queen focused her energy on showing the world how sad she was through fashion.
Mourning jewels were, of course, a necessary part of these ensembles, and became all the rage with fashionable widows throughout the British Empire.
Across the Atlantic, Victoria’s highly stylized grief resonated with the war-weary public, and Americans gladly (sadly?) embraced the English fashion for elaborate mourning.
Above is another mourning brooch from our collection: this one is c.1860s, is huge and features a photograph of handsome gentleman. The center of the piece swivels around to reveal locks of hair (presumably belonging to afore mentioned handsome gentleman) and seed pearls in an artfully arranged pattern. This piece is also of American or English origin.
Mourning jewelry went out of style around the beginning of the 20th century, as grief became a more private affair. But, as our national day of remembrance approaches, these highly personal tokens of the past serve as tangible reminders of the hopes, struggles and sacrifices of those who came before us.