Grief in Taffeta, Lace, and Jet
In this room we take a look at the complex mourning customs of Victorian Kent.
The red dress on the table in the middle of the room was made in the fall of 1875 for two-year old Susie Belle Watson. She died several months later on December 15, 1875. She was the oldest of five children of Wellington Watson and his wife Mary Jane Morehouse Watson. The Watson and Morehouse families were prosperous merchants and business partners in Kent for over fifty years. Of Wellington and Mary Jane’s remaining children, only two survived to adulthood. One died at birth and the fifth only lived to the age of six. 50% of all children did not survive beyond the age of 10. They died of small pox, diphtheria, scarlet fever or diarrhea. While these black dresses on display are not from the Watson or Morehouse families, they do demonstrate the way in which wealthy Kent residents expressed their grief through their mourning clothes.
At the other end of the grieving spectrum in Kent are the families who lost cherished loved ones during the Civil War. The town of Kent sacrificed at least ten men to that war during the devastating Battle of Cold Harbor. Their ages ranged from 17 to 54, and they all left behind wives, parents, and children. They were primarily farmers or iron workers, and their families undoubtedly could not afford the expensive mourning clothes that the Watson family could. But their customs were just as strong. The Camden (NJ) County Historical Society website suggests that they might have put their regular clothes in a black dyepot in the backyard. “The reason you did it outside was that black dye was very pungent smelling. The diary of one woman from Virginia in 1864 mentions that ‘the entire town smells of dyepots’.” Given the fact that almost all of Kent’s soldiers came from the working class, the air in Kent was no doubt filled with grief and the smell of dye in the days following the Battle of Cold Harbor.
No matter what their station in life, women were bound by strict mourning rules. The period of mourning lasted for two and a half years. For the first year and one day they were in full mourning, could wear only black, and were generally covered in yards of crape. For the next nine months, the secondary period of mourning, the crape could be reduced, and other fabrics incorporated, but still all black. After that, they could add in small touches of color, such as a white lace collar or a pink ribbon. Gray and purple were also accepted colors, and beads and bows could be incorporated. “Half mourning” was the final stage, in which considerably more subdued color could be added.
Given this long proscribed time, mothers who lost many children could conceivably spend decades dressed in black. Today we may wonder at this lengthy mourning period. We do not have to wash the body, prepare it, dress it, and place it in a coffin, and many times we are not present at the time of death. Perhaps our modern tradition of an undertaker removing the body to prepare it for burial allows us to feel enough removed from the visceral impact of death that our emotional recovery can be quicker.