Manships in Mourning; Rituals of Death in the 1800s

Mourning display including photograph of the deceasedDeath was a fact of everyday life in the nineteenth century. Living conditions and the relatively unadvanced state of medicine led to high mortality rates. Raw sewage and garbage often contaminated water supplies, diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, and diphtheria were common, and childbirth could be fatal to mother and baby alike.

Charles Henry and Adaline Manship faced perhaps more than their fair share of death and mourning. Five of their fifteen children died in infancy. Their first two, Mary Rebecca and James Daley, each died before the age of two, as did the twins Harriet and Louisiana and a son, Boyd Montgomery.

"Mourning" to Victorians meant far more than a person's private, introspective grieving over a death. Instead, the term encompassed a whole social regimen of dress, behavior, home decoration, and memorialization of the deceased and was a very public affair.

Front doors and doorbell draped with crapeIn the nineteenth century, most people died at home surrounded by family and friends. Most funerals were held at home, too. Death was seen as a rite of passage into another world. Charles Henry died at home in 1895, and Adaline died in 1903.

When a death occurred, certain changes were made in the house to show the world the household was in mourning. The blinds were drawn and the shutters closed. A long strip or badge of heavy black crinkled fabric called crape was tied to the front door knocker or doorknob to notify passersby that a death had occurred. Entry doors, mantles, and picture frames were also draped with crape. Mirrors were covered with black fabric or turned to the wall. Superstition dictated that the next person to see his reflection would die. Clocks were stopped at the time of death to signify the family's need to take time out to honor their departed. The piano remained closed, and a somber air was sought.

Neighbors would bring food to the family in mourningAfter the body was prepared for the burial, it usually remained in the parlor in the coffin until the funeral was over. Elaborate floral displays, often including those made into symbolic shapes or spelling out the name of the deceased or a religious motto, became more and more common during the late 1800s. The news of a death spread rapidly through the community, and friends and neighbors came by to offer their condolence. They dressed in somber clothes and brought food for the grieving family. After the funeral, all crape and other changes were removed; no trace of death was to remain in the house. This was often accomplished while the bereaved family was at the gravesite for the burial.

The burden of following prescribed mourning etiquette fell mainly on women, who were considered responsible for the morality, respectability, and social status of the family. The details and complexity of these customs covered everything from social behavior and manner of dress to the exact width of the black border on stationery and calling cards for the various degrees of mourning.

Mirror on coatrack covered after a death, as superstition dictatedMourning dress set a person apart and signaled to all that the wearer had suffered a loss and should be treated with special consideration. Deep mourning dress was all black and devoid of decoration or shine. The garments were heavily trimmed with crape, the dull crinkly silk fabric, which quickly became discolored and unpleasant smelling. This caused deep mourning dress to be known as "widow's weeds." Even the accessories, such as shoes, umbrellas, gloves, and jewelry, had to be black and dull. The depth of mourning was determined by the closeness of the relationship to the deceased and the time elapsed since the death. For example, a woman might be in deep mourning dress for a full year or more following the loss of a child or husband, followed by another year in "half-mourning" in which a small amount of color, such as mauve, white, or gray, could be added to her wardrobe. It was not unusual for a widow to dress in mourning attire for the rest of her life. Young children were not usually put into mourning attire, and older girls usually wore solid white. Men did not wear elaborate mourning attire but showed their "bereavement" by eliminating shiny buttons and jewelry and adding a black crape hat band and arm band.

Mourning doveA large number of businesses and industries made a great deal of money supplying the wares necessary to properly observe mourning. In addition to the services and supplies provided by the "undertaker," both local establishments and mail order companies offered everything from mourning calling cards and stationery to personal accessories, textiles, and jewelry. A mourner could even send locks of the beloved deceased's hair through the mail and have them woven into jewelry, a watch fob, or an ornament for the home.

Manships in Mourning runs every fall at the Manship House Museum. Tours of the Manship House are free of charge, but reservations are required for groups of ten or more. For reservations or information please call 601-961-4724.

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