Posts Tagged ‘Victorian mourning jewerly’

Today we welcome Natalie Zaman.

Natalie Zaman is the co-author of Sirenz (out now) and Sirenz Back In Fashion (2012)  with Charlotte Bennardo.  Her work has appeared in various magazines, newspapers, e-zines and anthologies for adults and children. She’s currently plotting disasters for the characters of Sirenz and working on a Victorian steampunk fantasy for teens. Natalie lives in central New Jersey with her family and several fine looking chickens.

The Mourning After

by Natalie Zaman

The thing that drew me to attempt to try writing Steampunk—or, considering my MS, Steampunk-lite ;)—was its Victorian sensibility. There’s something about 19th century life, minus the cholera, questionable standards of cleanliness, mortality rate…

Our forebears who lived in the previous-previous century were more closely connected to death than we are today—in ways that can seem, well, almost morbid. And they’ve left lots of fascinating clues to that connection in their ephemera and trinkets and clothing and customs. If loss is a part of your WIP, consider incorporating some details of Victorian mourning into your story to bring in a romantically dark aesthetic. Here are three of my favorites…


Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials, and survives us, like love.– Godely’s Lady’s Book, 1855

The good folks at Godely’s were quite right—hair lasts. And the Victorians, those sentimentalists, took it to heart. Another thing about hair—just about everyone had some (apologies to those with bare heads!). Not everyone could afford the more elaborate trappings of mourning, but hair weaving was a skill that anyone could master. For some it became an amusing parlor art, but for others, it was a means to pay tribute to a loved one.

Hair could be incorporated into jewelry—in the form of watch chains fabricated from lengthy braids…

An intricately braided watch chain made of human hair. Photo credit, sonnetofthemoon, flickr

… or plaits and portraits preserved under glass…

This image is made completely of human hair. The artist clipped the hair into tiny pieces and painted the picture with it

Hair could also be used to create larger, three dimensional pictures…

Mourning wreathes were usually horseshoe shaped (open to heaven). Flowers were formed by wrapping hair around wires and then shaping them into flowers and leaves. These often represented families rather than one single person. New elements were added to the wreath as people passed away

It’s important to note that not all hair jewelry and/or art was specific to mourning. I remember being showed a school-girl’s journal at an antique store with a section devoted to hair weavings for each of her friends, her remembrances of them. Sometimes large scale hair sculptures could be representative of communities or families with new elements being added with each new addition, rather than exit; births, marriages and adoptions.


Victorians were masters of the accessory. Just as they had specific attire for funerals and mourning, they had appropriate jewelry to compliment those shadowy suits and gowns. While some of the jewelry was certainly black—not all of it was. Symbolism was far more important in mourning jewelry than it being made out of black material—the most common being jet or the more affordable gutta percha (a natural form of rubber) or vulcanite—a substance created by the Goodyear company.

A brooch made of vulcanite. This material made it possible for jewelry to be massed produced. There are material tests that can be done on jewelry to determine whether it’s jet or vulcanite (as in tests for Bakelite)—but if a piece looks like it was molded rather than carved, it’s probably vulcanite.

Jewelry paid homage to the life of the person who passed. The story of their life and profession or vocation was told through symbols—and they weren’t always the associations that we have today…

Far from being a symbol of deception or evil, the snake was considered a symbol of eternity—all things considered, this could be quite comforting. But the sentiment transcended mourning. Snake jewelry could also be a love token. Prince Albert gave Victoria a snake engagement ring!


Post Mortem Photography.

Do you remember the film, The Others? Grace Stewart, played by Nicole Kidman stumbles upon a photo album that both disturbs and fascinates her—all of the pictures are of dead people. Not everyone could afford a painted portrait of a loved one. Photography made it possible for more people to keep images of those who were important to them. But this was an age where the mortality rate was high and disease could carry off anyone—old, young, generally healthy or otherwise—at any given time. Sometimes the post mortem photograph would be the only image a family would have of their loved one, especially if the person was young.

Mourning photos weren’t only taken of the dead—but those who mourned them. Sometimes the mourners would be captured with their loved ones, lying beside them or holding them. Or they would be alone, as in this image

Post mortem images can be beautiful, haunting, and let’s be honest—disturbing. Still, once viewed, it stays in the mind, a memory veiled with the mercurial haze of an old tintype. What would your character say or think if he was holding one of these in his hands?

Victorian Mourning Resources…

(Mourning art and jewelry) http://artofmourning.wordpress.com/

(Jet and Jet Jewerly) http://www.whitbyjet.co.uk/

(Hairwork) http://www.victorianhairartists.com/

(Post Mortem Photographs) http://burnspress.com/

(Post Mortem Photographs) http://thanatos.net/

(Victorian Rituals—mourning and otherwise) http://home.kendra.com/victorianrituals/vic2.htm

~Natalie Zaman


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