When you think about a brooch, you might think of your grandmother’s beautiful and intricate butterfly pin. Or maybe you’ve read about the various adornments that Queen Elizabeth II wears on special occasions.
But for people living in the Victorian era, something as simple as a brooch was weighted with meaning and heavily scrutinized by society. There were certain brooches for certain occasions, and one of those occasions was mourning. The New-York Historical installation Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry (now on view) features over 50 pieces of mourning jewelry, including several gorgeous brooches, many of which contain locks of human hair. Yes, that’s right, you heard correctly! During the Victorian Age, it was common for mourners to snip locks from the deceased before they were buried. Those locks of hair were then used for different types of jewelry, simple, yet elegantly braided creations that memorialized the dead.
Brooches themselves likely date back to the Bronze Age. But their curious place in the ritual of grief and mourning was secured in England around 1861, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died at the age of 42. Distraught, Victoria entered into a period of mourning that lasted the remainder of her life. Her intense ritualization of mourning spread throughout England and quickly made its way to the United States via newspapers and other publications. She also wore brooches made of her late husband’s hair to symbolize her mourning.
It’s important to note that mourning jewelry was primarily a custom of the monied classes. The brooches used for mourning were often opulent, using the finest stones and metals money could buy. Obviously, only the mercantile elite could afford such a luxury. Most families didn’t have the money to create customized jewelry or to take time off from factory work to isolate themselves during a mourning period.
But it’s also important to note that the opulence was governed by a strict set of rules. According to James Steven Curl’s book The Victorian Celebration of Death (1972), these included wearing heavy black wool, having women in mourning conceal their faces with arsenic laced veils, and refraining from engaging in social gatherings that included people outside of the immediate family. Widows had to go through what Dr. Sonia Bedikian, a former historian at New York University, defines as the three stages of mourning.
The first stage, known as full mourning, required widows to wear only black wool, regardless of the time of the year, for one year and a day. This stage also prohibited widows from leaving the house. They were not allowed to wear elaborate ornaments, which included most brooches. Because of this, we don’t see many brooches made that were designated for this period of mourning. When they were worn, they were mostly black with some pearls. According to Martha Fales’ book Jewelry in America (1995), other colors were not used until the second phase of mourning, which lasted nine months. Fales explains that popular women’s journals from the time instructed women to wear ornaments that were “simple and plain,” with muted colors like grey and purple. The final stage of mourning was more subdued. It lasted for six months and mourners were allowed to socialize and wear lighter colors again.
According to the Geological Institute of America, the most common materials to ornament brooches were onyx, pearls, dark tortoise shell, and black enamel. The brooch was a unique way to showcase mourning during the second and third stages of mourning, because it was worn directly above the heart. This placement symbolized the attachment that the mourning women had to the deceased.
Some brooches weren’t your “run of the mill” braid with pearl accents. Some were actually a bit wacky, but strangely beautiful. Take, for example, this brooch pictured to the right.
Dated between 1800 and 1830, it catches the eye because it includes a unique painting as well as the hair. Sometimes, New York’s wealthy mourners hired miniaturists to create tiny portraits to help them mourn. Miniaturists commonly added locks or strands of hair belonging to the deceased. This way, the mourner would have a stronger connection to the item.
The Victorians created a system to mourn and followed it vehemently. If anyone was found to be out of line with the stage of mourning they were in, it was not uncommon for them to be shunned by their friends and family. What makes this system of mourning so much more interesting is that it extended into the very clothes they wore and even what jewelry they put on. Losing a loved one is not ever easy, and mourning is something that everyone will have to experience at some point in time. What made the Victorians so unique is how they expressed these emotions. Something as simple as a brooch, when inspected more closely, can actually reveal some unspoken truths about these customs.
Check out New-York Historical’s installation Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry through May 10.
Written by Laura Ochoa Rincon, Marie Zimmerman Foundation intern