In Jewelry Remembered: Fashion as a Mourning Ritual

Collections managers deal with a wide array of objects. Sometimes those objects can be quite odd and even a bit gross to the modern person.  One object that has always fascinated me is mourning jewelry and the hair of the deceased that jewelry contains.  Not many people nowadays think of collecting loved ones hair to keep in a locket or to weave into bracelets, but this was a widespread practice and even quite fashionable a relatively short time ago.  While perhaps odd to us today, mourning jewelry gives us a glimpse into rituals surrounding the dead and grieving at a time when death was a more prominent and ubiquitous part of life.

The evolution of mourning jewelry began around the Middle Ages as part of the growth of Christian ideas on mortality and redemption called Memento Mori. These ideas found their way into literature, art, and even fashion.  Memento Mori jewelry reminded the wearer of their own mortality. These pieces, usually rings, incorporated macabre imagery like skulls, skeletons and coffins to create strong visual reminders of the transient nature of earthly life.

It was not until the 17th century that the Memento Mori jewelry developed into what we know as mourning or memorial jewelry.  The imagery remained similar but the symbolism became more personal and served as a sentimental remembrance of a specific individual, instead of one’s own mortality.  Engraved names, dates of death and age of the deceased appeared on pieces.  Bereaved family presented these ornaments to friends and family as memorial to the individual.  They became a status symbol and many wealthy people actually included instructions of how the jewelry would be designed, and made in their will. For example, George Washington declared in his will: “To my Sisters in law Hannah Washington & Mildred Washington; to my friends Eleanor Stuart, Hannah Washington of Fairfield, and Elizabeth Washington of Hayfield, I give, each, a mourning Ring of the value of one hundred dollars. These bequests are not made for the intrinsic value of them, but as mementos of my esteem & regard.”

GW Brooch 1

The oval-shaped brooch above bears the 1798 Saint Memin likeness of George Washington in profile and dates from around 1799. The image is surrounded by gold and blue enamel and is under convex glass.  The brooch is trimmed by forty-four seed pearls.

GW Brooch 3

The back of the brooch contains a plait of brownish-red hair under glass along with a pin fastening.  Tradition says the hair is General Washington’s cut after his death and sent from Mount Vernon by Martha to Mrs. R.B. Lee of the Sully Plantation, Fairfax Co., Virginia in December 1799.

By the time Washington died, mourning jewelry had evolved with changing attitudes toward death and with a greater focus on sentiment.  The style changed to represent the lighter rococo styles and later Neo-classical designs became popular.  The skulls and coffins were replaced by sepia-toned women dressed in billowing robes lamenting at a tomb, inscribed urns, and weeping willow trees in bucolic landscapes.  Many rings and brooches were lined with pearls to represent tears and included a simple twist of the deceased’s hair.

GW Locket Brooch

The octagonal locket dates from between 1800 to 1825 and has been turned into a brooch. The lock of hair, believed to be that of George Washington, is tied in a figure eight type knot and rests on a mat of woven hair. The lock of hair was supposedly given to Captain Robert Smith who knew and served with George during the war. After Captain Smith lost his wife, he went to visit the Washingtons at Mount Vernon and became friends with Nelly Custis, who gave him this lock of her great-grandfather’s hair. When Captain Smith died, he willed the pendant to his cousin and it passed through the Smith family until donated by a relative to The George Washington Foundation in 1925.

The decorative twist of a loved ones hair for memorial purposes was not new, but it did come into greater use in the 18th century and peaked during the Victorian era.  Hair is one of the few personal mementos people could keep from a loved one.  Human hair contains keratin which is fairly resistant to decomposition particularly when kept in a sealed environment.   The permanence of hair and memory is best summed up with a quote from a journal article of the time discussing female beauty, “Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials; and survives us, like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or a friend, we may almost look up to heaven, and compare notes with the angelic nature; may almost say, “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.’” (Page 76)

Much Brooch 1

This traditional mourning brooch dates from 1790 to 1810. It contains many neoclassical imagery typical of the time including the weeping woman in classical dress sitting by a tomb, a willow tree, and a ceremonial urn carving. It is inscribed “Much Lov’d, Much Mourn’d”and is painted on ivory encased in a copper mount. The back contains a braid of brownish-blond hair under a glass cover.

Much Brooch 2

In the 19th century the use of more elaborate hair work became increasingly popular. The Victorians developed a strict etiquette for mourning rituals and dress.  The stages specified different colors, fabrics and even jewelry at different times during the mourning period, the length of which varied depending on the mourner’s relationship to the deceased.  Mourning jewelry made of hair was allowed during the second stage (usually about a year into the mourning ritual) creating a rise in not only unique hair jewelry but do-it-yourself guides to making pieces with loved one’s hair.

Memorial jewelry and hair work began to wane at the turn of the 20th century and now these pieces have become curios, often found in antique shops and museum storage collecting dust on shelfs.   Sadly, most of the pieces have no information relating to who they were made for or the names of the mourned. Instead, we are left with an unidentified plait of hair or gold band symbolizing the only piece left from the life of a loved individual.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager