Before the 20th century and the development of modern medicine, death came early and often. Maladies considered minor today were scourges in 18th and 19th centuries. Disease combined with complications of childbirth and exposure to harsh elements led to a high mortality rate. One way people coped was to wear memorials of loved ones in the form of mourning jewelry.
The Henry Ford holds a comprehensive collection of mourning jewelry dating from the early 18th century through the late 19th century. Recently, we took the opportunity to examine and conserve a group of approximately forty pendants and brooches dating from the late 18th century to the early 19th century
Fashions and forms of mourning jewelry varied significantly over time. The earliest American mourning jewelry pieces were rings, created in the 17th and early 18th centuries, inscribed with the name and usually the age of the deceased. In many instances epitaphs such as "gone but not forgotten" were included. Later in the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, pendants and brooches vied for popularity with rings. These pendants are some of the most enigmatic examples of morning jewelry – they take form of pictorial miniatures, painted on ivory, meant to be worn or held as keepsakes with images of the dearly departed.
The images follow a standard formula, usually a landscape with a weeping figure standing in front of a monument with the name of the deceased, date of death and an epitaph, as in the rings. The figures are dressed in the Neoclassical fashions popular in the early days of the new Republic, when Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. These included design elements such as urns, plinths and geometric forms derived from Classical architecture. The figures were painted with sepia-colored ink, sometimes combined with dissolved human hair from the deceased. Backgrounds typically included landscapes featuring "weeping" willow trees and an inscribed monument to the deceased.
The pendant dedicated to Samuel Ralston, who died on 10 January 1795, might serve as a model mourning miniature – the front side shows the ubiquitous weeping woman holding a child by the hand. She mourns in front of a monument with a triangular top, surmounted by an urn. The monument base is inscribed, "How transient is human happyness [sic]." An angel floats in the sky above, carrying a scroll with the haunting epitaph, "Welcome to Bliss . . . . " The reverse side is equally revealing about the nature of these keepsakes. A glass-enclosed insert is filled with a woven snippet of the deceased's hair, another tangible remembrance. This was a common feature in many mourning pendants.
The use of hair as a keepsake reaches its peak in a pendant containing the hair of three members of the Potts family. This is an unusual example – the pictorial scene is absent, replaced with decorative and distinctively arranged samples of hair. From the inscriptions on the front, we know that the earliest was W.R. Potts, who died on 28 August 1779, at the tender age of 19 months. The second was Eliza. Potts, who died on 19 November 1787 at the age of 32. On the reverse is a woven section of hair from Benjamin Potts, a toddler, who died on 2 February 1797 at the age of 3 years, 11 months. The question is how were these people related? Were they several generations of the family?
The third example is perhaps the most enigmatic in our collection. The front of this unknown memorial is decorated in a typical landscape scene with two weeping figures in front of an urn-topped monument. An angel flutters in the sky, breaking up the epitaph, "Not Lost but Gone Before." Interestingly, a male figure is shown on the right, kneeling before a second monument. Who is this figure? The reverse image is extraordinary -- a detailed interior bedroom scene. We are viewing the deceased lying in a large poster-type bed next to a male figure holding a child. We can assume that his wife has died, leaving this gentleman with a motherless child. The interior is complete with windows, a decorative floor covering, rendered in an odd perspective, and a side chair supporting a coffin. The coffin is decorated with skulls, a motif intended to describe the transitory nature of life. What is the meaning of this scene? Was it to console, remind, or both? Is the figure on the front side a representation of the grieving father on the reverse? Perhaps. This piece raises questions about the individual who commissioned it and the rather ambitious artist who created it.
Mourning jewelry, especially those pieces with pictorial imagery, provides an insight into the trials of everyday life in the centuries before the advent of the modern world. It is difficult for us to imagine the level of mortality which led to the everyday use of such objects. To those who commissioned these mementos, they provided a tangible reminder of a beloved family member. Today, we view them as representations of a now vanished world.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
Over time, people have marked the deaths of their loved ones in many ways. One popular method in the 18th and 19th centuries was the wearing of mourning jewelry, which often incorporated the hair of the deceased. We’ve just added close to 50 more stunning examples of mourning jewelry and other memorial items to our digital collections, including the mourning brooch depicted here, a ring dating to 1716, and a doll’s coffin.