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Not Lost But Gone Before: Mourning Jewelry

Walk through an old New England cemetery and you will see that death came early and often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Disease, childbirth, and the harsh environment all contributed to the high mortality rate. As a result, the specter of death was a persistent presence that permeated the lives of New Englanders. One way in which they coped with these constant losses was to memorialize their lost loved ones by wearing mourning jewelry.


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Mourning rings were the most common form of early mourning jewelry. They were given to family members and close friends and were usually paid for through the estate of the deceased. These rings ranged from plain gold bands to rings set with diamonds, pearls, and miniature portraits on ivory. However, while the elaborateness of mourning rings varied they were all inscribed with the name, date of death, and age of the deceased. Sometimes haunting epitaphs such as “not lost but gone before,” “we must submit,” and “we’re his last” were included not only to remind the wearer of the departed but of their own mortality as well.

Styles of mourning jewelry were heavily influenced by the current fashions. In the mid eighteenth century funeral rings reflected the popularity of the asymmetric Rococo aesthetic with scrolled enameled bands. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Americans embraced Republicanism and the Neoclassical style. Mourning jewelry featured symmetrical, geometric shapes influenced by classical architecture, symbols such as funerary urns and plinths, and weeping women dressed in ancient Roman-style costume. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century rings were still the most common form of mourning jewelry, but brooches and miniatures set in pendant settings gained favor. Often these pieces incorporated the hair of the deceased into their designs. Brooches featured woven plaits or cut curls and feathers of hair set in compartments under glass, while miniaturists would either glue hair onto the surface of the picture or grind it up and mix it with the paint.


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By the 1820s and 1830s jet, a black fossilized coal commonly found around the town of Whitby, England, became a popular material used in mourning jewelry. Gold rings, earrings, and brooches with foliate chasing and engraving frequently featured faceted jet beads set around compartments of hair. Jet and hair continued to be used in mourning jewelry until the end of the nineteenth century, particularly between the years 1861 and 1887 when Queen Victoria was in deep mourning for her beloved husband, Prince Albert.

The etiquette for mourning dress also became extremely elaborate and stringent during the Victorian era. The twenty-fifth edition of the Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture published in 1893 describes how the deepest mourning for a widow should last two years. During the first year of mourning only black wool was allowed without any trimmings or jewelry except for jet pins and buckles. Black silk with white collars and cuffs and jet jewelry was worn during the second period of mourning, which lasted six months. Gray, white, and violet were permitted during the last six months of mourning along with jewelry made of jet, gold, and other dark colored materials such as onyx, hair, and tortoiseshell.


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By the turn of the century the prevalence of cheap and easily manufactured imitation materials such as glass and plastic diluted the mourning jewelry market. People were also tired of drab mourning fashions, and the practice of rigorous mourning codes along with the use of mourning jewelry was largely abandoned in the early years of the twentieth century.

 



Mourning Ring
English or American, 1766
Gold, enamel, paste
Diam. ¾, W. ¼ in.
Gift of Mrs. John Binney and Miss Margaret S. Bush
1935.646
Inscription: “Z.LEONARD. OB: 23. APRIL. AC: 1766 AE 63 / H. LEONARD. OB: 23. APRIL. AC: 1766 AE 62”

This mourning ring memorializes the deaths of Zephaniah Leonard and his wife Hannah (King) Leonard of Raynham, Massachusetts, who died on the same day, April 23, 1766. The double band is an unusual design element, while, the scroll-shape, black enamel decoration, and the bezel-set coffin-shaped pastes over paper skeletons are all common features in mourning rings of the mid eighteenth century. The donors were direct descendants of the Leonards and family tradition states that the ring was given to the oldest daughter of the eldest son in each generation.

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Mourning Ring
London, England, 1822-1823
18 karat gold, enamel, pearls, jet, hair, glass
Diam. 3/16, W. ½ in.
Gift of Mrs. George S. Selfridge
1927.217
Inscription:
Outer band: “WILL. M THURSTON OB:25 AUG. 1822 AE 49”

This mourning ring, which commemorates the death of William Thurston (1772-1822), contains a full set of British hallmarks. Most British-made jewelry was exempt from hallmarking because the process of assaying and marking would damage the small articles. This exemption did not include mourning rings and after 1855 wedding rings were required to be hallmarked as well. The hallmarks on this ring include the London duty mark, a crown, and the number 18 for 18 karat gold, a leopard’s head, the date letter “g” for the year 1822-23, and an unidentified maker’s mark. The ring was either ordered directly from a London jewelry maker, or was purchased from an American silversmith or other retailer who imported blank mourning rings from London.

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Mourning Ring
United States or Europe, 1782
Gold, miniature painting on ivory, glass, hair
Diam. ¾, H. 1 1/8, W. 5/8 in.
Gift of Mrs. Reginald Allen
1977.21
Inscription: “Thomas / Roberts / obit / 24 May / 1782 / Aetatis / 25”

The marquise shape and use of miniature painting on ivory in mourning rings was popular during the late eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth century. These rings often featured scenes with classical symbols and motifs, including funerary urns, women in classical dress, and weeping willows. The miniaturist often incorporated the deceased’s hair into the design by either pasting it to the surface or mixing it up into the paint.

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These rings most likely belonged to the great aunt of the donor, Margaret Morton (Quincy) Greene (1806-1882), a daughter of Josiah Quincy for whom Boston’s Quincy Market is named. Ring 1977.22.2 is engraved with the initials and the year of death of Benjamin Daniel Greene (1793-1862), who Margaret married in 1826. Forget-me-nots set with pastes or diamonds and inlaid into a blue enamel background was a revival of a popular mourning jewelry design of the eighteenth century.

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Brooch and Earrings
United States or Europe, 1825-1840
Gold, jet, pearls, hair, glass
Earrings: L. 2 ¼, W. 7/8 in.
Brooch: H. ¾, W. 7/8, D. ¼ in.
Gift of the Stephen Phillips Memorial Charitable Trust for Historic Preservation
2006.44.9 a-c
Inscription:
Brooch: “J.H.D.”
Earring B: “R.W.D.”
Earring C: “B.W.D.”

The initials on this demi-parure are most likely for Rebecca W. Duncan (d. 1827), James H. Duncan, Jr. (1827-1858) and Benjamin W. Duncan (1829-1830) who were the three eldest children of James H. Duncan (1793-1860) and Mary (Willis) Duncan (1805-1888). Rebecca and Benjamin both died in infancy and this set was possibly made to commemorate their deaths. Each piece is also set with a different color braid of hair, faceted jet beads and seed pearls, which were a symbol of tears.

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Mourning Pendant
United States or Europe, 1793
Gold, enamel, miniature painting on ivory, hair, glass
H. 1 7/16, W. 1, D. ¼ in.
Gift of Miss Annie H. Thwing
1918.1254
Inscription: “WEL- / COME / ML / NOT / LOST / BUT / GONE / BEFORE”
Sampler
Mehitable Harris (1764-1793)
American, 1775
H. 7 5/8, W. 10 in.
Gift of Miss Annie H. Thwing
1935.409
Silhouette of Mehitable Jane (Harris) Livermore (1764-1793)
American, 1780-1793
Pencil on paper
H. 9 ½, W. 6 ½ in.
Gift of Miss Annie H. Thwing

The inscription on this mourning pendant, “not lost but gone before,” is both haunting and fitting since it memorializes Mehitable (Harris) Livermore who died in 1793 at the age of 28 years old. A book assembled by the donor on her family history includes a sampler sewn by Mehitable when she was eleven years old as well as a silhouette of her as young woman.

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Mourning Brooch
Unites States or Europe, c. 1848
Gold, enamel, hair, glass
H. 1 7/8, W. 1 3/8, L. 13/16 in.
Estate of Miss Ellen A. Robbins Stone
78.1918
Inscription:
Brooch: “H. G. Otis, / Died Octr. 28th 1848 / G. H. Otis, Died Octr. 24th 1848.”
Locket: “George H. Otis Died 1848”

This brooch commemorates the death of Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) and his grandson, George Harrison Otis (1836-1848) who died four days before his grandfather at the age of twelve. A single piece of mourning jewelry often commemorates the deaths of two or more individuals.

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Brooch
United States, 1864
Hair, gold
H. 2, W. 2 11/16, D. 3/8 in.
Gift of Miss Mary Eustis
1940.131
Inscription:
Front: “Julia”
Back: “Died Apl 22. 1864”

In the mid nineteenth century mourning jewelry styles changed dramatically. Brooches supplanted rings as the most popular form and hairwork jewelry was the new craze. Instead of setting a loved one’s hair under glass it was now used as the primary material. Hair was woven into a variety of forms and shapes and then set with gold or gold-filled mounts. One could either commission hair jewelry through a professional hairworker, or attempt to make it with a hair kit that could be purchased through periodicals such as Godey’s Lady’s Book.

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Earrings
United States or England, 1860-1880
Jet
L. 1 7/8, W. 7/8 in.
Gift of Miss Mary Frye
1938.415 a,b

According to the donor these earrings were originally owned by her grandmother, Mary Howard (Wildes) Chase (b. 1820). By the mid nineteenth century the size of jet jewelry increased. Pairs of bracelets, drop earrings, and chunky link necklaces were carved entirely of jet without the use of secondary materials such as gold or pearls. This fashion continued until the 1880s when the supply and demand for jet began to decrease. This decline was evident in the dramatic reduction of the number of workers in the town of Whitby, England, the worldwide center of jet production. In the early 1870s Whitby supported 1,500 workers; by the mid 1880s only 300 remained. The use of alternative materials, such as onyx, French jet, vulcanite, and gutta percha also contributed to the decline of jet.

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Necklace and Earrings
United States or Europe, 1860-1880
Onyx, gold, seed pearls
Necklace: L. 11 in.
Earrings: L. 1 ¼, W. 5/8 in.
Gift of Mr. Harold W. Parsons
1930.224-225 a,b

Mourning-style jewelry became so popular in the last decades of the nineteenth century that it was no longer necessary to be in mourning to wear it. According to the donor this set was worn by his grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth (Silsbee) Woodbury (1828-1904), in the early 1880s. Photographs and portraits from this time period show women wearing large jet, vulcanite, tortoiseshell and onyx jewelry like this set contrasting with brightly colored and patterned dresses.

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Necklace
United States or Europe, 1860-1880
Gutta percha
L. 17 ½ in.
Bequest of Dorothy S. F. M. Codman
1969.3012

Bracelet
United States or Europe, 1860-1880
Vulcanite
Diam. 2 ¼, 2 1/8 in.
Bequest of Amelia W. Little
1986.1506

The jewelry making industry was heavily influenced by the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution. One of the most dramatic was the development of synthetic materials. These man-made substances not only closely imitated natural materials like coral, jet, and tortoiseshell, but were much less expensive to produce and therefore were affordable to a larger segment of the population. Materials used to imitate jet jewelry were vulcanite, a hard rubber, and gutta percha, a latex derived from the sap of tropical trees.

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Comb
Tiffany & Co.
New York, New York, 1890-1910
Tortoiseshell, gold
H. 3 ½, W. 4 ½ in.
Gift of Mrs. E. Stuart Pratt
1969.505

According to the many etiquette books published during the Victorian era, tortoiseshell jewelry and accessories were appropriate to wear while one was in the half-mourning period. Tortoiseshell jewelry was actually made from the shell of the hawksbill turtle. It was most commonly used for hair combs until the mid nineteenth century when the advancement of lathe technology from foot power to steam allowed for a greater variety of forms. Pieces from the second half of the nineteenth century include necklaces, bracelets, brooches, earrings, cuff links, and watch chains often decorated with gold or silver piqué posé and piqué point inlay.

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Mourning Ring
Dattlebaum & Friedman
New York, NY, 1913
Gold, diamond, ruby
Diam. 13/16, W. 13/16 in.
Gift of Mrs. Winthrop Coffin
1940.281
Inscription:
Stamped: “D&F”
Engraved: “Died July 23 / 1913”

Mourning jewelry quickly went out of fashion after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. However, it is apparent from this Asian-style ring that jewelry retailers like Dattlebaum & Friedman of New York City, who operated from 1904-1950, which were still receiving orders for mourning jewelry as late as 1913. The firm, specialized in 10, 14 and 18 karat gold rings.

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Not Lost But Gone Before: Mourning Jewelry