I’ve been researching death and grieving in the early 1900s to inform the novel I’m currently writing. Death was no stranger. An article published by Berkley University, tells that just years earlier in 1830s London, England, life expectancy of middle to upper class males was 45 years. Tradesmen generally lived until 25 years, and labourers until 22 years. In working class families, 57% of children died by the age of five. With the prevalence of deaths, rituals shaped by grief helped mourners to cope with their losses.
Queen Victoria (1837-1901) set the tone for mourning practices when, for ten years following the death of her husband Prince Albert, she withdrew from public life. For nearly 40 years, she dressed in black. Through those years, servants laid out fresh clothes for the prince, and filled his shaving cup with hot water.
For 12 months plus one day, widows dressed in plain black dresses sewn from woolen fabrics and crape. Even her head would be covered by a widow’s cap. Black ribbon would be tied to her undergarments. After 1 year, she was permitted to wear silks in shades of lavender, mauve or violet. (In one source, I read that after two years, she could wear grey, white or purple.) Widows were forbidden from socializing for 28 months.
These practices continued through the Edwardian Era (1901-1910). During the first year of mourning, women wore their “widow’s weeds” which included a long black silk cloak, crape bonnet and veil, crape dress with plain muslin collar and broad cuffs.
Periods of women’s mourning were as follows: for a husband, 2 years; for a parent or child, 1 year; for a sibling, 6 months; for a grand-parent, 9 months; or an uncle, aunt, nephew or niece, 3 months; and for a cousin, 6 weeks. The same rules applied when women mourned their husband’s relations.
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