Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Mourning Jewellery

Nuala Doherty
M.St student, Pitt Rivers Museum.

Mourning jewellery first became very popular with the passing of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. Victoria was so devastated by his death, she dressed in mourning clothes for the remainder of her life. The emergence of jet jewellery, in particular, came from its royal endorsement. It was Victoria's material of choice and therefore it helped to fuel the expansion of the jet industry in the 1800s. Jet has been described as a 'black form of brown coal', formed from the wood of a tree growing 135 million years ago. The finest, or at least most highly regarded, comes from Whitby, Yorkshire, where it has been mined and swept ashore there for centuries. In fact, many of the pieces within the Pitt Rivers Museum collection are actually from Whitby. (See Alison Petch: Biography of Mourning Jewellery: Jet).

Victorian widows were expected to mourn their husbands for at least 2 years, but only after the first year was jewellery permitted. Mourning jewellery serves 3 main functions:

  • It was an outward manifestation that the person had not been forgotten.
  • It was a 'memento mori' - a reminder to the living of the inevitability of death
  • It was a status symbol.

As I have mentioned, jet had a royal endorsement from Queen Victoria. Jet was also very expensive to buy, thus it was often worn as a sign of wealth, social position and status as much as a public display of grief. Alfred Gell, an anthropologist who wrote a lot about material culture, said that objects merge with people by virtue of the existence of social relations between persons and things, but also between persons and persons via things (1998:12). In other words, if you wore jet in public, you were letting others around you know that you had money, that you could afford it.

Llewellyn, another theorist writing about material culture, has stated that Victorian mourning was marked by the wearing of costume in order to convey social status and rank. However an interesting point raised by Llewellyn is that this meant that there was a transfer of emphasis in this respect- from the body of the deceased to the social body of those in mourning (cited in Hallam and Hockey 2001:69). This happened to such an extent that many middle and lower class women went to great lengths to appear fashionable in times of mourning, for example dying their clothes black and bleaching them so they could be worn again, and also the wearing of glass jewellery which resembled jet. Social identity was expressed through connections with certain material objects. Clothing and jewellery, just like today, carried signs of social status.

We may think that people today do not act in such a way at funerals. For example, Mercedes limos and dressing well tend to be regarded as 'signs of respect'. This spawns from the idea that funerals are not the place to be materialistic. However it is possible to find evidence sometimes of symbols of status at funerals. Issues such as where to host the afters, what kind of food to serve, whether or not there should be a free bar - these things can carry messages to people and convey status too, so perhaps we are not as unlike the Victorians today as we might like to think.

Death acts as a deep incentive to remember, and memory making is often done through material objects (Hallam and Hockey 2001:3). If material objects can generate emotional responses, then they possess a certain amount of power, or agency as Gell, the anthropologist mentioned above, would have called it. According to Hallam and Hockey, who have written a book about the material objects we associate with death, "Material culture mediates our relationship with death and the dead. Objects..call to mind the deaths of others and remind us of our own mortality. In many instances, death is provided with a visibility through material culture". Objects can be understood as external cultural forms that sustain internal forms of thoughts and images. In Victorian times, jewellery could register, on the surface of the living body, the internal sensations of loss, regret and longing. Their capacity to physically endure time may explain the values assigned to them (2001:49).

Here in the Pitt Rivers Museum, these objects engage with the visitor, the hair jewellery in particular tends to provoke a reaction.
(See Alison Petch: Mourning ornaments made from a dead person's hair).

To take a quote from Batchen's book "Forget Me Not" (2004:75), a lady says that hair jewellery "allows me to believe that what is missing is present all the same, even though I know it is not the case". In this respect, the objects are both defying logic and giving comfort. There is quite a nice description of hair jewellery in the Godey's Lady's Book of December 1850, which says, "Hair is the most delicate and lasting of our materials, and survives us, like love. With a lock of hair we may almost look up to Heaven and almost say, I have a piece of thee here"(www.ancestry.com). The jewellery is almost transcending the worlds of the living and the dead. Hair jewellery has a strong capacity to trigger emotions, mixed as they may be. Today, for example, they may be seen as shocking, upsetting, even disturbing. Their meanings have shifted, and we must be aware of these shifting meanings as they move across cultures and time. For example, this jewellery was once an intimate reminder of a person and an outward symbol of grief. It was like a family heirloom, helping to maintain ties with a familial past or a deceased relative. Now they are museum artifacts, still maintaining ties with the past and possibly with the present too. For instance, a museum visitor could see the jewellery and be reminded of a death within their own family.

They have had varied uses at different stages in their 'social lives', or their 'biography' (Kopytoff, cited in Appadurai 1986). They have been recontextualised and given new meanings. Perhaps a question we could ask ourselves is whether we engage with them properly when we see them behind glass in a museum. As I have said, the jewellery may provoke a reaction, it could be disconcerting to some and strange and unusual to others, but are we perhaps missing out on the physical intimacy of touch? This is part of the reason the Victorians created them, to be physically close to their loved one, so this may be a limitation of the museum experience. Sight is generally understood as a primary sensual means to generate and maintain memories. The anthropologist Stewart has claimed that museums can be regarded as 'empires of sight', because they are full of material objects reserved only for visual appreciation. This goes against hair jewellery, however, which was made with the intention of not only being seen, but touched as well. (See Alison Petch: Morning Ornaments made from a dead person's hair). Other senses, not just sight, were very important to the Victorians. Memory was sensory, and was very much associated with touching and smelling as well as seeing. Objects not only represented, but consisted of the person to whom it belonged. It was almost like having a stand-in for the body of the missing. The body remained somewhat present as an intimate souvenir. To quote Laquer, hair became "the real standing for the symbolic, long-lasting...a bit of a person that lives eerily on as a souvenir" (quoted in Batchen 2004:65).

The physical durability of hair stood against the instability of the fleshy body (Hallam and Hockey 2001:136). In this sense, it could act as a material figure for continuity and memory. It could carry family memory over generations. It was generally retrieved at the point of death, but sometimes it was taken beforehand. For example, Civil War soldiers in America would often cut a lock of their hair and give it to their spouse before going into battle. It is interesting that material that was regarded as 'dead' when the person was alive is transformed into a 'living' substance after death (Hallam and Hockey 2001:136). It was capable of keeping the deceased in close proximity to the bereaved, creating a private bond through touch when worn against the body. (See Alison Petch 1949.10.41). Batchen has called it an "insurance against separation" (2004:75). Hair jewellery could signify love, death or both. Different hairs could be woven together (See Alison Petch 1928.15.2), as a symbol of love and togetherness in Heaven.

As I have already mentioned, hair jewellery today may be seen as shocking or morbid to the museum visitor. However these objects must be placed within their cultural context, as experiences and practices can change over time. Death was viewed quite differently by the Victorians than it is today. The living and the dead were not as segregated as they are now, though they were becoming so. Many Victorians believed that the spirit of the dead person could still occupy the space of the living for a time. In England today, the arenas of the living and the dead are quite separate, for example after death the corpse is very often taken to a funeral home. This is quite different from other countries, even those nearby. For example in Ireland, where I come from, it is very common for the body to be brought back to the home of the deceased and laid out in a bedroom or living room. There is generally an open casket, and the neighbourhood will often gather in the house and come to say their goodbyes to the person first-hand. Very often, the body will be touched as people will kiss the face, stroke the hair or hold the hand of the deceased. This is what we may call cross-cultural variation, even between two countries that are so close to each other geographically.

For the Victorians, there was not so much mystery surrounding death. Of course, early death was a lot more common than it is now, for various reasons including the outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, as well as high rates of infant mortality and warfare. Victorian mourning jewellery can be regarded as the epitome of a memory object. They stand as a material reminder of the person, but they were also a medium through which the dead and the living could communicate.

Further reading

Batchen, G. 2004. Forget Me Not. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency. Oxford University Press.
Hallam, E and Hockey, J. 2001. Death, Memory and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg.
Kopytoff, I.The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditisation as Process. In Appadurai, A. 1986. The Social Life of Things. Cambridge University Press.



 Death Objects  

The Pitt Rivers Museum has many objects in it's collections that are related to the subject of death from all over the world, including England. Some of these are discussed in tthe following articles.


Birth and death are the only certainties for all humans, and every culture has had customs and practices associated with burials and with the mourning of family and friends. Many of the English items in the Pitt Rivers Museum in this category come from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when there was a very strong interest in the customs associated with death and mourning. It is said that this interest was fostered by Queen Victoria's response to the death of her husband, Albert, in 1861. She wore mourning for the rest of her long life. Victorian society, at least from the 21st century perspective, appears to have been excessively governed by formal rules of etiquette. This was as true for matters relating to death as with all other areas of social life.

Attitudes to death in England have changed considerably since Victorian times. Where once it was commonplace and acceptable to wear ornaments made from the enduring parts of relatives' corpses (that is, hair) it has come to seem unsavoury. We have now generally become more squeamish about death, we are much less likely to view the bodies of even close relatives once they are dead. At one time, it would have been expected that neighbours and friends, as well as relatives, would have visited the corpse before interment.

All cultural values are relative and shift over time and space, but in relation to death some of these values have changed greatly over relatively small periods of time, or short distances. Even today, for example, the relationship the English have with the dead is different from that experienced in Scotland or Ireland. The following web pages examine only those practices and artefacts relating to death in and from England.