Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mourning 1800s

A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson, standing in for Debbie Lynn Costello

"I'm going to a mourning event this weekend ... wanna come?"
The Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion
St. Louis, Missouri

Not an invitation you hear often, eh? But a couple of years ago when I saw news of the event on the web site for the Chatillon-Demenil House in St. Louis, Missouri, I was intrigued. I'm always interested in historic mansions, but I'd never been to a "mourning event." I have, however, had to research mourning customs for many of my 19th century novelsI'm very glad I made the effort to go. The event was well planned and very informative. I found it fascinating.

Attendees were welcomed with the sign at the right placed on the wrought iron fence that borders the back of the property. Friends and fellow authors Judith Miller and Nancy Moser and I purchased our tickets and made our way up the sidewalk that ran alongside the house toward the front door. 

Each room of the house was dedicated to a certain aspect of Victorian mourning. First, we met a widow in the first stage of mourning (flat black crepe, full length veil). Then we moved into another room where a widow in the second stage of mourning (white collar and cuffs allowed, shorter veil) showed examples of mourning stationery and other ephemera. The dining room table was set with mourning china,
Mourning China
complete with a tray of funeral biscuits. In the upstairs hall, another mourner told us about one of the great enemies of children in the 19th century--diphtheria. In another room, a nurse shared some of the things she'd used to treat an ill patient and warned us of the importance of keeping a button on our person at all times, so that if a funeral procession happened to pass by, we could hold onto the button and keep Death from stalking us. "Mary Todd Lincoln" shared her experience with grief. Back on the main floor, the undertaker greeted us in the formal parlor. Each re-enactor seemed very well informed, and I learned something new from each one--and came home with a new appreciation for how different things were in the 1800s, when saying good-bye to loved ones was based in the home. 

Commercial bakeries often vied for the "funeral biscuit" business ... just as they competed for wedding cake orders. In some areas, biscuits were distributed at the funeral luncheon or supper. In other parts of the country, they were delivered to family and friends as a way of sharing the news of a loss. Printed memorials were sometimes used for the wrapping paper, the packages closed with black sealing wax.

The next time I have to kill off a character, I'll know more about how that would have affected the survivors--well, the wealthy survivors, anyway. The "middling folk" wouldn't have been able to participate in such elaborate ritual.

In 2013, we sometimes lament the commercialization of holidays. In the late 1800s, furniture makers, florists, printers, bakers, dressmakers, musicians, stone masons, tailors and more all created product to support an entire industry. Mourning was big business. There is nothing new under the sun.


Stephanie Grace Whitson celebrated her 20th anniversary as a published author in 2014. Her latest book, Daughter of the Regiment, is set in Missouri during the Civil War. Visit her at

“Whitson celebrates the strong but unknown heroines who marched off to war with their men, as well as those who maintained the home front in this Civil War-era inspirational...Based on true events, [Daughter of the Regiment] will capture the hearts of historical fiction fans.” —Publishers Weekly

Purchase Daughter of the Regiment where books are sold or online at


  1. That sounds like a fascinating place for a historical author to visit. I once saw a presentation of mourning attire. I have to say I like our modern day customs better.

    1. Me, too, Vickie. Although there is something to the idea of "signaling" others that you've just experienced a profound loss ... I remember wishing that people somehow people had known when I was mourning ... just to be a little more patient with me.

  2. Thank you, Stephanie. That sounds like a great idea, especially since I have never researched mourning customs.

    The photo looks like the cookies (biscuits) have the design on a cross on them. Is that icing? Do you know if that was the usual?

    1. I don't know about the crosses on the cookies. That's an excellent question. The recipes I've read don't mention the symbol.

  3. What an interesting post, Stephanie! I'd not heard of the "funeral biscuits."

    1. Thanks ... I hadn't heard of them either. We learned a lot at this event.

  4. I am fascinated by the Morning China. I wonder if that is a different set for each different death or was it one set to a family? I'd be sure to wear something with a button so I could hold on to it when a funeral procession goes by so I could be protected from death. Thanks for your post. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com