Mourning and Tea: How the Victorians Found Identity Through Grief

Photo: Mabel Ryan and Blanche Ryan in mourning clothes, taking tea in the garden, wearing mourning clothes, Melbourne 1897. Photo by Dudley Le Souef. Photo via fellowfrockery.tumblr.com

Victorian mourning, when done properly, seeped into every aspect of daily life, including teatime. During a period of great social and economic change, catalyzed by the Industrial Revolution, tea and mourning were two things that were able to unite the Victorian populace across every socioeconomic level.

“Tea crossed class lines, appearing at the humblest suppers and gracing the table of Queen Victoria, creating a universal English habit,” says Julie E. Fromer, author of A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England. As with the varying levels of tea taking, the practice of mourning took on different levels of extravagance depending on the social status of the person in mourning.

To mourn publicly in the Victorian Era was to mourn expensively. Wealthy widows, the lodestars of outlandish mourning rituals, could be expected to closely mimic Queen Victoria’s infamous mourning practices. A wealthy widow mourned her husband for a period of two years following his death. She would be outfitted in a monochromatic wardrobe of raven, drab and without an ounce of shine, otherwise known as “widows’ weeds,” during the first year of this period. This attire was coupled with a strict withdrawal from social frivolities. The second year of her mourning saw a gradual lightening of attire; the black dress was eventually replaced with eggplant, mauve, and dark grey fabrics. Yet even after her two dedicated years to outward mourning, a widow might continue to mourn her husband by hosting an annual dinner in honor of his death and memory, as Chris Woodyard details in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The poor widow, while not able to afford such displays of luxury, saw to it that she would not to be excluded from this cultural practice. This was of paramount importance: failing to mourn properly was taken to mean that her marriage was invalid. In the case that she could not afford an expensive mourning gown, the poor widow would have dyed one of the dresses she already owned. Such a dress would also come in handy for any future deaths she might be expected to mourn for, such as for one of her young children, an event that was as probable as it was tragic: half of all children born in the early nineteenth century would die before the age of 10, as Thomas W. Laqueur soberly reveals in The Work of the Dead.

In addition to attire, a myriad and plentitude of mourning objects were accessible on a variety of economic levels. Mourning stationary, mourning cigarettes, hair wreaths, and mourning rings, on the more expensive end, were objects used to signal a public display of grief. With the death of Prince Albert in 1861, these types of items became even more in-demand.

“The world of commerce was quick to recognize the money to be made from this unexpected and unprecedented run on all things funereal,” says historian Helen Rappaport, author of A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy. This economic foresight triggered a surge in British manufacturing. Mass production of every kind of ephemera to commemorate Prince Albert, including “plaques, busts, plates, handkerchiefs, [and] even special mourning tea sets,” commenced. As the production of mourning tea sets reveals, taking tea and thinking on death were two cultural practices that could be done simultaneously. The dead were never erased, for the Victorians. Their memory was kept alive through these mementos long after their bodies had been buried under the ground.

These two seemingly dissociate practices have made the Victorians’ legacy stand the test of time. Teatime is synonymous with British cultural identity and heritage, and as the Death Positivity movement gains traction in the U.K. and in the U.S., historians, death professionals, writers, and artists are looking to the Victorians for guidance when it comes to doing death ‘properly,’ and working through grief.

 

 

 

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