Category Archives: American Civil War Museum

Field Report 1, American Civil War Museum

The American Civil War Museum was an incredibly useful trip in terms of putting our readings into perspective. After reading Aries’ arguments on the shift in Western attitudes, and about civil war mourning practices and attire, it was useful to see items up close and use them to interpret the attitudes and beliefs of the people who used them. It was illuminating to see details that weren’t covered in our readings, and to see major variations in their practices. I’ve chosen to focus on those variations in this field report.

It’s often found that one major issue with studying history is that it is incredibly easy to look at your subject in a vacuum. When we read about the southern mourning customs in antebellum and civil war eras, it’s easy to assume that the practices are universal among the people, and that the scholars whose readings we’re using have told us all the information we need to know. There were several items that I felt did a good job at bringing that point home, and they have been separated into categories below.

Japanese Influence in Mourning Accessories

One interesting item was the hand-painted fan, and it’s less colorful neighbor.  IMG_20160203_145508375

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After asking about their different appearances, wondering if the thicker material on the plain one was more durable, more expensive, just a different style, or simply from a different time period, our guide pointed me towards the recent popularization of Japanese imports. She suggested that the differences might have to do with the rising Japanese influence.  The carvings and flowers do seem reminiscent of Japanese folding fans, and it’s interesting that such an influence made its way into a largely “traditional” cultural experience.

The same influence can be seen on the two parasols, note the switch between a straight handle and the hooked handle. It’s only their handle that changed however, the wood is still a similar length, the color is still black, and they are both similarly thick.

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It would be interesting to look into this more and see if there are any other influences, or if they were just overplayed by the selection at the museum.

Varity in Mourning Clothing and Accessories

It was also interesting to see that the “half-mourning” clothing considered “gloomy” by one of our readings, was actually relatively average by today’s standards. The lilac print didn’t seem too morose, and the existence of a print was surprising. This was widely different than the images that had been conjured up of women in dark, solid hues of grey and purple, restricted in jewelry and color. I have to wonder if it was inappropriate to wear those colors outside of mourning, or if half-mourning clothing wasn’t very notable in a crowd of people.

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Hair jewelry also saw more variation than I had realized. I was disappointed that the mourning dress did not have the hair buttons I’d been expecting, but it reminded me that just because there is a practice within a culture, it doesn’t mean that you will see it applied to all examples. Hair necklaces, earrings, and décor might be seen all at the same point in time, but not simultaneously on every individual that had lost someone. I had to put that back into perspective.

Both of these instances did make me wonder if there were any differences in mourning jewelry or prints between classes. Obviously a fabric that cost $300 a yard was not available to everyone, but would a similar print have been considered appropriate for someone with less money? Did the restrictions become less suffocating when you were higher in society? Or was there a much greater degree of freedom than I was lead to believe.

Horse Hair and the Hair of the Living

The final major variation that I discovered through the artifacts at the museum was the expansion on hair in jewelry and decorations. It was well established by the time we reached this trip that hair jewelry was an interesting cultural norm that we no longer follow, but the use of horse hair in the note sent to a mother, or the necklace sent to a fiancé by her still-breathing beau, was not something we’d covered in the reading.

It was interesting to see the death of the individual transferred to the animal, considering it a part of them in a way and equal to a part of their own body. The same thing was witnessed with the tail of Jackson’s horse, which suffered a huge loss of hair after his rider’s death. It suggests that death might have been seen as a community affair not only because people were more accepting of it, or romanticizing the idea, but because the life of the individual has an almost contagious quality. It reminds me of the practice in slave culture which involves breaking the objects used by the deceased on their last day in order to “break the chain” of death. Unlike that, however, the chain that these people were taking parts of was life.

This could be further supported by the exchange of hair jewelry before death. Death wasn’t the part that was absolutely necessary for the jewelry, only the idea that it would one day be necessary to have a keepsake of a loved one.

 

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Mourning Jewelry: Hair Necklace

Upon first glance, this hair necklace is a modest piece of jewelry—what it lacks in iridescence, it makes up for it in novelty. The necklace is part of a jewelry set specially made by I.M. Bunting for his fiancée, Fannie. Closer inspection reveals that this necklace is simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary—very much like its greater purpose, lamenting loss and expressing love. I say “extraordinary” because the death of a loved one is an almost unbearable experience. Philippe Ariès, a renowned French historian, writes that the “transposition of life into eternity—death became the unaccepted separation.” As one can imagine, mourning is thus an exuberant ordeal. Yet, I suggest death as “ordinary” because it is unavoidable, and the elaborate mourning is pervasive during the Civil War period. This necklace embodies this all-consuming mourning. The worn edges of near the clasp suggest frequent wear and handling. This indicates a great level of attention devoted to the necklace. Either it was worn all the time, or the widower worn it at particular occasions then taken off to preserve this physical link to her fiancé. The crisscrossing woven pattern proclaims a certain order amidst chaotic emotions. Furthermore, it exhibits a living elegance due to the way it continuously wraps around and persists into the next oval. The structure of the ovals is airy, which relieves the severity and morbidity of the item. The weaving pattern combined with the hollow centers gives it a likeness to lanterns—commonly associated with light and hope. The human hair is presumably fragile, such that when fashioned into a memento such as this necklace, illustrates an endurance even after death. My personal speculation is that this “earthliness” and pragmatic appropriation of an actual part of the human body expresses a desire to disguise and improve upon, perhaps for the hair to become a “heavenly” item of adornment.

This hair work is in contrast of locks of hair kept in lockets. Hair made into jewelry are exposed and put on display, whereas locks of hair are preserved in small quantity, and put in the protection of a locket. In this way, the deceased in the former case is somewhat anonymous and public, but kept close to the living body (maybe even in contact with the skin when worn.) The latter, however, has an identity associated with it: the small picture portrait accompanying the hair. The locket insulates the hair from physical contact. This difference leads me to think that hair work in the form of jewelry is a silent declaration of a semblance of “living,” as opposed to the locket that demands distance and respect of a memory.

Field Report 1

There’s something to be said for healing.  At the very least, there’s something to be said for coping.

Losing a friend or a loved one can be an overwhelming experience.  The healing process, while different for every person, is rarely ever a short one.  It does not happen overnight, nor do we adjust to loss in the same way that we might embrace getting a job or moving to a new city.  Dealing with grief is a process, not a task.

No one knew long grieving practices better than mourners in Antebellum America, who mourned for years at a minimum following the death of a family member.  Women especially, dressed in black from head to toe, were expected to show outward signs of mourning through their entire wardrobe, from dresses to bonnets to hairclips.  An outward symbol of her sorrow, mourning clothes created a physical barrier between the woman and the rest of society.  The “closing-off” of the mourner gave them space to readjust to a life that was a little more independent, a little lonelier.

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This item, displayed at the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, is a ladies mourning hand fan from the late 1800’s.  It is plain, simply constructed from sheer black fabric and wood, decorated with an intricate floral design in bright colors.  Most likely plucked from a basket of nearly-identical black fans in a market, the flowers were probably painted on afterward by the purchaser and almost assuredly by a woman.  And while we may never know for sure who did the delicate painting, I like to think a grieving widow used the craft as part of her healing process.

For many, crafting can be a great method to keep your hands busy while simultaneously letting your mind wander.  In the Antebellum Period, the ability to create works of art, especially through sewing or painting, was seen as a softer, more feminine talent.  I can picture the sorrowful widow making careful brushstroke after brushstroke on the fan.  While she focuses on her art, she lets the methodical motion soothe her heartache as she struggles to move on.  As a constructive way to wade through her grief, the widow uses painting as a cathartic cleanse.

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Perhaps the cheery colors brought a bit of relief to her all black attire, or maybe she was transitioning from her initial mourning phase garments to more comfortable “half mourning” accessories.  I don’t, however, believe the fan itself is necessarily the most important piece to this puzzle, but the practice that personalized it.  The action in crafting, illustrated through the painted flowers on this fan, helped the mourner cope with loss in a healthy way and reconnect with society after a time of grieving.

Field Report #1: Mourning Coin Purse

Our class was given an inside look at the American Civil War Museum’s collection of mourning garb during the Victorian era. Among the elaborate pieces of various forms of hair jewelry, pieces of Varina Davis’s half-mourning outfit, and multiple black parasols, a single mourning coin purse, the length of my arm, stood out from all other artifacts. The black crocheted bag is comprised of a rounded side that is adorned with a simple silver beaded pattern and a square side encircled with multiple silver crosses. Each side has a beaded silver fringe on the edge while the slit at the center has two metal rings on either side.

In Western Attitudes toward Death, Ariès describes mourning traditions at the turn of the nineteenth century as “hysterical mourning”. There are no longer social restrictions on the grief displayed by the living after the death of a loved one. As a result, manufactured mourning goods increase in availability for women who whished to morn the death of their loved ones for the remainder of their lives. The mass production of black silk, cotton, crepe, and Henrietta cloth for mourning dresses, parasols, and veils occurred alongside the fabrication of black utilitarian coin purses.

The quotidian use of a coin purses juxtaposes the distinctive use of veils or hair jewelry after the death of a loved one. A widow would have continued to engage in mundane businesses, such as buying items, while submitting to her mourning process. The design of the mourning purse conveniently allows the woman to easily attach the purse to her body allowing it to lifelessly dangle alongside her. The metal fringes on either side of the purse would continually chime as the user went along with her day. These sounds mirror the act of ululation; while women were permitted to mourn excessively the purse personifies her strong, emotional grief. The black coin purse is an extension of the mourning woman, as it too appears to be in hysterical mourning. Everything a woman wore and used on a daily basis, such as a simple coin purse, is deliberately changed to allow her to entirely submit into her mourning process.

As the nineteenth century marks the emergence of hysterical mourning, women needed to make everyday items reflect their grief. While veils, hair jewelry, and dresses are decorative forms of mourning attire, this black coin purse shows that mourning items are an extension of a woman’s personal mourning process.

Mourning Coin Purse

 

Field Report #1

This hair necklace is composed of tightly woven strands of dark hair that are shaped to form bead-like elements to the piece. Each bead of hair is woven in a criss-cross pattern. Throughout the length of the necklace there sets of four smaller hair beads followed by a single large hair bead. The beads of hair are separated and adorned with gold accents. The gold aspects of the piece create a noticeable contrast compared to the dark woven hair. A pendant, a locket more specifically, hangs from the necklace. The golden locket opens up to a picture of a woman on one side and a man on the other. The inside of the locket is framed in a sort of whimsical textured gold. The necklace has an elegant feel to it, as if it were only to be worn for special occasions.

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The pictures in the locket add a sense of sympathy and longing to know more about the people represented. The jewelry works to connect the wearer to the person who hair is woven into the piece as well as the memory of those in the locket. The necklace is to be worn around the neck, close to the heart, therefore creating a closeness to the perhaps deceased loved one. Because this is classified as mourning jewelry, it is likely that the piece was used to remember and hold dear the memory of their loved one. The locket so beautifully framed indicates a special relationship between the couple in the photographs. The 3D shape of the hair beads may be indicative of the unbreakable bond of the couple even after death. This piece invokes attitudes of respect and longingness for the dead. The idea of getting a loved one’s hair woven into a piece of jewelry reveals one’s desire to have a piece of their life, a piece of what they left behind. Almost like a signature, hair serves as something that is personal and reflective of the deceased person’s appearance so one can look back on the necklace and reflect on that person. The photographs are also relevant to this idea of remember the person’s appearance. The locket can be opened to reveal the images of the intangible images of their loved one and then be comforted by the tangible reality of their actual hair woven throughout the necklace. Hair was an easy and inexpensive way to preserve and remember the dead.

Field Report 1: Mourning Oddities

Death and mourning in America during the 19th century was not a new occurrence, yet memorializing the deceased publicized a new tenacity due to the Civil War. The recent trip to Richmond, Virginia’s American Civil War Museum (aka: The Museum of the Confederacy) gave this group of budding scholars an opportunity to delve in the archives of the rare postmortem artifacts and memorial oddities by today’s standards and gather a new understanding of how death was processed and the unspoken rules associated with it. This was not an average field study with an articulating docent giving us a rehearsed spiel, but a scholarly interpretation from the archival curator of the museum that garnered our attention. These were historical artifacts that allowed us to use our deductive abilities by using our senses of sight and touch to garner a deeper understand that is not available by just reading a standardized description published in a catalog or monograph.

An aspect of history and artifact preservation or display that has long been one of my passions is the random oddities that rarely get placed in the display cases for general public consumption because of the extravagant worth placed on per square inch real estate value. Much of what we saw maintained little documentary value in the macro-scheme of the museum, yet in the micro these items revealed a story of what life was like for the living in a time when society was dwindling daily by the thousands because of the advancement of technology on the battlefield and not because of plagues or disease.

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One story that I wish to share through three artifacts was that of a general and his horse that died early in the war. If not for a few civilians and a soldier that saw a need to memorialize his story through tangible artifacts we would not have a deeper understanding of General Turner Ashby who led the 33rd Virginia Infantry or “Stonewall Brigade” and was mortally wounded on June 6, 1862 while leading his men on foot after his horse was shot out from under him during the Battle of Harrisonburg. As past precedence has shown, usually the men who die in a blaze of glory on the battlefield usually have a story told of their lives on a scale of grandeur, yet his story is told through a postmortem ambrotype while his eyes are closed and propped up in a chair to capture the essence of the man before he is placed to rest with the other deceased of the battle. What was the initiative behind such a photograph and how was it that a photographer was available at that time and place that allowed his image to be memorialized for future generations to study and in some cases memorialize his contribution to the war effort? Did the infantrymen who served under him have a fondness they wished to memorialize or was it to be sent back to his family in appreciation for his valiant service to the “cause”?

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In any case, the portrait is just the tip of the iceberg of his memorials. The general’s stead, Gallant Gray  donated aspects of his physical being that became showpieces of memorializing the General through a brooch and a horse hair spray of flowers. Through the horse’s death and battlefield acquisitions, people saw an opportunity to create both a piece of jewelry in the form of a brooch from one of the “decayed bones” and likewise used the hair from the same corpse found on the battlefield where he fell to weave a detailed spray of flowers and a detailed note of condolence. While the brooch is very non-descriptive, it was something that a civilian kept in their possession to memorialize the general indirectly, and the hair art was created as an ad hock memorandum of condolence and given to his mother with an attached letter of sympathy.

All three of the aforementioned Ashby mourning articles by today’s standards would be cryptic if recreated. Yet, in the latter part of the 19th century these were considered part of the normal mourning and memorial process that allowed the grieving solace when trying to move forward when such graphic death and destruction had become part of the day to day life in the war torn south. Is it possible that by investing time into something as simple as horse hair or bone jewelry from a horse cadaver the survivors found a deeper appreciation for the living, or was it just a physical memento of a time that they wish would be part of their past?