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.
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.
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.