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
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.
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.
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.