Mementos of Mourning – The Quintessential Folk Art

Mementos of Mourning - The Quintessential Folk Art

Mementos of Mourning – The Quintessential Folk Art

By Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell
“The Halloween Queen®”

Mementos of Mourning - The Quintessential Folk Art

Lyre-shaped hair work sculpture with hair work flowers made from thirteen family members, circa 1870.

Remember me. Memory is so sweet and to cling to a fragment of someone dear and integrating a part of them with other family members was a way to ensure that their memory remained bright. A lock of a lovers hair in a broach, the tress of a beloved deceased wife as a watch fob holding the watch which ticked away the passing of time a loved one had been gone, a dome on the mantel combining the hair of many, a family registry, a mourning card or photograph, these are some of the beautiful works of art that have survived the ravages of the grim reaper. Often we do not know who these treasures belonged to, but when we do have the provenance, it adds another dimension to the social history of this multifaceted custom which has left us such a wealth of art and folk art.

Under Glass by John Whitenight (Schiffer Publishing) offers an excellent view into some of the finer examples of Memento Mori. In this tome, you will see some of the rarer and more unusual pieces that seldom are found in even the best of museums and collections. Most are under domes and we are pleased to be able to use some of these examples in this article courtesy of Mr. Whitenight and Schiffer Publishing.


It is always edifying to see an art form through the eyes of a collector; especially one with such a basis in art history. The framed hair pieces and jewelry are the most common examples, but the globes (especially those with provenance) are rare. The examples in Under Glass are spectacular. Many museums boast owning one or two hair items, but rarely anything historical. Castle Halloween Museum has a vast and elaborate collection of them on exhibit. Almost all examples are American and New England where the plethora of these items were produced. Mr. Whitenight shows many of the rare French and English examples in his well illustrated book.

Often Memento Mori is viewed as Americana but it did not begin here and is certainly found in many countries. Also, the form it takes is not always hair. Carved tombstone clocks, death masks, wax and marble likenesses, paintings and drawings, needlework, die cuts, beaded work; the list is vast and they are reminders that we all must die but our memory can be less cold than a mausoleum and can be something for others to live with and enjoy, not only as art but as a gentle reminder of someone who once was important to those about them.

During the influenza epidemic in 1918, when hundreds of thousands of people died, some people took anything perishable like pillows, clothing and hair mementos and burnt them fearing they carried the influenza. Many wonderful items were destroyed for no reason except uneducated fear and misinformation.

A lock of hair taken from someone over a hundred years ago is just a lock of hair or is it? Who did it belong to? Why was it kept? What is the story behind this once living thing that was part of a living breathing person, who lived and died and yet wanted to be remembered and cherished by family and friends? Sometimes it was a special someone. A beloved individual as a token of a love in life and sometimes it was kept as a reminder of someone who passed and one wanted to cling to and keep as close as possible even in death. Why are these treasures of the past so important to us today? At Castle Halloween Museum there is a plain deep frame with an obituary of Noonia Simonian. Displayed with it is a long braid of hair and a white silk scarf. Not unusual in itself, but the scarf was her wedding scarf and the scarf she wore when she was sent on the death march to Aksor where hundreds of thousands of Armenians were put to death. She escaped and it is her blood that stains the scarf or perhaps it is the blood of her little girl that died of starvation in her arms. Sometimes provenance is everything. The true story makes it alive and worth remembering.

Antiques are artifacts of history. They are not only the history of a person, but the social history of the era they lived in. Without them it is as if we try building an edifice with no foundation or roof and then forget to add in windows and doors. We who collect antiques are the guardians of the past. We build a structure that will last because it is well designed and made as well as placing it and us in a place in the social history of the world. Without these building blocks, we lack the foundation needed to give depth and meaning to much of the chaos of our world. Those who do not collect or live with items of the past deny the very foundation of their human evolution. It is a rather dreary and barren home that does not incorporate the beauty and yes, the pain, of those that have gone before them. It is one of the reasons that photographs are so important. They surround us with the past, which is part of the present, which will become the future, and finally the past of the next guardian.


Queen Victoria was probably the most important factor in taking Memento Mori and spreading it as well as enabling it to become not only a fad but a more affordable cultural tradition. Romance and sentimentality were part of the mystique of the Victorian era which had very strict rules of conduct and behavior. Like today, the rich were rich, the poor were very poor and the middle class was very small and striving to maintain their foothold on the rung which kept them from slipping back into Dickensonian visions of poverty.

Queen Victoria, after the demise of Albert on December 14 of 1861, not only turned Albert’s room into a shrine, but tried to turn England and the world into bombazine dresses and weeping willows. Queen Victoria became known as the perpetual widow and the weeping mourner. The self-imposed ritual of mourning dominated Queen Victoria and her household until her demise. Hers was a suffocating mourning which negated life and its beauty.

In America the tradition of giving mourning rings was practiced amongst the wealthy. Often, it was in a person’s will to have these mementos given to important people at their funeral, but the tradition goes back centuries. Many people went to funerals as a pastime and to receive the black edged funeral card or photograph of the deceased. During the Salem witch trials, one of the judges who collected the gold rings was annoyed he had to miss a funeral because of the trials. He felt he had been deprived of a golden trinket which was a great inconvenience. After the beheading of King
Charles 1, it was very fashionable for his supporters to wear mourning rings. It was a way to identify oneself to a fellow dissenter or rebel.

Hair work was part of certain American cultures before the civil war, but more prominent in the North. Climate and culture had much to do with the low preservation of any fragile or perishable item in the hotter climates. Hair like fabric would be extremely inviting to insects which proliferated in the southern regions and still does.

Queen Victoria’s perpetual devotion to mourning provided a fashion all its own. Mourning jewelry as well as fashion and mores influenced the culture in our country. Though the hair wreaths and jewelry had been around earlier, the wreaths were relegated to the very rich who had the opportunity to travel and absorb the various traditions, mores and eccentricities of the wealthier classes abroad. An industry of producing suitably tasteful and customized hair wreaths came into being, but many could only afford to make their own or were comfortable enough in their own artistic merits and talents to mix media and produce some incredible objects of art and social history. Unfortunately, it is difficult and costly to obtain items of historical significance such as those belonging to famous people like George Washington, but they do exist. Usually, jewelry is one color, the color of the hair of the deceased, but not always. Sometimes, especially in bracelets and broaches, the different members of the family would give hair to intertwine to show solidarity of the friends and family. The wreaths that were made can have many colors in them, especially if the family was large and all members of the family including some friends wanted to be included in the wreath. Also, on extremely large and intricate ones it is not unusual for purchased hair to be added in or that of a beloved pet. Flowers are the most common art form, but hummingbirds and butterflies of hair often grace these temples of loving memory.

Who mourned and for how long was relegated. Often widows were not allowed out into society for the first six months after a husband had passed on. Photos of brides dressed in black with a white veil show that she was still in partial mourning. Light mourning was very different from deep mourning and dress and actions were expected to be obeyed by women. It was in its way another method to subjugate the female. Certainly, it wasn’t as bad as in India where a wife was cast alive on the burning bier of her husband. Gone with the Wind showed Scarlet O’Hara scandalizing one and all when she danced with Rhett Butler. She was in mourning and had absolutely no right to smile or laugh or dance, especially in public. How mortifying to those who had to watch this exhibition of a woman demeaning herself and the memory of her dead husband by not observing the imposed protocol of the day. How scandalous, but it did give everyone something to gossip about. To many, Scarlett, by dancing, had broken all rules of convention and had become a Scarlett woman!

The Civil War put most of the women in black and the photographers like Gardner and Brady hated it. Bombazine was very difficult to photograph as it gave off a sheen glare. Photography has advanced in techniques greatly today and prices are minuscule compared to what they were in Victorian times. Any soldier going off to the Civil War wanted their photo taken so they would be remembered if they did not survive the war. They needed to be remembered especially those who did not want to go. Mother, sweetheart, father; it did not matter as they needed the symbolic closeness of having their family able to see and recall their likeness. Yes, with some it was vanity but others it was insurance.

Death was so common during war years but illness took as many lives and often needlessly. Doctors never washed their hands as they considered themselves gentlemen and gentlemen did not need to wash their hands very often. A doctor’s hands and his instruments took the lives of many. Women, if they were lucky, went to midwives for birthing as they had a much higher chance of surviving as did their babies. Midwives were not gentlemen and washed their hand quite often. So many babies and children died that families had photos of the dead baby to remember them by. These are quite common and often overpriced. A baby asleep is not a dead baby and one needs to be able to see the difference. Also, photographs of people in their coffins or at their funerals are not as scarce as one would believe.


Mourning jewelry is probably the most desirable of the Memento Mori items. It is lovely to wear and often the gold and gemstones are what make them so quaint or desirable. Rings, pins, bracelets, watch fobs, earrings, etc. can range to the common and boring to the exquisite and or historical if they belonged to an important person.

The beauty of hair art and mourning items is that every one of them is different. They were personal and sentimental treasures to make the living feel better and cope with their losses easier. It was a way of keeping the quick and the dead in the same realm. It is to be remembered that the heyday of Memento Mori was the same time as that of the Spiritualist movement and Houdini. It was when industrialization and scientific inventions were proliferating and it was when many were leaving the paths of religious indoctrination and beginning to think and explore in many directions. With the American Civil War came changes which never stopped and changed the world. It was the age of the Robber Barrons who built trains and factories, lived in fancy mansions and paid their employees so little they could barely put food on the table. Perhaps, remembering the people of the past will put the present into perspective.

Besides John Whitenight’s Under Glass, A Victorian Obsession one might like to see:
www.underglassavictorianobsession.com
In Death Lamented The Tradition of Anglo-American Jewelry by Sarah Nehama, Massachusetts Historical Society 2012
Memorials For Children of Chance Dickran & Ann Tashjian Weslyan University 1974
Carved in Stone Thomas & William Gilson Weslyan University 2012
“You Tube Video” Castle Halloween Museum

Each of these will give you a different view, another aspect or how to perceive Memento Mori as it is a vast field and very inclusive as well as fascinating subject.

Many will feel that Memento Mori is much too sentimental a subject to produce great art and folk art. They are wrong. The beauty of hair is that it lives on and grows after the soul has departed and when cut and made into a highly personalized item it can be very creative and have great merit. The workmanship in many of these are not only exquisitely executed but inspiringly esthetic. Mortality is inevitable, but immortality is that which is handed down and makes one immortal.

All mementos are from the collection of Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell unless otherwise noted.

Photography by Alan Kolc, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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