Mourning jewelry and other similar keepsakes became popular objects created and worn to honor a loved one or a person of importance. Queen Victoria unknowingly propagated the trend upon the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. In the United States, the Civil War took this trend to new heights, as the death toll rose upwards of 620,000. Oftentimes, a family’s only keepsake of a loved one was a lock of hair, sent either as a token of love or deep appreciation, or clipped after death. These keepsakes were woven into jewelry or framed serving to honor or remember the deceased. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination caused an entire nation to openly grieve (or in some cases pretend to grieve), and a variety of mourning keepsakes remembering the president still survive.
The easiest form of mourning keepsake was the black crepe or fabric armband. An inexpensive way to show respect, many adopted this simple form of mourning.
For those who felt a stronger connection to the fallen president, as well as wanting to add a more personal touch to the mourning period, many individuals made mourning badges or buttons out of crepe, taffeta, tulle, and other bits of black or white material. Especially elaborate cockades utilized a printed image of Lincoln, which was then adhered to the center of the button. When Lincoln’s railway funeral procession passed through northern cities on its way to Illinois, vendors capitalized on the distressing event, selling cockades and other mourning keepsakes for those in attendance.
After learning of his death, a grieving Mary Todd Lincoln sent a messenger to request a lock of her husband’s hair. Several others in attendance followed suit, giving the keepsakes to friends or framing them with small notes identifying the provenance.
Other odd bits were claimed as keepsakes as well. One individual kept a small portion of a blood soaked towel used to staunch the wound on Lincoln’s head. Laura Keene, the female lead in Our American Cousin who rushed to the president’s box after the assassination, lovingly preserved her ruined and bloody silk gown. Strangers cut swatches from the dress, which has now disappeared, and five swatches are rumored to survive today.
While many of the mourning objects were lovingly crafted, others are just down right odd or creepy. Lincoln’s assassination catapulted him to martyr status, and items relating to his death still capture the hearts and minds of the American public.