Mourning Keepsakes

A large mourning badge worn after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

A large mourning badge worn after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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.

Taken in May of 1865, Ulysses S. Grant wears a mourning band in honor of Abraham Lincoln on his left arm.  The ribbons fastening it to his arm fall past is elbow.

Taken in May of 1865, Ulysses S. Grant wears a mourning band in honor of Abraham Lincoln on his left arm. The ribbons fastening it to his arm fall past is elbow.

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.

A variety of cockades and badges worn after the death of Abraham Lincoln.

A variety of cockades and badges worn after the death of Abraham Lincoln.

 

Three of many different styles of mourning silks.

Three of many different styles of mourning silks.

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.

Locks of Lincoln's hair became a coveted keepsake among friends and family, and several in attendance of his passing cut pieces as keepsakes

Locks of Lincoln’s hair became a coveted keepsakes among friends and family, and several in attendance of Lincoln’s passing acquired the bits of hair as keepsakes.

A swatch of Laura Keene's blood stained costume from the night of the assassination.  (Photo courtesy of Cade Martin)

A swatch of Laura Keene’s blood stained costume from the night of the assassination. (Photo courtesy of Cade Martin)

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.

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3 Responses to Mourning Keepsakes

  1. John F. Maginn says:

    My interest in the period dates from the centennial, when I was about 10 years old. I remember with clarity a story told by my grandmother, Elizabeth Conway Heberger. He mother, Margaret, was one of the crowd that spent the early hours of April 25, 1865, awaiting the arrival of Lincoln’s ‘Death Train’, passing slowly through Rochester, NY. The funerary train was making slow passages through town and villages along the way. It arrived in Rochester shortly before 4:00 a.m., reaching Buffalo at about 7:00 a.m. My great grandmother would have been 19 years old and must have been accompanied by her family. They endured a cold night, as spring usually arrives late in Rochester.

    • Ashley Webb says:

      Thank you, John, for relaying this story! I’m sure that would have been a very sad, yet a memorable and somewhat exciting moment for your great-grandmother, despite the cold and sleepless night. Anecdotes like these make the distant past real for me – placing our lives the overall context of history. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Ashley Webb says:

    Reblogged this on Blue Ridge Vintage and commented:

    Mourning Keepsakes were a popular item during Victorian England and Civil War America. Check out how they became even more popular in the United States after Licoln’s death- over at the Emerging Civil War blog.

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