How first families have memorialized and mourned

Just in time for Halloween, your favorite collections managers from the Division of Political History bring you a new blog series: "Death in the Presidential Collections." The division has some pretty interesting things connected to presidents who have died and presidents who were killed in office. There are many ways to discuss the objects surrounding a president's death, and in this series we will explore why these objects still hold so much meaning for us.

Collage of four objects tied to mourning in the musuem's colllctions.

Today's post discusses mourning clothing and jewelry worn by first ladies. There are many ways to mourn. One custom that stretches back centuries is wearing black to funerals. Yet other traditions surrounding mourning clothing have changed throughout the years. During the Victorian period, mourners wore black longer than just the day of the funeral. Mourning among the upper and upper-middle class would last a minimum of two years! In what was called "first mourning," a woman mourner wore black crepe. As the years passed, she could begin wearing clothing made with less crepe and add other fabrics and trim. Colors during the last half year or so included gray, violet, purple, mauve, and white. Yes, during the Victorian period white was an acceptable color for mourning. There are several examples of first ladies in mourning in the Political History collection.

Jane Pierce (1806–1863) never wanted to be a political wife. However, her husband, Franklin, was a politician and Jane was first lady from 1853 to 1857. Jane Pierce doted on her son Benny, her only child to survive infancy. Tragically, he was killed in a train accident shortly before Franklin Pierce's inauguration. Already prone to melancholy and depression, and now with her mental state in a more precarious situation, Jane Pierce spent the rest of her life in mourning.

Jane Pierce's black tulle dressed posed on a mannequin.

During the second year of mourning jewelry was permitted, onyx and jet being the most frequently worn. In the early to mid-1800s lockets and brooches containing hair became a popular style of mourning jewelry in the United States. A piece of jewelry with hair was considered a token of mourning and remembrance. Godey's Lady's Book, a popular magazine for women in the 19th century, contained material to entertain and inform women—think Women's Day, Vanity Fair, and Cosmopolitan all in one magazine. Godey's offered a mail-in option to purchase hair jewelry, or a DIY method, which is still popular today. Thanks, Pinterest!

Gold locket with black onyx stones along its border and brown hair embedded in the center under glass.

In the Political History collection, we have several pieces of mourning jewelry, including lockets belonging to Jane Pierce and to fellow first lady Julia Grant. It was not recorded whose hair is in the locket that belonged to Jane Pierce, but we can speculate that it was from her beloved son, Benny. The locket attributed to the Grant family was worn at Ulysses Grant’s funeral service. The hair in the locket is most likely his.

Front and back photos of a mourning locket.

In the collection we also have jewelry that did not contain hair. There is onyx mourning jewelry that belonged to Mary Lincoln (1818–1882, first lady 1861–1865). Her lapel watch, set in black onyx, was the timepiece she wore for the rest of her life. In 1862 the Lincolns’ third son, Willie, died of typhoid fever. While Abraham coped with the loss of Willie, Mary was overtly distraught. After the assassination of her husband, Mary was overcome with grief. She remained in mourning until her death—she only came out of mourning once, upon the request of her youngest son, Tad, for his birthday.

Black onyx and gold lapel watch.

While modern mourning traditions have evolved and women are no longer in mourning for extensive periods of time, and keeping the hair of a loved one in a locket is a bit depressing, the idea of outward symbols of grief is not a bad one. It is an obvious sign that you are lamenting the loss of a loved one, and a way to let others know you are experiencing grief without having to talk about it. We put plywood storks in the front yard announcing the birth of a child, but we don’t put a black wreath on the door to announce the death of a family member. If we actively expressed our mourning, then perhaps we would receive a bit of understanding if we have a breakdown while in line for coffee.

Stay tuned for our next post in the series. We've divided our mourning objects into five categories: First Families; Last Moments Preserved; Commemorations, Stationery, and Floral Arrangements; Souvenirs; and Assassinations.

Sara Murphy is a museum specialist and collections manager in the Division of Political History.