MOURNING in the 1850s
On display October 1-31, 2017
During the 1850s, Hannah and William Root shared their home with their children and extended family. Hannah Root’s father, Leonard Simpson, lived with the family and passed away on October 11, 1856. In the 1850s, only those invited would attend a funeral. Special funeral invitations were made with a black border; the width of the border would indicate how closely related the guest was to the deceased.
Antebellum parlors were used for guests, family gatherings, and special occasions such as weddings and funerals. During a funeral, the coffin would have been kept in the parlor with the feet of the body facing towards the door. Many of the items in the parlor would have been draped in a black fabric. The fabric, called crepe, was commonly used for funerals because it was inexpensive and had a matte, lusterless surface that was deemed appropriately solemn for mourning. It was also customary to have flowers for a wake. Lilies were the most commonly used flower at this time because, in the “language of flowers,” lilies symbolize purity.
In the dining room, some of the furnishings would have been moved around according to need. During a funeral, furniture would have been moved to the side to make room for chairs for the ceremony. Funeral guests would have been seated across the hall from the parlor so they could view the ceremony through the doorways without being too close to the family and the body. They would be permitted to see the body one at a time after the ceremony. A traditional food for funerals was funeral biscuits. These were shortbread cookies made especially for funerals. They would have an image imprinted on the cookie, such as a heart, cherub, winged head, hourglass, or skull. It was customary to serve the funeral biscuits with beer or ale, and they were usually dipped in the ale before being eaten.
During the month of October, visitors to the William Root House will see the home decorated for mourning as it would have been at the time of Leonard’s death. Curtains will be drawn, and rooms will be adorned with black crepe and ribbons. Special tours will teach visitors about 1850s mourning practices and superstitions about death.
This program is included in the cost of general museum admission.
Click here to plan your visit.
Mourning scenes like the one on display at the William Root House could be customized with the name or likeness of a loved one and displayed in the home.
Published in 1857, Agnes and the Little Key describes the mourning process for a father and mother after the loss of their young daughter.