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Off in the Widow’s Weeds: Georgian Mourning

This month I’m releasing a historical mystery called Widow’s Blush. In this book a widow by the name of Lady Ravenna Birchfield is tasked with finding a killer of politicians in late Georgian England while the nation is on the brink of war with Napoleon in 1803.

One of my challenges while writing the book was trying to find out the mourning customs in the late Georgian period. Almost everything I found pertained to the Victorian Era. I thought I had succeeded until I started working on final revisions. It was during this time that I came upon a bit of research claiming the term “widow’s weeds” was primarily used in Victorian England.

Uh-oh. Immediately, my mind went to the question: “Was I wrong to use that term in the book? How many times did I use it? Crap!

So, even though my book was due back to my editor in mere days, I set about trying to discover the origin of "widow's weeds" because I didn’t want to be historically inaccurate—if I could help it. Of course, let’s be real, there will probably be something that is still historically inaccurate and some fanatic about historical lighting or bed frames will come back and say “Aaacktualleeee…”

But I digress.

In my research I discovered the term “widow’s weeds” was in common use in the Georgian Era.

First, for those who might not know, “widow’s weeds” refers to the clothing women would wear while in mourning. The accoutrement consisted of different items through different eras but, in short, would include dresses, gloves, bonnets, jewelry, handkerchiefs—you name it. In the Victorian Era it even extended to stationery, dolls, and a host of other things we modern people would consider weird. I will try to post another blog soon that goes into more detail about those items, but for now, I want to discuss only the term “widow’s weeds.”

According to Etymonline (one of my absolute favorite websites), the word “weeds” is an archaic noun derived from the Old English wæd, wæde "robe, dress, apparel, garment, clothing." This use derives from Old Saxon wadi, Old Frisian wede "garment," Old Norse vað "cloth, texture," and Old High German wat "garment.”

But when did widow + weeds come into existence? Based on what I've already discovered on Etymonline, I'm led to believe it certainly didn’t begin with the Victorians. I still haven’t found the very first mention of the term. Honestly, I’m not too concerned with that. I just needed to prove it existed before the setting in my novel so I didn’t have to change a bunch of things. I was already changing a lot. (Hey, this is how the sauce is made 😊)

Well, I’m happy to say I found the proof I'd been looking for! In poking around, I came across the All Things Georgian website and found that in 1765, a full thirty-eight years before the start of my story, a merchant by the name of Matthias Otto was selling many things, including widow’s weeds!

The proof is found on a trade card (image below). Trade cards were kind of like our modern business cards, but larger. Like our cards, they were used to establish links with other local businesses and customers. They were handed out in public squares and markets. However, unlike our modern cards, they were considered a legally-binding promise that whatever product or service advertised on the card was legitimate.

It’s difficult to read, but if you look at the image below from All Things Georgian, you’ll see Otto advertises in his antiquated spelling that he Maketh all sorts of widows’ weeds, riding habits, vest & tunicks for boys, banians [a type of robe or dressing gown for men] for gentlemen, sultains waistcoats, waded (?) gowns for ladys and gentlewomen [I have no idea what a "waded" gown is. Maybe it was a wading gown--a type of dress that women would use for sea-bathing?].

My mind was officially blown! I think the reason "widow's weeds" is so often associated with the Victorians is because it became more of a commercial enterprise in that era than in previous eras.

Industrialization and the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, helped to shape, standardize, customize, and commercialize mourning customs and accoutrement.

Another shocking thing I discovered was the use of mourning jewelry in Georgian England. I’ve known for some time that the Victorians would wear hair jewelry—which is exactly what it sounds like: jewelry using the hair of the deceased.

However, I was totally surprised to discover that this jewelry was popular in Jane Austen’s days, too—which was the late Georgian Era. In fact, in Sense and Sensibility, (1795), well before the Regency and Victorian Eras, Jane Austen wrote: “Marianne saw a ring on Edward’s finger that had a lock of hair in it.” (probably bearing some similarity to the ring in the right side image below). Though Edward’s ring was to remember a living loved one, they were no doubt popular for mourning the dead as well.

Special mourning jewelry would include a symbol such as a rose for love or an elm for friendship alongside an inscription of a loved one’s name or the date of their death. Or they might wear pendants featuring a miniature portrait of the deceased. This jewelry, as indicated in the images, would include black enamel or onyx. In the Victorian Era, mourners would wear jewelry made from jet stone. I haven’t yet discovered how popular jet jewelry would’ve been in the Regency or Georgian Eras, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that it existed.

Mourning rituals and accoutrement weren’t as strict in the Georgian and Regency Eras, and usually only the wealthy could afford the specially made mourning clothes and accessories. By and large, middle class people would dye black the clothes they had on hand or add black crepe to the linings of cloaks and bonnets. Poorer people might only manage to wear a black armband or ribbon to remember a loved one.

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