I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: The Victorians were weird. They had some crazy traditions, from medically prescribed vibrators to electric corsets, but probably the most well known of their weird ideas is their obsession with death.
Entire books have been written about death and mourning culture in the 19th century, and honestly I don’t have enough space in a single blog post to touch on even a fraction of it, but suffice to say that mourning was a Big Deal when Victoria was queen, whether you were in England or the US.
The 1800s saw huge advances in medicine, more than any century previous. Over the course of the century child mortality dropped from 43% to about 36% globally, with developed nations such as England and the US seeing steeper declines. Parents no longer simply expected that their children would die, especially in the growing middle class. Family sizes began to shrink–slightly–as a result.
This, along with other cultural factors, created a change in attitude toward children. No longer were they simply a commodity, bred like lambs and expected to work from the time they could hold a spindle. A growing portion of the adult population expected their children to have a childhood for the first time–to play and enjoy themselves and have a limited amount of responsibility. To be protected, valued, and cherished.
A large portion of this change comes down to Charles Dickens, but that’s an entirely different blog post (I swear, I’ll talk about him at some point, but not yet).
So, when a child did die, the period of mourning became more pronounced in Victorian times. Parents were expected to observe the usual mourning traditions for a year–wearing black, abstaining from social gatherings, etc.
But they also took it one step further.
To help keep the memory of their departed child alive, parents could commission funeral effigies of their children: wax dolls based on their likeness, with the child’s hair threaded into the scalp that would wear their clothes and sit in a little coffin on the mantle, or lay in their cradle. The dolls were often weighted (think along the lines of the Baby So Real dolls we had in the 80s and 90s–wax head and appendages with a soft fabric body) to make them more realistic. Intended as a “transitional item” to help with the grieving process, some parents took to treating them like real children.
Babies were not the only ones subject to this process. Older children might be remembered through a bust, again using their hair for the doll. These were often placed into shadowbox-like frames and displayed prominently.
Additionally, “funeral kits” could be purchased for little girls to use for their dolls. Historically, women have always been the ones to treat and care for the dead, especially in the absence of any professionals. They would bathe and dress the deceased and watch over the corpse. In addition, mourners could be hired to attend the funeral and weep for the departed. This is an ancient tradition intended to increase the status of the person who has died both in the community and in the eyes of God. Children and poor widows were often employed in this capacity. In fact, though it has fallen out of fashion in most of the “modern” world, you can still hire mourners in some countries and cultures.
These funeral kits were intended to teach children about their responsibilities, both practically and socially. With such high death rates the world over, death was just a fact of life. It wasn’t until the 1920s that adults began to doubt that children should know what death is or how to handle it. Children could dress and lay out the dolls in their own little coffin and weep and mourn for them, just as they would for a family member or friend.
I have intentionally refrained from posting any pictures of these dolls in this post as some of them can be a bit disturbing, as a quick Google image search will prove.
If you’re really curious, however, you can check out some of the links below for more information.
The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders
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