Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dying to Be Photographed

People who've heard some of my talks, especially the Crazy one (!!!), know about the Victorians' penchant for commemorating death. Not only were they big on mourning ribbons, clothing and such, but loved ones' clothing were cut up and included in quilts. Even their hair was carefully clipped, then used to make jewelry. Hair was also used as 'thread' to embroider seams, or woven into lace!

They really got into this sort of thing. 

There's actually more reason for it than you'd think. About 1 in 4 children died before age two...another reason why people had so many kids. Wars and disease outbreaks decimated more, adults and children alike. It was considered respectful to stay in mourning for up to three years. Men got a break - they could resume regular dressing after a year. Younger women were allowed to wear gray and lavender, at least, after the same period. For the rest of us, it was unrelieved black -- unless you wanted people to think you were a slut, or even worse, an actress.
     Bear in mind: this was a time when black generally wasn't colorfast, either. (It still isn't, as New Yorkers can attest.) Wearing black meant that your skin and underclothing were liberally stained with the leaching dye, and you would be re-dyeing your clothing regularly. It also meant exposing yourself to dangerous toxins; all sorts of chemicals, including arsenic, were used to set dye back in those days. Some experts believe that Civil War widows died much younger than they should have, thanks to clothing that slowly poisoned them as they mourned.

Now there's a gallery exhibit that showcases another Victorian penchant: combining the new trend for photography with commemorating their dead. It's called "post mortems;" or, in the words of Daughter #2, 'dead baby photos.'

It wasn't just photographing Civil War dead, though James Brady was well-known for doing that. (He also wasn't beneath lugging bodies from spot to spot, and positioning them for more striking results.) Criminals were photographed in their coffins...but so were everyday people. Sometimes the corpse leaned back in the arms of loving parents, or was positioned in a chair. Eyes were painted on, or eyelids propped open in an effort to appear more natural. Children are in the majority of post mortems, since they died in droves.

Queen Victoria had one entire floor of one of her palaces cordoned off. She spent many hours there, refusing to admit anyone else. After her death, her son, the Prince of Wales, discovered who she'd been keeping company with: literally dozens of photographs of dead people. Victoria had family and friends photographed in their beds and coffins, then arranged them in her rooms. Granted: this was a monarch who stayed in mourning several decades after her husband died -- in fact, she never really stopped wearing it.

Post mortem photos go for big bucks nowadays on Ebay. But they're also a valuable look at love and loss during the Victorian period. Go take a look at the exhibit and story. It's well worth viewing, in spite of the occasional grimace.

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