Author: Alexandra Richmond
No one can claim to be a stranger to mourning and loss. The women and young girls at Dorchester’s Industrial School for Girls were no exceptions. Sometimes pain has been kept hidden and buried, but objects like mourning jewelry give us a glimpse of the popular response to the loss of loved ones. In Victorian-era Boston, many women fashionably wore their sorrow on their sleeves for all to see. Queen Victoria introduced the custom of wearing mourning jewelry and black personal adornment after the death of her husband in 1861.
Originally, only wealthy women wore such accessories, but middle-class women on both sides of the Atlantic adopted the custom as costume jewelry became more affordable. Initially, such necklaces, earrings and rings were made from jet, found in mines in England. Other materials began to be used as popularity soared and the fashion trend of remembrance became central to values of the era. Less expensive materials, such as onyx and bog oak, made mourning jewelry available to the growing middle-class consumer market.
Goodyear’s 1851 patent for vulcanized rubber introduced a black, shiny, early plastic to the jewelry market that looked nearly identical to jet but at a fraction of the cost, making such adornments accessible to almost anyone with small amounts of expendable income. Placing such finery within reach of a larger population increased the market for more cost-effective imitations to deceive the general public into grandiose ideas of wealth.
The popularity of flamboyant personal adornment focused on grief and mourning may seem at odds with the conservative and pious aesthetic of Victorian America. However, mourning jewelry leaned less towards the morbid, and responded to society’s obsession with remembrance and sentimentality.
This jewelry often featured motifs such as willow trees (weeping willow) and Grecian women with urns, that were symbols of grief and suggested society’s widely-held representations of religious piety or purity.
In addition, such jewelry was also exchanged between close friends and family members as keepsakes during times apart. Women gave their husbands a lock of their hair on a pocket watch, for example, as a token of love and commitment, so that he might remember her constantly. The jewelry could also reveal the wearer’s social status. Bolder and larger material adornment suggested wealth and status. The increasing popularity of mourning jewelry coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War, when death and loss shaped many lives. Due to this, the mourning culture was perhaps more than just a trend, but also an answer to the grief so many felt at the time.
The mourning necklace found at Dorchester’s Industrial School, therefore, provides a specific reference to a history full of loss. This particular mourning necklace, found in the privy, was made of vulcanite. This suggests that the object was worn by a member of the middle or possibly lower-class. The Vulcanite Jewelry Company in New York, as well as Reynolds & Shaw jewelry makers in New Jersey, manufactured and sold mourning jewelry in the United States. It is quite possible that one of these companies made and distributed this particular necklace, although the exact manufacturer is unknown.
Given that the necklace found here is a small segment of a larger piece, it is likely that the necklace was broken or damaged prior to ending up in the privy. It prompts us to ponder how the necklace was broken or why it was discarded or lost. Could it have been stolen, and tossed in the privy to hide the evidence? Who did the necklace belong to– a Matron, manager, teacher, or child? Or, was it perhaps lost by another party altogether? If this necklace belonged to one of the girls, perhaps it was gifted to them as a symbol of their loss, or as a token of affection between family members forced apart. Many of the girls came to the School arrived following the death of one or both of their parents; thus, many came in grief. Anne Barrett, came to the ISFG in 1859 after her father abandoned her family. Her mother was forced to give her up, but perhaps she gave Anne the necklace as a sentimental object when she placed her at the School.
It is more likely that the necklace belonged to one of the women managers or staff, since this jewelry was mostly worn by middle and upper class women. Many of the ISFG women had suffered their own losses. Mary Sophia Daüble lost her first husband to cholera on their missionary trip in India before she returned to America to work briefly as Matron at ISFG. Perhaps she bought this necklace to commemorate his memory. Sophia Kittredge French also lost her husband tragically, and left her children with her parents to teach at ISFG for a short time from 1859-1861. Considering her accounts of grief and unhappiness at the school, maybe such a necklace helped her hold on to the memory of her beloved husband. This necklace at the Industrial School site leaves us with many questions, but its presence is not so surprising given the personal histories of the women and girls at the School in the 1860s.