When Mourning Literally Got Under Your Skin

Full mourning attire, photographed circa 1860.

Full mourning attire, photographed circa 1860.

I love stumbling across things that take me by surprise, no matter how reasonable they seem in retrospect. This is one of those things. It requires a bit of back story, so please be patient.

While looking into the etiquette of Victorian fancy dress, I stumbled upon “The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness.” by Florence Hartley, published in 1860. Done in that style of taking the reader gently by the hand and guiding her through all manner and means of acceptable behaviors and presentations, it is at once delightful, quaint, exhausting and (truth be told) a bit terrifying in its complexity.

The full title gives it away: The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness. A Complete Hand Book for the Use of the Lady in Polite Society. Containing full directions for correct manners, dress. deportment, and conversation; ruled for the duties of both hostess and guest in morning receptions, dinner companies, visiting, evening parties and balls; a complete guide for letter writing and cards of compliment; hints on managing servants, on the preservation of health, and on accomplishments. And also useful receipts for the complexion, hair, and with hints and directions for the care of the wardrobe.

Think you’d enjoy life in 1860? Perhaps you’d best peruse this first. It’s available for viewing online as Project Gutenberg EBook #35123. I suggest a strong cup of tea with smelling salts nearby to set the mood.

Before the “aha” moment, though, a quick review of mourning practices. The manner of dress and length of its wear was prescribed by custom and changed little over decades. Here’s a nice summary:

Victorian Mourning Customs From the Victorian Mourning Exhibit at the Petaluma History Museum, Petaluma CA. Photo by Marianne Riddle.

Victorian Mourning Customs From the Victorian Mourning Exhibit at the Petaluma History Museum, Petaluma CA. Photo by Marianne Riddle.

First item of note is the initial period of mourning for widowed women: deep mourning. One year and one day continually dressed in black, head to toe, pretty much 24/7 since one did not run about the house in petal pink dressing gowns or sky blue wrappers. In fact, during that first year and a day, a widow didn’t generally leave the house unless it was to attend church services. She spent most of her waking hours swathed in black.

The second point to consider is that there was a lot of death – it was not considered the “novelty” it is today, it was accepted as a part of everyday life. A wife could be called into mourning for a husband, a sibling, a child, a dear friend, a significant public figure (king, queen, president). I’ve read that as the American Civil War dragged on, the pattern of wearing black changed else women would be dressed in black continuously due to the sheer number of husbands, brothers and sons lost in battle or to disease (which killed more people than actual war wounds). And life expectancies were astoundingly brief.

Average age at death for different classes in 1842 England:

  Gentry Tradesmen Labourers
















Bethnal Green








And then there is the matter of economics. The general masses did not have the financial resources to have new clothes made, or even purchase ready-made mourning clothing. These women dyed an existing dress black and wore it until they could afford a new dress or, more likely, until the period of mourning was over.

So a woman could find herself confined in black for a very long time through all types of weather, and the dye used could be of questionable quality.

All of which leads us to my “aha” moment when I found this at the back of “The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness.”

To remove Black Stains from the Skin.—Ladies that wear mourning in warm weather are much incommoded by the blackness it leaves on the arms and neck, and which cannot easily be removed, even by soap and warm water. To have a remedy always at hand, keep, in the drawer of your wash-stand, a box, containing a mixture in equal portions of cream of tartar, and oxalic acid (POISON). Get, at a druggist’s, half an ounce of each of these articles, and have them mixed and pounded together in a mortar. Put some of this mixture into a cup that has a cover, and if, afterwards, it becomes hard, you may keep it slightly moistened with water. See that it is always closely covered. To use it, wet the black stains on your skin with the corner of a towel, dipped in water (warm water is best, but is not always at hand). Then, with your finger, rub on a little of the mixture. Then immediately wash it off with water, and afterwards with soap and water, and the black stains will be visible no longer. This mixture will also remove ink, and all other stains from the fingers, and from white clothes. It is more speedy in its effects if applied with warm water. No family should be without it, but care must be taken to keep it out of the way of young children, as, if swallowed, it is poisonous.

It is a wonder that the mourners themselves didn’t die of these remedies.

(For those of you interested in historic “receipts” for everything from lip slave to cold cream to the freckle removers to treatment of corns and callouses to cleaning colored kid gloves to cleaning white or flowered silks, this is an excellent resource. Take care, however – many of the ingredients are toxic, if not outright lethal, in relatively small doses. I strongly recommend consulting with a pharmacist or other knowledgeable person before trying any of them at home.)