Category Archives: Mementos

It’s Only Words: Mourning Jewellery

Victorian Mourning pin

Talk in everlasting words
And dedicate them all to me
And I will give you all my life
I’m here if you should call to me
You think that I don’t even mean
A single word I say
It’s only words, and words are all
I have to take your heart away

From ‘Words’ by The Bee Gees

"The Spirit Hath Fled" - Victorian mourning locket with black and white enamel on 9k gold

I have previously written about different types of symbolism of mourning jewellery, how pearls represented tears; and ivy represented fidelity; locks of hair from the deceased were incorporated into jewellery; painted miniatures of single eye surrounded by clouds and tears were symbols of a lost love; and  – of course – there was jet carved into glittering brooches and beads for mourning jewellery. I haven’t even touched on the meanings of urns, angels, anchors and acorns (another day, perhaps). However, not every piece of mourning jewellery had to have a masked meaning. Some came right out with sentiments written onto the gems and jewels.

Victorian locket inscribed and containing a lock of hair. Momento Mori of Hannah Taylor who died in 1878.

VICTORIAN Mourning Locket - Vulcanite.

Lockets could contain messages, and often the messages were inscribed directly onto the item. The personalisation of the mourning jewellery meant it had greater sentimental value to the person wearing it. A necklace of ivy leaves might be pretty, but a locket with a picture – worn close to a broken heart – has an added emotional charge. I know for a fact that the real value in a piece of jewellery is what memories it evokes, rather than if it is made of gold and rubies.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

Sometimes a family would have mourning jewellery made up to hand out to chosen mourners at the funeral of the dearly departed, rather like party tokens, but with a much darker symbolism. Personally, I think the written mottoes and verses are sweeter than any other symbols, but it probably because I am a writer. It is more specific to wear a brooch stating ‘My Dear Father’ than be dripping with mourning jewellery that could refer to anyone.

Victorian gold metal/painted French jet IMO My Dear father mourning brooch

Victorian mourning brooch - it was fashionable amongst the middle and upper classes in particular to wear jewellery commemorating the dead. This would often include a lock of the hair of the lost loved one, a photograph, or both

Actually, this jewellery moves me much more than anything else I’ve shared before. I guess it is because I can relate better to a specific loss. I can understand the pain of the loss of a grandfather or a child. This is good thing to remember as a writer. If you want to touch your audience, they need specifics and not generalizations.


Filed under Bling, History, Jewellery, Mementos, Metaphors, Mourning, Victorian Era, writing

Post-Mortem Photography: a Steampunk Perspective

Trigger Warning: If you are soft-hearted or have a weak stomach, please be aware that some of the images in this article are of deceased Victorian-era people. If you do read on and are offended, please don’t send me negative comments about the subject matter. This was an actual Victorian-era practice.

Photography was a new technology in the Victorian-era, and as with all new technologies there was some resistance to its acceptance. However, when a beloved family member died, and you had no photographs or any other form of portrait to remember them by, post-mortem photography became the last opportunity to capture their image. This might seem morbid or gruesome to our modern sensibilities, but the heart wants what the heart wants.

ComfortLost child

We Are Seven


———A simple Child,

That lightly draws its breath,

And feels its life in every limb,

What should it know of death?

I met a little cottage Girl:

She was eight years old, she said;

Her hair was thick with many a curl

That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,

And she was wildly clad:

Her eyes were fair, and very fair;

—Her beauty made me glad.

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,

How many may you be?”

“How many? Seven in all,” she said,

And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.”

She answered, “Seven are we;

And two of us at Conway dwell,

And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie,

My sister and my brother;

And, in the church-yard cottage, I

Dwell near them with my mother.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell,

And two are gone to sea,

Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,

Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

Then did the little Maid reply,

“Seven boys and girls are we;

Two of us in the church-yard lie,

Beneath the church-yard tree.”

“You run about, my little Maid,

Your limbs they are alive;

If two are in the church-yard laid,

Then ye are only five.”

“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”

The little Maid replied,

“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,

And they are side by side.

“My stockings there I often knit,

My kerchief there I hem;

And there upon the ground I sit,

And sing a song to them.

“And often after sun-set, Sir,

When it is light and fair,

I take my little porringer,

And eat my supper there.

“The first that dies was sister Jane;

In bed she moaning lay,

Till God released her of her pain;

And then she went away.

“So in the church-yard she was laid;

And, when the grass was dry,

Together round her grave we played,

My brother John and I.

“And when the ground was white with snow,

And I could run and slide,

My brother John was forced to go,

And he lies by her side.”

“How many are you, then,” said I,

“If they two are in heaven?”

Quick was the little Maid’s reply,

“O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead!

Their spirits are in heaven!”

’Twas throwing words away; for still

The little Maid would have her will,

And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

These photos were often the parent’s only portrait of their child, and the last opportunity to have a family portrait. The Victorian society might seem to have had many flaws, but they were clannish and often put the concerns of their family before anything else. Even though families were larger and the infant mortality rate was higher than today, this doesn’t mean that Victorian parents didn’t deeply feel the loss of every child. Indeed, I see post-mortem photography as proof that parental affection hasn’t changed over the centuries.

Father & childFamily portrait

You can see the real grief in the faces in these portraits. This is the last chance to have a keepsake of their precious child. These photographs were not made for any macabre purpose, or because the Victorians were morbidly obsessed with death. These were people taking advantage of a newly introduced technology to help soothe the pain of loss.

The tragic loss of an entire family.

The tragic loss of an entire family.

Taking portraits of the dead.

Taking portraits of the dead.

In this era of instant photography, when every phone is also a camera, and our computers have cameras as well, it is hard to believe that these photographs would have been an expensive luxury for many families. But the money was found, somehow. The Victorians were sentimental, in a way that 21st century people are too sophisticated to understand. These photos survive because they were treasured, and not because it was fashionable to have portraits taken of the deceased.

With her dolliesPosed as if just thinking

The deceased were often posed as if they were sleeping. As a metaphor for a Steampunk writer, I believe these post-mortem photographs could represent family connections, the strength of love between family members, or even as an analogy for the briefness of mortality. Photography was still an innovative technology. This mixture of Science and raw Emotion can be a very powerful writing technique.


Filed under Analogy, Gadgets, History, Mementos, Metaphors, Mourning, Steampunk, Steampunk Themes

Dead Serious – Part Two: Memento Jewellery

1800-1820 Mourning miniature, an eye portrait with a tear and clouds, with pearls to symbolise more tears.

1800-1820 Mourning miniature, an eye portrait with a tear and clouds, with pearls to symbolise more tears.

Mourning jewellery was big business during the Victorian era. It wasn’t only jet jewellery that was all the craze, there was a whole range of different types of memento jewellery. These items were full of symbolism, which makes them perfect for writers to use as metaphors and analogies.

Miniature painted on ivory of a child's eye in the clouds. Most likely a mourning brooch.

Miniature painted on ivory of a child’s eye in the clouds. Most likely a mourning brooch.

Eye Portrait Jewellery: This type of memento wasn’t limited to the Victorian era, but it was a popular trend. The eye surrounded with pearls (symbolising tears), the eye surrounded by clouds (in Heaven), or an eye with a single tear, all pointed to the eye belonging to someone who was deceased. When this jewellery was worn as a memento of a secret love, those details were not included. These miniatures were usually framed in lockets or brooches, but they could be incorporated into bracelets as well. These are potent little packets of significance – a great treasure to a writer wanting to layer a characterization with extra meaning.

Mourning locket, made of gold, hair work, seed pearls, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England,circa 1826. In the  Collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

Mourning locket, made of gold, hair work, seed pearls, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller; Silversmith, Leeds, England, circa 1826. In the Collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

Hair Bracelet

Woven Hair Bracelet

Hair Jewellery: This is something that seems very strange to modern eyes, but in the Vicotrian era, hair jewellery was all the rage. Women kept special containers on their dressing tables to collect their hair. People gave each other lockets of hair as mementoes. When a person died, lockets of hair were distributed to their friends and family as keepsakes. Often this hair was used to create all types of accessories. I can’t help but wonder if woven hair bracelets were itchy. If you have read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, you will see the evidence of hair as keepsakes; Beth wants to cut her hair and give it away when she thought she was dying, and the mother treasures a Christmas gift of a brooch made from hair from every member of her family.

Human hair has a huge significance in witchcraft and fairy tales; it nearly has as much cultural significance as blood. In Victorian era narratives, Jo from Little Women sells her hair, as does Della from O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and they sacrifice their ‘beauty’ for love. Long hair was much admired as a feminine trait, so the cutting of hair was considered quite a big deal. It doesn’t take much for a writer to see that the cutting of hair can also be considered a metaphor for cutting links or chains.

Long hair

Jewellery is highly personal. When you are ‘cooking up’ a character, particularly a female character (though Victorian men did wear jewellery), you should try to visualise what sort of jewellery she is wearing. Why is she wearing it? It might simply be for show, but it is more interesting if the jewellery is worn for sentimental reasons. It can tell you a lot about that character, straight up. That ring was a gift from her beloved grandmother, just before the old woman died; when she feels discouraged, she rubs it for luck and strength. For a male character, that tiepin was his first purchase with his first pay cheque, as a promise to himself to try for better things.

Keepsakes are just that … so what do they mean? That is the real question you need to answer for your audience.


Filed under Bling, Characterization, History, Jewellery, Mementos, Mourning, Steampunk