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Illustration depicting a widow mourning at a graveside. Illustrated by George John Pinwell.
Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Wearing a 19th-Century Mourning Veil Could Result in — Twist — Death

Grieving for a loved one sometimes caused rashes, irritation, and one’s own demise.

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In 19th-century America, mourning the death of a family member or friend was a highly structured ritual. Following strict rules of mourning dress and etiquette supposedly demonstrated one’s sincerity and Christian piety, and middle-class Victorians latched onto these customs as a way to prove their gentility and solidify their class position.

Unsurprisingly, women bore the brunt of the emotional labor that this culture of mourning demanded, and no woman was so constrained by cultural expectations as the widow. To demonstrate their bereavement, widows were to spend two and a half years proceeding through three stages of mourning — deep mourning, full or second mourning, and half mourning — each with its own fashion requirements and restrictions on behavior. Deep mourning lasted a year and a day and required a widow to wear simple black dresses and don a full-length black veil anytime she left the house. Called a “weeping veil,” this shroud was made of a crimped silk fabric called crape, and wearing it allowed one to “weep with propriety,” as the women’s magazine M’me Demorest’s Quarterly Mirror of Fashions put it in 1862. Unfortunately, due to the dyes and chemicals used to the process the fabric, these veils could also cause skin irritation, respiratory illness, blindness, and even death.

Metropolitan Museums Costume Institute opens Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire in New York.
Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Beginning around 1830, middle-class American culture became dominated by sentimentalism, an emphasis on feelings and sincerity that included a romantic obsession with death. Advances in textile manufacturing combined with a new consumer appetite for mourning apparel led to the establishment of stores — like Besson & Son in Philadelphia and Jackson’s Mourning Warehouse in Manhattan — that sold ready-made mourning clothes, while department stores like Lord & Taylor added mourning departments. Fashion magazines advertised the latest in mourning attire, while etiquette manuals instructed people how to dress to grieve properly for different family members. Queen Victoria further popularized formal mourning by choosing to wear it from the passing of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, until her own death 40 years later. These social and market forces helped standardize what American women wore to express bereavement, and the dominant fabric used to do so was crape.

Spelled with an “a” when referring to mourning clothing, crape was a matte silk gauze that had been crimped with heated rollers; dyed black; and stiffened with gum, starch, or glue. Custom forbade fabrics that reflected light during deep mourning, so lusterless crape was the perfect solution. Manufacturers also heavily promoted crape as the ideal mourning fabric, because it could be made from waste silk and was thus cheap to produce, but could be sold at a high markup. The world’s chief manufacturer of mourning crape was a British company called Courtaulds, which mechanized the production process for massive output and established a veritable monopoly on its creation. The company exported the material internationally, with particular success in the United States and France. Courtaulds raked in the cash from making mourning crape, earning a 30 percent return on capital during the fabric’s boom years of 1850 to 1885. It manufactured mass quantities of black crape — 90,000 pounds’ ($126,684) worth in 1865.

Crape was “a most costly and disagreeable material, easily ruined by the dampness and dust — a sort of penitential and self-mortifying dress, and very ugly and very expensive,” wrote Mrs. John Sherwood in her 1884 etiquette guide, Manners and Social Usages. Known for shedding its dye anytime it got wet, crape would spot in the rain and stain the skin anytime the wearer would sweat. Women’s etiquette and fashion manuals included recipes for removing crape’s black dye from skin, as it “often resists successfully the most lavish use of soap and water,” wrote S.A. Frost in her 1870 book, The Art of Dressing Well. (Both Frost’s manual and Hartley Florence’s 1876 book The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness recommended using a mix of oxalic acid and cream of tartar to banish these stubborn stains, but caution that the former ingredient is poisonous.) The scratchy fabric would also rub against the face, causing irritations and abrasions to the skin. “I have frequently been consulted for an eczemaform eruption of the face occasioned by wearing mourning veils of crèpe,” commented Dr. Prince A. Morrow in an 1894 volume on dermatology.

Mourning dresses in Women in Dresses, 19th Century.

Crape was unpleasant to wear for other reasons, too. The traditional widow’s veil was six feet long and made of two layers of black crape, fastened onto a bonnet placed at the back of the head. “Is it feared that the bereaved one may grow too soon consoled unless she is weighed down by this literal load of mourning?” quipped an 1878 editorial in The Canadian Monthly and National Review. The thick fabric made it hard to breathe and hard to see; the popular fashion magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book admitted in 1857 that the widow’s veil was “blinding and stifling.” But it served a purpose: The veil would “protect a woman while in deepest grief against the untimely gayety of a passing stranger,” Sherwood noted in Manners and Social Uses. And yet, Sherwood also observes, “The black veil […] is most unhealthy: it harms the eyes and it injures the skin.”

She echoed concerns from the medical community: By the 1880s, medical journals had begun a discussion about the health effects of heavy crape veils. The New York Medical Journal decried “the irritation to the respiratory tract caused by minute particles of poisonous crape,” while a syndicated column from the North-Western Lancet declared the mourning veil “a veritable instrument of torture” in hot weather, staining the face and filling the lungs with toxic particles. Doctors speaking of poisonous fabric were not being hyperbolic: Many of the substances used to color and treat crape were seriously toxic, and as the 19th century progressed, the dyes in use only became more dangerous.

In the early part of the 19th century, mourning crape was colored with plant dyes, usually made from valonia, oak galls, or logwood. Acorn cups from the valonia oak are high in tannins, as are oak galls (spherical growths on oak trees caused by parasitic insects, bacteria, or fungi), and both could be used to make vivid black dye. Neither is toxic unless ingested in high quantities. Logwood dye, on the other hand, made from the heartwood of a flowering Central American tree, contains haematoxylin, a chemical compound that can cause eye or skin irritation, as well as respiratory problems.

Even if the dye itself was nontoxic, the mordant (a substance used to set the dye) could present problems. While some were innocuous, chromium, one frequently used mordant, is highly toxic, and can cause pulmonary irritation or disease if inhaled as dust. “Bichromate of potash,” as potassium dichromate was called in the 19th century, is even more dangerous. In an 1870 manual on dyes, J.W. Slater warned that bichromate of potash, while “extensively used, both in dying and printing,” is “an intense poison,” and that “The hands of dyers who work much with this salt, become swollen and ulcerated, and in time the mischief extends to the toes, palate, jaw-bones, etc.” The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that potassium dichromate is “Highly corrosive to skin and mucous membranes,” can cause serious eye damage, and is fatal if inhaled in its pure form.

Mourning ensemble, circa 1870.
Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 1850s, scientists began synthesizing aniline dyes, which are produced from coal tar. To create aniline black, the coal-derivative benzene — itself highly toxic — was often mixed with potassium dichromate, as well as copper chloride, another corrosive chemical that can irritate the skin and eyes and harm mucous membranes. Aniline dyes were also processed using arsenic — a poison that was often retained in the finished product. Harvard professor Dr. Frederick C. Shattuck argued in an 1894 issue of Medical News that aniline dyes “may contain from 2 per cent to 3 per cent of arsenic by weight.” Though aniline black was more popular for dying cotton than silk, some mourning crape was likely still colored with the dye.

In 1879, British surgeon Jabez Hogg wrote of a female patient who suffered “arsenical poisoning” from a black crape dress. The British Medical Journal proclaimed that “The risk incurred by wearing aniline or arsenic next to an absorptive skin […] overbalances any ornamental effects which these pigments can afford.” Even voices from beyond the grave were concerned: according to the American medium Carrie E.S. Twing, a spirit named Samuel Bowles communicated to her that “the coloring matter that enters into black crape is a blood poison, and would be deadly were it to come more in contact with the body.”

“Many a woman has been laid in her coffin by the wearing of crape,” wrote a doctor in an 1898 issue of The Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette. The medical community was particularly concerned about harm to the respiratory tract caused by toxic particles emanating from the gauze. The stiff fabric’s folds would rub against each other and emit particles of chromium, arsenic, or some other toxic substance into the air, which then would enter the eyes and the lungs. “The eyes that survive the bitterness of tears succumb to the poisonous rasping of crape,” lamented the fashion magazine The Delineator in 1895.

Mourning costumes.
Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

The harsh black fabric was also used as trimming for mourning dresses and bonnets, and even covered some deep mourning outfits entirely, but the crape veil caused the most health problems, as the orifices of the face gave its toxic emissions access to the body’s mucous membranes. Additionally, as crape was expensive, many women “who put on mourning do not feel they can afford it, except in the shape of bonnet and veil,” noted an advice writer in Arthur’s Home Magazine, so of all mourning apparel, a woman was most likely to splurge on the most dangerous article.

Due to the cultural expectations for a “respectable” mourner, middle- and upper-class Victorian women felt obligated to wear an uncomfortable, unhealthy piece of clothing, such that the death of a loved one could cause a woman to risk her own health. But by the 1890s, mourning conventions had shifted. Many fashion magazines and etiquette manuals were now urging readers to wear just a light net veil, or stick with the crape veil but let it hang down one’s back. Sales of mourning crape plummeted. Between 1883 and 1894, Courtaulds’ sales figures decreased in value by 62 percent, and in 1896, it began to shift its production emphasis, introducing new lines of colored silks. (In 1904, the company ensured its survival by snapping up the patents for the production of artificial silk — later to be dubbed rayon.) Stiff, dull mourning crape would never return to popularity; even the mass casualties of World War I did not improve sales figures for the fabric. As the 20th century dawned, mourning customs became laxer and laxer, freeing women from the discomfort — and health risks — of heavy weeping veils.

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