Mourning Jewelry & Edgar Allan Poe’s Hair

Halloween is around the corner and it’s the perfect time to share with you some incredible (and creepy) pieces of jewelry and objects.

Mourning jewelry and momento mori have been known since the Roman times. It was revived in the middle ages and reached its artistic pinnacle in the late 18th century. It then became widespread and commercialized during the Victorian era due to Queen Victoria’s decades-long mourning of her husband and consort Prince Albert.

Momento mori roughly translates from Latin to mean ‘remember you will die.’ It was worn as a reminder to Christians of the fleeting nature of life and the need to live a good life. It often featured death symbols like skulls, skeletons, coffins etc. Revived in the middle ages, it was worn all the way through the Victorian era. Momento mori jewelry was often inscribed with the initials of a loved one to memorialize the deceased and so served as a form of mourning jewelry as well.

Hairwork was another popular form of adornment during the Victorian era. Jewelry made from locks of hair served as a reminder of the departed. The hair was often tightly woven and fashioned into necklaces, bracelets, and brooches. Because of the popularity of this type of jewelry and the demand for it, the hair used was not always from the deceased. At the height of the hair jewelry craze in the mid-1800’s, some 50 tons of human hair a year were imported into England to be fashioned into these decorative items.

In fact, the trend became so popular that Victorians began to decorate their houses with hairwork items as at-home memorials. The pieces were considered artworks and kept in cases on display in homes rather than being worn.

Mourning jewelry was also prevalent in America in New England during the 18th and 19th centuries – a time when disease, childbirth and the harsh environment all contributed to a high mortality rate. The above right photo features (via AtlasObscura) a piece jewelry made from Edgar Allan Poe’s hair mixed with his beloved Virginia’s who died on January 30, 1847, two years before Poe’s own mysterious death in 1849. You can view this piece at the Grolier Club in New York City right now through November 22, 2014 in the exhibition Evermore: The Persistence of Poe. The Edgar Allan Poe Collection of Susan Jaffe Tane.


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