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Lifting The Veil: Mourning in the Berkshires
12:32PM / Friday, August 20, 2021
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — "Lifting the Veil: Mourning in the Berkshires" is currently on view at Herman Melville's Arrowhead and explores historic mourning practices, focusing primarily on the nineteenth century. 
 
The exhibition contains objects from Berkshire County Historical Society's (BCHS) collection including an array of mourning attire, an embroidered silk mourning picture, headstones and funerary items, and ephemera. Lifting the Veil is on view through October 2021 and is free and open to the public.
 
"This exhibition was well into the planning phase in 2020 when COVID-19 caused us to close for the year," said Lesley Herzberg, Executive Director of The Berkshire County Historical Society. "As we emerge from a lengthy period during which our traditional mourning practices were disrupted, it seems particularly relevant to be looking at the evolution of these practices."
 
Mourning silks, elaborate memorial embroideries, grew in popularity at the turn of the nineteenth century, a change brought on by the death of President George Washington (1732-1799). After the restrictions put on displays of mourning during the Revolutionary War, the country once again embraced it through mementos of his death, many made by hand to be displayed in the home. The images draw from classical and neoclassical decorative themes common of the time, usually depicting mourning women, weeping willows, angels, and tombs featuring Federal or Classical architecture. At one point, they were so popular that they would sometimes be stitched before the event of a death, waiting for a name and date to be added at the appropriate time.
 
"This exhibit gives us the opportunity to explore objects in our collection which aren't often on view to the public," said Erin Hunt, Curator of the Berkshire County Historical Society. "My personal favorites are the mourning dresses – we have one of the largest costume collections in the Berkshires, and it includes some absolutely gorgeous pieces. These dresses, along with the other objects in the exhibit, help bridge the material and immaterial: tangible and often beautiful things that represent a deeply personal emotion which was expected to be expressed in a particularly public way. Some of these objects and the concepts behind them will be familiar to visitors, and some might be entirely new."
 
A c. 1805 mourning silk likely worked by Edith Williams (1793—1827) memorializes two Williams children baptized July 1793 at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Lanesboro. The silk depicts a cemetery plot in which there are four small headstones and two monuments. One monument is marked with the following: "Miss Martha Williams / Died / September 11, 1799 / Aged 14 Years." The larger monument in the foreground is inscribed as follows: "In Memory of Miss Anna Williams / Who died August 6, 1804 / Aged 17 Years."
 
Lifting the Veil presents several examples of mourning dresses, hats, veils, parasols, and fans reflecting the stages of mourning common in the nineteenth century. Earlier, during the eighteenth century, mourning attire, sometimes repurposed from existing black garments, was often sewn or provided for mourners by neighbors and friends. While the wearing of mourning dress was not as regulated as it was in later years, women often wore black for the better part of the year. A black crape or ribbon armband would generally suffice for men.
 
In the early nineteenth century, influenced greatly by Queen Victoria (1819-1901), an emphasis was placed on the public display of mourning fashion and traditions started to become more prescribed. After the death of her husband, Prince Albert (1819-1861), the Queen stayed in mourning for the remainder of her life. During this time, stages of mourning became the new social standards both in England and abroad.
 
Several examples of such attire are presented in Lifting the Veil and on display in Melville's historic house representing the three primary stages of mourning: Deepest Mourning, Second Mourning, and Half Mourning. A c. 1880 wrapper dress of wool crape and taffeta would have been worn around the house, particularly before one was ready to reenter society.  A plum faille and velvet walking suit, c. 1885, shows the subtle ways color was incorporated in Half Mourning. A c. 1890 fitted dress with bustle worn by Miss Frances Colt (1883-1967) of Pittsfield illustrates that mourning attire was not reserved for adults. 
 
Besides their personal memories of a loved one, physical objects connected people with those who had passed. In the nineteenth century, mourning rings and pins purchased by the estate of the deceased were often distributed to the primary mourners at a funeral held for a person of affluence. These pieces would be distributed to both men and women, worn at the funeral, and kept in remembrance of the departed. Sometimes they were worn on the anniversary of a death. Handkerchiefs, usually simple white with a black border, were also distributed for this reason, as were gloves. Lifting the Veil includes pieces of jewelry including a c. 1846 Jet pin with a card of lock of hair commemorated the death of George Fred Woodward, as well as mourning handkerchiefs and gloves.
 
Coffin plates, not only used to mark the identity of an individual, were often removed by the grieving family as a memento. Like many elements of nineteenth-century material culture, the quality of the material and level of decoration corresponded with the wealth of the family. Other funeral items included in the exhibition include a pair of c. 1890 pall bearer gloves, an 1872 marble headstone, and a 1971 rubbing of the 1785 monument to of the Hon. Wm. Williams Esq., a highly influential early settler of Pittsfield.
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