Funeralia In Excelsis: the ephemera of Britain in mourning
Amoret Tanner, writer and collector, is a Founding Council member of the Ephemera Society. Here she examines the ephemera of Britain in mourning.
Most collectors accumulate, almost by chance, examples of the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century black-edged card supplied by the local undertaker
from stock. The cards enabled relatives to announce their bereavement
to family and friends and they survive in their dull thousands. With little
artistic or historical merit, they give no indication of the wealth of
ephemera associated with death and mourning.
It is a twentieth century convention that has made the topic of death
one of the last of the taboo subjects, and a brief look at past customs
is necessary to appreciate the large quantity of ephemera it has generated.
Mourning, it must be said, has been enjoyed for centuries, both for
its symbolism and for the opportunity it has given to demonstrate the
social standing of the family. To leave out a single detail, to skimp
one ribbon or one ritual pair of gloves, was a lapse that marked the survivors
for life. Many poor families in Britain all but pauperised themselves
in trying to do the thing decently. Le Blanc, writing towards the end
of the eighteenth century, put it well when he said: The care the
English take of all particulars of their burial, would make one believe
that they find more pleasure in dying than living.
Death in the family
The funeral itself was naturally the most important part of the ritual,
and seventeenth and eighteenth century funeral invitations are among
the rarer and most attractive of death associated items. The majority
were wood engraved with a surround incorporating the traditional reminders
of mortality-Father Time and his scythe, skeletons, crossed bones and
hour-glasses, as well as funeral processions shown in considerable detail.
Wealthier families could choose copper-engraved invitations in a suitably
Then, as now, the undertaker would keep a stock of blanks: the invitation
generally included the phrase You are desired to accompany the Corps
of ... and personal details were filled in by hand. Seating for
an important funeral was limited both in church and at the subsequent
feast; the words Bring the Ticket with you usually follow.
Like the eighteenth and nineteenth century undertaker's trade cards and
billheads to come, these invitations provide the only contemporary pictorial
evidence for the costume of mourners and mutes.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century the undertaker came into his
own. He was the successor to the upholder, whose main profession since
the thirteenth century had been to supply everything to do with beds.
The upholders began to find that the business of undertaking the provision
of all the fumiture, equipment, clothes, carriages, mutes, food, drink,
hangings, invitations and flowers necessary for a good funeral was so
profitable that it soon became the main raison d'etre for many of the
larger town firms.
Earlier trade cards occasionally describe the undertaker as a funeral
featherman and plumes are incorporated into the design of
the card. This refers to the custom of decorating a board on the coffin,
as well as the horse furniture, with large displays of black or white
feathers, the colour depending on the marital status of the deceased.
The plumes continue to be clearly seen on trade cards and billheads throughout
the nineteenth century. The custom itself died out only in 1917.
Trade cards also give an insight into the associated skills which some
undertakers could offer. The most common, as might be expected, was that
of carpenter and joiner; others appeared to combine the duties of a modern
bailiff by offering to collect rents, or to act as general agent
for the management of House and Land Property (this underneath a
fine engraving of a large cemetery).
Front of folding Memorial card, 1887 Printed in silver, grey and black
115 x 77mm(4½ x 3in)
By the nineteenth century the funeral invitation had gone out of fashion;
its place was taken by small memorial cards which were sent out after
the funeral had taken place. For about 25 years from the 1840s these cards
reached a very high design standard, a standard unfortunately not matched
by the quality of the printing added by the local jobbing printer. The
majority of the cards, intricately blind embossed and pierced, were produced
by firms such as Wood and Mansell who were sufficiently proud of the result
to impress their name on them.
1878 Mourning card by Wood, intricately blind embossed and pierced
The cards are normally white with a thin
black border, with classical renderings of weeping figures, urns, broken
columns, willows and mourning angels. The vogue for gothic architecture
is particularly finely caught. It appears as a major design feature in
many of the cards as well as on the elaborate mounts backed with black
flock to set off the elaborate filigree effect of their own embossing
and piercing. The mounts provided a central space for display of the mourning
card, the whole designed for framing.
Inside front cover of folding Memorial card, 1887.
Printed in silver, grey and black, 115 x 77mm (4½ x 3in)
By 1900 the fashion was for a folding card with
message and name printed inside. Designs were lithographed and silver
and other muted colours were popular. A specimen book produced by a Batley,
Yorkshire, printer for 1892 shows 35 samples, although in his accompanying
letter he states that he holds an assortment of 12,000 to 15,000 patterns
in stock. His samples show black-edged single cards at l/- a dozen; lithographed
folding cards incorporating the now popular lilies-of-the-valley or a
wreath of flowers round a cross at 2/6 per dozen; or a copper engraved
design at 3/6 cost of plate extra. These prices included the
matching black-edged envelopes.
The public funerals of statesmen generated their own ephemera. In addition
to the many souvenirs sold in the streets, the funeral of the Duke of Wellington
in 1852 produced at least twelve different classes of ticket, all numbered,
allocated according to status or sold to the public at large. For high-ranking
colleagues and family there were engraved tickets authenticated by a seal
on black sealing wax. At the other end of the scale, local inhabitants
were merely provided with an undecorated pass card printed by letterpress.
From the 1780s onwards the fashion magazines at times of national grief
included the occasional plate to indicate suitable mourning wear. As the
nineteenth century progressed and the rules of mourning became more demanding,
it was possible for one young mistress of a reasonably wealthy Victorian
establishment to complain that although she had been married for seven
years, every one of her trousseau dresses remained unworn because of the
rapid succession of deaths of her relations-in-law.
It was demands such as these that founded the fortunes of several major
London stores, among them the firm of Jays which opened in 1841
in Regent Street as The London General Mourning Warehouse.
By 1855 there were four major mourning warehouses in the same street,
with others in the vicinity. Advertising handouts, leaflets produced by
the stores advising on mourning etiquette, pictorial billheads showing
the splendid shop front with its suitably gothic windows and fashion catalogues
are among the ephemera which survive.
The design of this package label expresses the affluence of the company that led Londons mourning industry in the middle of the nineteenth century. Commenting on the shops modishness, Henry Mayhew observed that our sackcloth must be of the finest quality... our grief goes for nothing if not fashionable.
The mourning warehouses announced that Ladies living at a distance
may be supplied at their own Residence but for those living beyond
even this service, there were specially produced catalogues.
Jays Catalogue for 1861 includes eight lithographed plates illustrating morning
dresses, dinner dresses, mantles and suitable accessories. The final page
tactfully suggests appropriate dress for the varying degrees
of bereavement, ranging through the hierarchy of family relationships.
The firms much enlarged catalogue for Spring 1862 included two engravings
of their Regent Street shop and, in a page of boxed display advertisements,
used a liberal variety of typefaces to describe the merits of their stock.
A complete Suit of Domestic Mourning for 2½ guineas
was appropriate for the servants.
1909 Folding memorial card with message and name printed inside
The idea of black as the only possible colour for mourning is an artificial one; black represents sorrow to us only because we have made it so. In China, for example, from time immemorial it has been white, the sign of
purity and hope, and the ladies of Sparta wore the same colour. In England
white, as a symbol of innocence, was commonly used as a mourning colour
for dead children. The Christian Church mourns not in black but in purple,
the colour of the garment the Roman soldiers threw over Christs
shoulder when they mockingly proclaimed him King of the Jews.
These colours are reflected in the printed silk bookmarkers given as personal
mementoes between 1880 and 1925; details of children and the unmarried
are recorded in black print on white silk; mauve silk was used for the
married. The markers were cheaply produced and generally printed locally.
One particularly poignant marker has a sepia photograph of the World War
1 soldier who died of wounds in France and was Deeply mourned by
- Silk Bookmark - Black printing on white silk
- 56 x 194mm (2¼ x 7½in)
- In Loving Memory of Lce.-Corpl. James Rushton.
- Who died of wounds received in action in France,
- on April 2nd 1918. Aged 26 years.
There can be humour even in a collection of mourning ephemera and a
favourite category of mine is that of the mock mourning cards which are
considerably rarer than the conventional ones. Examples are Sacred
to the memory of the late Brisk Trade Esq. who shuffled off this mortal
coil in Autumn 1876 and a fine card In memory of Honor, wife
of John Bull, Who died in the Transvaal and was interred at Candahar March
© Amoret Tanner 2003. All Rights Reserved