Monday, March 19, 2012

Funeral gloves

Unlike burial shoes, funeral gloves were for the living. This post is offered as a response to the following inquiry from the husband of a friend:

"A couple of years ago Deb came across a copy of The History of American Funeral Directing by Habenstein and Lamers, and I was fascinated by it. One of many details I loved was their mention of giving funeral gloves to mourners--and to announce deaths--in colonial New England, a continuation of a practice, they say, from feudal England. They speak of the funeral of Governor Belcher's wife in 1736 where over 1000 pairs of gloves were given away, and how Andrew Eliot, minister of North Church in Boston, counted his stash one day and found that, in 32 years of ministry, he had received 2,940 pairs of funeral gloves. This really intrigues me. Was there a little known but huge glove making industry in 18th century New England? Who made all these gloves, and where were they stored - since death often came with little warning after quick illnesses, fewer people would have time to say "Uncle Zephaniah is getting old--I guess we should start making gloves." In 18th century New England I think even the wealthy might be hard-pressed to come up with 1,000 pairs of gloves on short notice. At Waitstill Winthrop's funeral, the cost of given-away gloves, scarves, rings, came to over six hundred pounds--20% of his entire estate. While that is an extreme example of one of Boston's wealthiest, Habenstein and Lamers imply that this custom of giving stuff at funerals, especially gloves, was widespread. Have you come across any other references to this funeral glove phenomenon? Anything you know available on line? I'd love to read more about this custom, especially about the practical details."

The upper-class Puritans of 17th c. New England were said to have purchased a single glove* to send with the invitation to a funeral, which would have halved the expense, but even when pairs were provided, the quality could be varied with the status of the recipient. The gloves were sold by funeral outfitters who supplied everything from the black-plumed hearses to the black-edged invitations and inviters sent to deliver them. By the early 18th c., spending on funerals had become so lavish that the Massachusetts colony passed laws against the distribution of scarves, gloves (at a cost of 4s in 1723), and rings that were not manufactured in America. The rings were kept on hand, as were - presumably - the gloves and other apparel. It was in the Victorian era, when the queen wore mourning from the death of Prince Albert in 1861 to her own death in 1901, that mourning fashion flowered and followed strict guidelines. Whether buying ready-made or doing it yourself, the grief-stricken were able to mobilize in a hurry. "Mourning clothes were something you needed quickly when there was a death in your family. As a result, mourning garments became the first off-the-rack clothing you could buy. Remember, this was a time when most clothing was made at home. You could either go to a place that sold mourning clothes and buy them, or take everything you had to a merchant who would dye them all black. If you were poorer than that, you would put your own clothes in a large pot in your back yard and dye them black," explains Jane Peters Estes of the Camden County Historical Society. Changes in society fueled the custom and promotion of mourning fashion: "The increased manufacturing technology of the Victorian age created a vast market for mourning dress....Advertisements hawked mourning bodices, skirts, capes, veils, black bonnets, black indoor caps, gloves, fans, and black edged handkerchiefs." Many styles of gloves - including kidskin and lace - were available, and even babies wore symbols of grief. Men had it easier than women, simply wearing their usual dark suits with the addition of black gloves, hatbands, and cravats. A pair of black kid or silk gloves were provided to each of the pall-bearers, a custom that survives though the color has changed. According to one source, it was considered at the time bad luck to keep mourning clothing in the house after the period of mourning had ended. And according to another, funeral apparel shops in Australia encouraged the recycling of dresses and accessories. So I think we may safely extrapolate and assume that between reuse and industrious craftsmanship, the suppliers in Colonial America were fully stocked with gloves of all sizes.

*Note that each of the mourners in the 19th and early 20th c. images above are wearing only one glove.

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