The Colour of Mourning

I accidentally came across this trade card below, for a Matthias Otto of The Strand, London, and for those who are regular readers of All Things Georgian, you will no doubt be aware of my interest in trade cards, but something about this one specific jumped out at me on this one.

British Museum
British Museum

It was dated c1765 and referred to Matthias Otto as being a seller of amongst other things – ‘widow’s weeds‘.

Little seems to be known about Matthias, however, we do know that following his death, his son Matthias junior continued the business after his father as another trade card exists which depicts him selling the same items of clothing.

Now, I have to confess I thought the term ‘widow’s weeds’ was a term usually associated with the Victorian period rather than Georgian when women wore black for long periods of time and didn’t realise that it was in common usage prior to this.

The term ‘weeds’, according to Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language:

originated from the word waed –  a garment of clothing, habit, or dress. Now scarce in use, except in ‘widows weeds’, the mourning dress of a widow.

With that, I decided to what more I could find out and my first point of reference was the trusty, Ackermann’s Repository and in 1809 there was a little more information about widow’s weeds:

In every country on the earth some emblem of grief, or token of esteem, is worn by the surviving relatives of deceased persons; but the mode of expressing this affection varies according to the custom or fashion in different nations.

In Syria, Cappadocia and Armenia, sky-blue dress is worn on this occasion, because it is the colour of those regions which it is hoped their departed friends inhabit.  In Egypt, a yellow dress is used on such occasions, being a symbol that death terminates our mortal expectations, as the leaves of the trees turn yellow when decayed. The Ethiopians wear grey, and Europeans black. Grey is emblematic of the earth to which the dead return and black, which is a privation of light, it is also typical of the absence of life, but for virgins, a white dress is worn, because it is an emblem of purity.

Another thing that I hadn’t really given any thought to was the process of dying fabric to produce the colour black which given the high mortality rate in Britain would have been something in great demand. Again Ackermann’s provided some answers.

Mourning Dress - Ackermanns Repository 1809
Mourning Dress – Ackermanns Repository 1809

A Mr Vitalis found an improved way of producing a good quality black fabric and thread to make mourning weeds. There had clearly been an issue with the dye, as it was not long-lasting and turned fabrics a rusty colour fairly quickly. For those unable to buy specific mourning clothes it was common practice to dye existing clothes black using iron filings and the bark of an elder tree. The use of iron filings would explain this rusty colour and then keeping such items to be passed down through the family.

Lady Hall of Dunglass 1752 Allan Ramsay 1713-1784 Bequeathed by Sophy, Lady Hall in memory of Lt-Col. Sir John Hall, 9th Baronet of Dunglass 1952
Lady Hall of Dunglass 1752 Allan Ramsay 1713-1784 Bequeathed by Sophy, Lady Hall in memory of Lt-Col. Sir John Hall, 9th Baronet of Dunglass 1952

General rules for behaving whilst in mourning were published, as someone decided that the correct etiquette was not being correctly observed and that people needed to be reminded about how to behave.

A wife losing her husband

She should not appear in public the first week, nor in private without a handkerchief.

The second Sunday at church, much affected with the sermon, the handkerchief not omitted.

She may go to a tragedy after the first month, and weep in character, either the play or the loss of her husband. The second month she may attend a comedy and smile, but not languishingly.

Drake, Nathan; Lady in Mourning; Ripon City Council

A husband losing his wife

Must weep or seem to weep at the funeral.

Should not appear at the chocolate house during the first week.

Should vent a proper sigh whenever the good wife or even matrimony is mentioned.

May take a mistress into keeping the third week, provided he had not had one before.

May appear with her in public at the end of the month, and as he, probably, may not choose to marry again, he may, at the close of the second month, be allowed a couple of mistresses, to solace him in his melancholy.


Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. Volume 4

The Town and Country Magazine, Or Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction, and Entertainment, Vol. 1. 1769

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics by Ackermann, Rudolph, 1764-1834. 1809

Town and Country Magazine. Etiquette for mourning. 1769

13 thoughts on “The Colour of Mourning

  1. Eric Bloomquist

    The real problem with dyeing old garments in alder/iron oxide is that it to make the iron oxide requires acid (typically vinegar) , and like all other bark the alder contains tannic acid. While these ingredients are diluted in water for the dye bath, immersing natural fibers for any length of time in the solution weakens and destroys the fibers. To achieve a deep colour you need to leave the fabric in longer, increasing the chances that the fiber will degrade. This was a common dye for leather, but is applied by wiping on the surface, never by immersion to avoid the sort of damage that must occur in fabric dyeing.


    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you so much for your comment. I suspect they used what they thought would work for the occasion rather than understanding that it would ultimately rot the garment 🙂


  2. sylvia wright

    Oh, so the husband “may take a mistress into keeping AT THE END OF THE THIRD WEEK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Huh!

    I wonder how long a wife had to wait???????


    1. Sarah Murden

      Not sure, I seem to recall reading somewhere that it was 6 months, but it was most definitely a case of one rule for men and another for women at that time!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. pennyhampson2

    Goodness! I had a laugh at those rules for mourning especially the ones for men. It says a lot about how wives/women were valued – give it 3 weeks then…


    1. Sarah Murden

      Women at that time often had less value than a man’s horse, dog or home. In many instances they were very much a commodity – think about the likes of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, she had to obey her husband yet he was free to take a live=in mistress!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 25) |

  5. Wow – so at the end of the second month, women are allowed to smile a little at the theatre versus men who are allowed ‘a couple of mistresses’ by then. Double standards so sadly (but also hilariously) apparent there! Thanks for this interesting post!


  6. Amy L Maris

    I read somewhere (?) that white was often used as a mourning color for children and particularly innocent deceased. There is a hint of this in the document. Have you found evidence of that, pictures etc? And would these rules apply for young infants, whose untimely death was prevalent then?


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