Stump the Interpreter: Widow’s Weed


Its great when visitors are interested in history to ask questions that lead to amazing discussions with interpreters.  This summer we’ve had a lot of great questions that have helped expand our understanding of life during the 1800s. This week’s questions was about Widow’s Weed during the mid to late 1800s.

Widow’s Weed is an 18th century term for the black crape widows would often wear while mourning their loved ones.  It comes from the Old English word waed meaning garment.  Prior to the Victorian period, it was considered customary to mourn lost loved ones but the Victorians took it to a whole other level.  They developed and encouraged certain rules of behavior that were particularly focused on widows.  It was customary for a widow to go into what was called full mourning for a year.  During this time she was to wear a veil (the widow’s weed) over her face, she not permitted to attend social functions, or generally be seen out in public.  Then for another half year to a year she was in half mourning and was permitted to attend some social occasions and could start adding more texture to her black wardrobe.   During her last six months of mourning, the widow could start adding more color to her clothes including white, gray and light purples.  (The Met in New York had a great display about mourning fashion. )

After her period of mourning ended, women were expected to remarry-particularly if they were young and had inherited money.  A widow was some what socially dangerous; she no longer had a male protector (either father or husband) and as a widow could own property. This could give her a freedom unknown to her peers.  Because of they were able to engage with men as slightly more socially equal standing.  A widow can gain some power without loosing her reputation. This side was often seen in political cartoons through the 1800s.

Men had it a bit easier.  If they were a ‘junior’, they couldn’t drop the junior from their name until their father was buried.  Men’s mourning clothes was not that different from their regular day wear. A widower was generally expected to be in mourning for about 6 months to a year for his wife.

Mourning was very expensive.  Like today’s wedding shops, the 19th century saw mourning parlors where people could go and buy anything they needed.  Going into mourning could bankrupt a family.  Often times frugal family members would just overdye their clothes to make them black.  Armbands were an option as well. Nevertheless, proper society considered them socially inappropriate for anyone not in uniform.  This was often the method used by individuals who did not have a lot of disposable income.

World War I really saw the end of the strict Victorian standards.  With so many people dying during the Great War it was just impractical to keep the strict traditions.  And the 1920s, saw the transformation of the widow’s black dress into the little black dress.  Today, while many people still wear black to funerals, it is not always necessary.  Its considered more appropriate for people to look well attended and to honor the memory of the person.

Now you know a little bit more about life during the 1800s. This blog is written by Katherine Muller, Executive Director of Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm.  It is intended to help visitors explore and learn about life on the farm throughout history and as Katherine explores and learns more about the farm too.


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