Dearly Beloved: Mourning in the Gilded Age

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion*


Anyone who is familiar with the Barker family story knows that these people were not exempt from tragedy. John H. Barker’s first wife, Jennie, and their three children all passed away at distressingly young ages from disease and illness. Catherine experienced a severe shift in her social position and day-to-day activities due to the untimely deaths of both of her parents within six months of each other. The death of Katherine Fitzgerald Barker and John H. Barker, left Catherine orphaned at age 14 in 1910. I was curious what the societal mourning process looked like for someone like Catherine at the tail-end of the Gilded Age. What was her life like in the months following her mother’s and then her father’s deaths? Should we be picturing Queen Victoria after Albert’s death? The answer was: a little bit.

This topic of research first peaked my interest as I was looking into an unrelated topic entirely and I just happened across an article describing appropriate dress for those in mourning in the Victorian and Gilded Ages. The social requirements were so specific and detailed, I found that I wanted to know more. Thus, I started on my research afresh.

The first thing to clarify is that the Gilded Age refers to turn-of-the-century United States. The Victorian era is the relatively massive stretch of time during Queen Victoria’s reign as Queen, and is a term applied to England. However, there are substantial overlaps on this particular topic. It is not unusual that Americans in the Gilded Age, especially the upper class, tried to replicate and copy the customs, imagery, and manners of the English elite. The primary example in Michigan City is the Barker Mansion itself– it would look more at home in the rolling English country than in northern Indiana, because the Barker purposefully copied its style off of those of English manor houses. This mentality applied to mourning practices as well. So, in many cases the Gilded Age mourning behaviors and expectations reflected Victorian mourning practices [2]. So, the familiar image of the elderly Queen Victoria dressed head-to-toe in black is not altogether inaccurate for Gilded Age Americans.

Mourning was a very formal and organized process, with many visual displays of one’s (expected) emotional state or status. There were three mourning stages. The first was “deep mourning,” then “second mourning,” and lastly “half-mourning” [5]. The length and expectations surrounding what one should do and wear for each stage depended on what type of mourner you were. If a widow, deep mourning was to last one year, second mourning was to last another year, and half-mourning was supposed to last about six months [5]. After that she was no longer in mourning. For a person mourning the death of a parent, or a parent mourning the death of their adult child, deep mourning was to last for about six months, second mourning for about three months, and half-mourning for three months [5]. Meanwhile, children under fifteen were not expected to wear mourning [5]. As you can see, the gender and age of the mourner, as well as their relation to the one being mourned greatly affected the expected length of each stage of mourning. However, it is important to note that the national expected length for mourning was shortening in this time, particularly in the first decade of the eighteenth century [5].

What dress was worn was also greatly affected by these factors in the mourning process. Mourning girls under the age of seventeen were not to ever wear ‘crape,’ even if in deep mourning. Deep mourning generally included the famous elaborate, fully-black outfits, although the nature of the trimmings or materials were adjusted depending on the mourner’s social status, age, etc [4]. Second mourning was generally marked by less elaborate black clothing, although men could be permitted to wear dark grey suits [5]. Half-mourning followed the trend of the gradual lightening of the clothing, with light black, lighter materials, and mauve, lavender, or grey could be worn [5]. Once again, all of this could be further broken down into the details of what trimmings and materials could be worn by whom in which stage of mourning. As I stated earlier, it was complicated.

Other steps were taken to show that one was in mourning. Stationary with a narrow black border was utilized, memento mori photos (photographs taken of the positioned corpse), and hair jewelry (jewelry that included a lock of hair from the deceased) also accompanied the stages of mourning and appropriate dress [1,2]. Additionally, behaviors and schedules were changed when one was in mourning. It was “not considered becoming” for a mourner to travel to or visit places of amusement or leisure [5]. This included the theater, house calls, formal dinners, leisurely travel, and more [5]. Isolation was appropriate for a new mourner, with a gradual addition of pleasurable activities over the months, as the “deepness” of the mourning lessen. Additionally, it was considered rude of friends and acquaintances to ask mourners to participate in these things. Invitations to parties, dinners, etc. and calling on the mourner were withheld for over a month [5, 1]. The house of the departed would also reflect the state of mourning, with blinds or shades drawn upon the death until the completion of the funeral, and still more strong recommendations surrounded the nature of the casket, burial, funeral service, and more [1]. Mourning was not only very complex, with multiple rules within the rules, but display of one’s mourning extended into all parts of one’s life.

Now, with only some of the many societal expectations and regulations laid out above, all of these beg the question of why such lengths were taken and the repercussions on society and one’s image as a result of them. Again, this era slightly overlapped with the English Victorian Age and followed the American Civil War, which defined Americans views on death largely due to the record high number of casualties incurred during it, totaling more than 600,000 soldiers [4, 2]. American views on death were very spiritual, and it is best summarized that a person’s love for those of the departed was more pure and eternal than the love of those still living [3]. As Thomas Baldwin Thayer wrote at the time, “…the memory of the dead often has for us a sanctifying power…” [3]. By the departed’s now spiritual status, love and memory of them is holier and more sacred due to it. Expression of mourning was important to convey this connection.

There were other reasons why mourning was such a complicated and visual process. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “excessive grief was frowned upon, as it implied the mourner doubted the promises of eternal life and that loved ones would be reunited after death” [3]. Mourning dress and practices allowed people to express their emotions without having a “violent” showing of emotion [3]. This attitude, however, accumulated some criticism for the time. It was argued that mourning practices “entailed considerably hypocrisy” and allowed for mourners to maintain a respectable “grave facade” while truly feeling otherwise [3]. There was concern that mourning practices were merely a performance and permitted people to create the illusion of an appropriate mourner while failing to honestly honor the memory of the departed. Naturally, the hypocrisy or lack of it was a case by case basis, as many mourners were truly grieved by the loss of loved ones, but there were likely those that were not.

The visual and material nature of the socially acceptable mourning practice, which inspired this fear of hypocrisy, also led to the inevitable business side of it. As proper mourning required so many physical objects to be purchased, an entire industry blossomed. Department stores (a relatively new phenomenon) had entire section or stores dedicated to mourning attire and objects [3, 2]. As far as clothing was concerned, the wealthy were able to have new garments in the appropriate colors, materials, etc. could have them new and tailor-made for each death, as it was believed to be bad luck to keep the mourning outfits once the observance period had ended, but for those with fewer means, mourning attire became some of the first styles of ready-made outfits [2]. As deaths were frequent and inevitable, of course, and death rates were high, the industry had an unfailing, steady supply of customers [2]. The photography industry also took off as those who were unable to afford or have a photograph taken while alive, could then have a memento mori photograph [2]. Overall, the business of mourning became very commercialized and profit-oriented, as the materialistic requirements of mourning were its foundation in the Gilded Age.

There are even more aspects of the mourning industry and practices that I could go into, but it is important to tie all of my research back to my source of inspiration– Catherine Barker. I looked through documents in the Barker Mansion archive to get a few hints about the nature of her mourning. It seems that some mourning practices were followed by the family, but a surprising number seemed to be neglected. It is important to acknowledge that mourning in Catherine’s case was incredibly unique– most mourners of the time did not suddenly become one of the richest women in the world overnight due to being orphaned. It could be that the need to address the business of the freight car company and the inheritance took priority over following the decorum of deep mourning for Catherine. It could also be the case that Catherine was young enough to not need to strictly follow the mourning practices (she was only 14 years old). It is hard to know the exact reason without more documentation. I will summarize what I do know. Most of the information that I have comes from an interview that Catherine gave the Chicago Daily Tribune following the death of her father. This interview, given in the Barker Mansion library, is dated about one week after her father’s death, which is surprising, as that implies that Catherine had not gone into deep mourning and isolated herself from those outside of the household. She also describes her daily routine, which seems to be relatively unchanged after the death of her parents. However, there are a few changes that she notes, which imply some element of official mourning. When asked about her family’s summer home in Harbor Point, Michigan, Catherine responded, “We usually go up there the last of June and remain until September. I have been up there every summer that I can remember, but last summer, of course, I was in mourning and things were different.” Catherine recounts the fun that she had and the activities that she would do with her friends up at Harbor Point: “Heretofore, however, I attended dancing parties, went motoring in a fine launch, which was oceans of fun, roller skated, had amusements of all sorts with the boys and girls up there; took side trips by launch across Little Traverse bay to Petoskey; visited the curio shops there and returned across the bay before dark.” Clearly Catherine enjoyed her summers spent in Harbor Point, but spending the summers there after her mother’s death were inappropriate and so abandoned, as it is a stay for pleasure. Catherine also had forgone recent trips abroad, likely from the same mentality that kept her from Harbor Point. We do have a record of her sailing from Southampton to New York in 1914. That could have been her first international voyage since 1910, but it is not totally certain. On a separate note, which was a bit unusual, there are no memento mori images of the Barker family. The only memento mori photograph in our archive is that of the family dog, Tango.

We also know a little about Mrs. Barker’s funeral. Mrs. Barker died on May 24, 1910 and her funeral took place on June 1, 1910. Her pallbearers were a number of servants named in the newspaper article detailing the service. The funeral took place at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Michigan City. Mr. Barker was “hurrying home,” but could not be back in the United States in time for the funeral. On June 1, he was traveling from Southampton to New York on the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. As he could not be at the funeral, the newspaper article said that Mrs. Barker’s body would “lie in a vault” until his return. Separately, an inventory of the objects in the Barker Mansion was taken shortly after Mr. Barker’s death, so business at home did not come to a complete standstill for mourning. From what I have been able to find, it would seem that after each death in the Barker Family, some practices were adhered to and some were not. Unfortunately, we don’t fully know why.

Having a glimpse into the mentality and practices about mourning in the Gilded Age provides an interesting perspective on the evolution of our understanding and treatment of the reality of death. Although, the nearly purely visual aspect of these mourning practices left me with more questions than answers. I hope to find out more in the future.


[1] Cassell’s Household Guide, vol. 3. London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1880. Courtesy of


[2] Cueto, Anna. “Death was Big Business in Gilded Age America.” Washington County Historical Society, 2018.


[3] Downey, Dara. American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age. Springer, 2014. Courtesy of Google Books.


[4] Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 2008.


[5] “Mourning in the 1900s and 1910s.” Sew Historically: Sewing, DIY & Historical Costuming.


Ursula Kremer 8.7.19

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