Originally created 06/27/99

Mourning clothes not forgoten



AIKEN - Sipping a steaming cup of tea with a dash of milk and sugar amid the delicate stitchings of death is Susan Giddings' way of easing into life each morning.

It's not your usual pick-me-up, but the Aiken County councilwoman feels comforted by black lace veils, oval brooches, tresses of hair in lockets, old-fashioned fobs that once held men's watches and other pieces from the past.

The items would be forgotten, if not for collectors like Mrs. Giddings. The history lover and antique dealer collects mourning regalia, the things people wore in the 19th century after the death of a loved one.

Mrs. Giddings keeps the collection in her sitting room, where she can enjoy it. As the early-morning light creeps across the dimly lighted room, it catches a mannequin dressed in black in one corner, a pair of high-top button shoes on the floor and other scattered relics of someone's grief.

But the items create warm memories for Mrs. Giddings. She closes her eyes and travels to her grandma Helen's house, where she ate biscuits and jelly and drank milk from swirl snuff glasses. She remembers her grandma playing the organ that sat in a corner. She can almost smell the aroma of cornbread, pinto beans and collard greens cooking in cast-iron pots.

Then the phone rings, jolting Mrs. Giddings back into 1999.

She also collects quilts, apothecary items, phonographs, old cracker jars and pump organs, but the mourning collection is her favorite, since every item in it had a special meaning to someone. That is its value, said Mrs. Giddings, who doesn't speak of it in monetary terms.

It seems an odd collection for someone so caught up in life. Or does it?

"To deny that death is a part of life is foolish," said Mrs. Giddings. "It holds no triumph over me. I am a Christian who believes with all my heart that death isn't the end.

"It's not that I have a fixation with death," says Mrs. Giddings, as she tries to explain her most unusual collection. "Really, I just like black."

Black is, after all, her favorite color. And it reminds her of a time she would have liked to live, "when people had a passion for living, gave you time to grieve, and losing someone wasn't swept under the rug and quickly forgotten."

According to old-fashioned etiquette books, a widow would wear her black dresses and bonnets for at least a year and sometimes as long as three years. Men usually wore black bands around their top hats but returned to regular clothing once the funeral was over.

Mrs. Giddings' collection began seven years ago with a sprig of black lace, a handkerchief and a braided hair bracelet.

"What mainly attracted me to the pieces was that they were black and Victorian," Mrs. Giddings said. "Then someone said, `You know what you've got, Susan? The makings of a mourning collection. So it became like a Easter-egg hunt to me to find as many pieces as I could."'

The collection now includes live weeping willow trees, parasols, cotton stockings, hatpins, beads, jewelry made to hold locks of hair, funeral clothing and casket plates -- engraved metal placards bearing words like "Loving Mother" or simply "Father."

One of her favorite pieces is etched glass in a handcarved frame and is dedicated to the memory of Judia Oliver. The design is a cross, a dove and a floral spray, symbols of faith, hope and charity. The inscription reads:

"Asleep in Jesus, whose waking is supremely blest. No fear, no woe shall dim that hour, which manifests a Savior's power."

Mrs. Giddings doesn't know who Ms. Oliver was. She died in 1895, when she was just 40 years old. But the plaque brings back memories of her mother, who also died at age 40, when Mrs. Giddings was a first-grader at Millbrook Elementary School.

Her mother's untimely death gave Mrs. Giddings plenty of time with paternal grandparents Ralph and Helen Waldrop, who lived on a row-crop farm in Franklin, N.C.

Mrs. Giddings grandmother died when the child was not yet over the loss of her mother.

"She was a tiny woman with a huge presence," Mrs. Giddings said of her grandmother. "She never once hugged me or said `I love you,' but I knew."

In a very odd way, Mrs. Giddings says her collection, which contains many pieces more than 100 years old, validates the grief that has been a huge part of her life.

She had amassed a considerable collection before she realized how the items were related. She had bought most simply because they were black, or just because she liked them. Gradually she realized they all had something to do with mourning.

Collecting such items is not uncommon. Guidebooks on buying antiques devote entire chapters to mourning regalia, although many collectors limit themselves to mourning jewelry, which reached its height of popularity in England after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

After Albert's death, the queen ordered that his dressing room at Windsor Castle remain exactly as he had left it. His clothes were laid out nightly and hot water prepared for routine ablutions. Queen Victoria required everyone at court to wear mourning attire on social occasions for three years, but she wore it for the rest of her life.

In the United States, women wore mourning jewelry frequently during the Civil War. As husbands, sons and brothers headed off to the battlefields, it wasn't unusual for the departing soldier to leave a lock of hair with a loved one.

Godey's Lady's Book endorsed the fashion and made it easy to acquire. This excerpt extolling the virtues of hair work appeared around 1850:

"Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we almost look up to heaven and compare notes with angelic nature..."

Mourning jewelry lost popularity at the turn of the 20th century with the death of Queen Victoria, the onset of World War I and the increased freedom of women, but the old traditions are still preserved by collectors.

"I don't want anyone to think that my collection is morbid," Mrs. Giddings said. "It's quite the opposite. It brought joy and comfort to the bereaved."

Chasiti Kirkland is a reporter for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.