After reading through the previous blog-post on all the necessities for mourning, including the extensive list of items a widow needed in order to follow mourning-customs in a proper manner, you might wonder where people bought those very specific and in our eyes rather unusual items. From today’s perspective, it really is a foreign concept and it is almost inconceivable for us, to imagine an area dedicated to mourning in a department store, or even a department store that entirely focuses on what one would wear in mourning as this has completely been pushed aside in today’s society, to the extent that it is not even a niche and so is today’s attitude towards death. In Victorian England, death was a huge part of every day life, with mortality rates (especially among children) being on a high and death was not being hidden from society’s youngest either and they were expected to accompany adults to the cemetery and funeral procession – death was a part of life and so were the dead. The Victorians were surprisingly “unsqueamish” in their attitude towards death, keeping the dead body in the home for a while, until he or she was buried.
Looking back at the question on the sources and “providers” for what you “needed” in mourning, the answer to this especially easy in the context of bigger cities, such as London and Manchester. Both cities had been the grounds for department stores (“mourning warehouses”), dedicated to mourning, with square metres filled with black crape and every type of item one would need (or not need) in times of mourning – even postal orders were an option if the stores were too far away for customers.
This whole system of supply and demand proves how big mourning was in economic terms, as it was much more than the funeral and the interment, the material aspects of death and mourning were a thriving business making some people richer and others poor. Demand was ensured by the superstition that it was unlucky to keep the items from one “season” of mourning in the house.
Fig. 1 Advertisement for Jay’s Mourning Warehouse, Regent Street
Mourning Warehouses and the beginning of “Ready-to-wear”-fashion
From mourning pins to -stationery – everything could be found and bought in the mourning warehouses, which were also popular in the United States, many of them even conducted funerals and so did some of the mourning departments in bigger department stores. Mourning was an expensive endeavour – and it may sound complicated but the perfect and very period-specific supplier were the “Maisons de Deuil” or mourning warehouses that sprang up like mushrooms, especially in the bigger cities. By the mid 19th century there were four major mourning warehouses, including “Jay’s”, with other in the vicinity. Even when the customers were not close enough to visit the stores, “Jay’s” supplied customers at their residence for free or sent out catalogues, from which people could make their orders which made Jay potentially a supplier for the whole country in terms of mourning. Thanks to the railway and developing technology, mourning warehouses were able supply customers with clothing within a day which added to the development of ready-to-war mass production of clothing and the big turnover of those big warehouses such as Jay’s and Peter Robinson’s allowed them to sell their items much cheaper than local tailors or dressmakers could. This situation can be compared to today’s development of the extrusion of small shops and boutiques by big chain retailers with “moderate charges” – as Jay’s described it in their advertisement. Another advantage of this quick response was the immediate availability of mourning clothes, when death occurred suddenly – otherwise, one would have to wait to wait to dress appropriately and before the advent of mourning warehouse the allowance for this time was 8 days.
Mourning warehouses offered besides clothing anything, including mourning parasols, bags and furniture, which allowed people to live every aspect of their life in mourning in every kind of environment. From the stationery they wrote on to the linen their babies were dressed in. In addition to this, most mourning warehouses did also offer accessories for the funeral itself, which seems minor, compared to huge variety of items that could be re-designed for mourning.
Fig.2: Advertisement for Jay’s, mentioning ‘orders’ for customers outside of London
Fashion and etiquette clearly had power over society and apart from variety of goods on display, mourning warehouses had another big selling argument – their executive power, as one could say: the shopping attendants. Empathically dressed in black and assimilated to the theme, ready to instruct the mourner on their appropriate degree of grief and showing them through every “degree of outward sorrow”. Even the most honest and modest mourner probably felt a sense of consolation between the different accessories and was easily talked into purchasing multiple items and thus prevent the mistake of acquiring the wrong items in the wrong colourway. Being in the vulnerable state of someone in mourning, customers were easily convinced and talked into buy things one would otherwise deem unnecessary but one goes far for the sake of healing, consolation and with the purpose of paying the deceased an honour and blessings – every one wants to prove their love, even in death. On the one hand, one could see this as the exploitation of a sentiment but on the other hand it also worked as a form of coping mechanism, helping people in dealing with loss and grief.
Fig.3: Outside of view of Jay’s Mourning Warehouse, Regent Street
Fig. 4: Advertisement for Jay’s for newspapers and magazine – interestingly similar to today’s advertisements
Many of the bigger and well-known mourning warehouses were located in London. Especially Regent Street had a surprisingly high concentration of mourning warehouses and departments stores, catering to this phenomenon. The aforementioned “Jay’s Mourning Warehouses” and also “Peter Robinson’s Mourning Warehouse” were located there, who both claimed to be “inexpensive” and promoted their “deliveries” in various types of print media. Jay’s went as far as to commission and publish their own guide book, “A History of Mourning”, written by Richard Davey. This publication was meant to be an inspirational journey through the history of how mourning had been celebrated in the world and in the past, in order to justify the extent of mourning in the 19th century, proving that “all that” was indeed necessary but of course also contains advertisements for Jay’s.
With the decline of mourning wear in general, mourning warehouses disappeared or began to shift their focus but mourning fashion remained significant until the turn of the century. The concept or “trend” fully vanished with the outbreak of World War I due to reasons of morale and death being even more present than ever.
Below you can see extracts from the “catalogue” that was published by Jay’s as the “Mode Des Mantelets”, showing what patterns you could order and what had been “en vogue” at the time. The catalogue is available at the British Library in London.
Fig.5: Model “La Mantelet Clementine”
Fig.6: Model “La Mantelet Sultanine de Madame Popelin”
Amazing and unique source on mourning from the time:
Jay’s “A History of Mourning”, by Richard Davey (published 1890) via
Featured Image and Fig.1. via wikimedia commons
Fig. 2 &4 reproduced in :
May, Trevor: „The Victorian Undertaker“, Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd. (2000), p. 20
Fig. 3 via Alamy Stock Photo
Fig. 5&6 from „Modes des Mantelets“ by „The London General Mourning Warehouse“, Nos. 247, & 249, Regent Street, W.C. Jay Proprietor (1847) by courtesy of the British Library.
Footnotes and Sources:
 Curl, James Stevens: „The Victorian Celebration of Death“, Stroud: Sutton Publishing (2000), p. 202 f.
 Daly Goggin, Maureen and Beth Fowkes Tobin: „Women and the Material Culture of Death“, London: Routledge (2010), p.133.
 May, Trevor: „The Victorian Undertaker“, Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd. (2000), p. 20.
 Curl, James Stevens: „The Victorian Celebration of Death“, Stroud: Sutton Publishing (2000), p. 196.
 Shrimpton, Jayne: „Victorian Fashion“, Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd. (2016), p.90.