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The Groundwork & Preservation of Black Ancestral Memento Mori Antiques

Tanzy Ward

The art and fascination of collecting memento mori antiques has become a growing market for many collectors and historians alike. Victorians honored their dearly departed loved ones in distinctive ways throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. While many archival examples of memento mori pieces reflect the honor of White Victorian remembrance, Black ancestors living in the period also utilized the tradition to celebrate their deceased loved ones. However, finding an antique connected to the memorial and celebration of life of Black Victorians is often very rare. 

There are many different types of antique souvenirs that were created for the dedication of a person's life. Ceremonial 'in memoriam' badges, photographic jewelry that features a person's portrait, intricately designed hairwork jewelry, daguerreotypes that showcase a grieving widow dressed in black, and a brooch created from the bone cartilage of a fallen Civil War soldier are just some of the fascinating examples of memento mourning antiques.  

Pictured Above is an antique original Benevolent Society No.8 Lodge Mourning Pin Ribbon. The ribbon is from the historic Springfield Baptist Church in Greensboro, GA. Springfield Baptist was erected in 1864 as the first African American church in Greensboro, Georgia. This fraternal order ribbon was created during the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods. Historically, 'in memoriam' ceremonial ribbons were worn at funerals or mourning events to honor the deceased. The ribbon was created by the 'Whitehead & Hoag Co''. 

How can we identify remembrance pieces that are affiliated with Black ancestors? Closely examining the characteristics on an antique is an important aspect of identification. Many fraternal ceremonial funeral badges dedicated to the memory of a loved one often has the name of the organization or church. Historic religious establishments and communities often have original documents and reports relating to a specific period. Archives can be researched extensively to locate additional information regarding a fraternal ceremonial badge. Dates can also be determined based on a portrait included in a photographic jewelry piece. Analyzing the design and any engravings on an item can also be helpful. Many details and certain background information can be established from carefully observing a memento item. Locating a brooch or stickpin that depicts a Black Victorian is not only rarer but is historically significant to the proper preservation of accurate Black Americana. 


Pictured above is an antique stickpin portrait of an unidentified African American woman. Stickpins featuring a photograph of an individual was often used to honor and celebrate their life. 

Perhaps one of the more challenging mementos mourning antiques to locate is Victorian hairwork that belonged to a Black ancestor. This extraordinary and beautiful practice was not only pursued by White Victorians. The research of Black Victorian ornaments that feature a deceased love one's hair is an underrepresented artistry and significant part of history. Since many hairwork jewelry did not include a portrait or name of the person, there can be an ambiguous mystery when attempting to identify a Black person's hair follicles due to the diversity of textures and modifications. However, the universal characteristics of a Black person's hair can assist with trying to identify hairwork jewelry that may have belonged to a person of the African Diaspora. There is still a perplexing and wonderous study of hairwork jewelry that is often burdened with not knowing who a strand of hair belonged to. Perhaps the allure and fascination of the unidentified background information will always provide enduring mystery to hairwork memento mourning antiques. 

Despite the altered societal viewpoints of Black ancestors during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they are deeply embedded within the history of Victorian and Edwardian era culture. Similar to their White Victorian counterparts, they also commissioned to have memento mourning antiques created for their dearly departed loved ones as well. The material culture and customs of Black ancestors during the 19th and early 20th centuries are historically significant to preserve and serves as a beautiful dedication to their memories. The material culture of Black Victorians and early 20th century ancestors are primary sources from a past that should be protected for generations to come. Their legacies and stories shall always matter.

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