Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Victorian Mourning at Chatillion-DeMenil House

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to faux mourn someone who died at some point at the Chatillon-Demenil House. Every year in October, the lovely volunteers of C-M stage an open house to teach us about Victorian mourning customs. We stopped by last weekend to pay our respects.

Mourning in Victorian times was serious business, especially for people of means. It could last up to three years, and there was a costume change to go with each year, as well as accessories and china and everything else. The front of the house was draped in black bunting to let the neighbors know there was a death in the family, and all the mirrors and statues and portraits in the house were draped in crepe.

Do you guys remember when I made fun of the vial of tears at the Museum of Broken Relationships? THAT IS A REAL THING. Victorian widows used to save up their tears, and then pour them over their deceased spouse's grave when mourning was over.

Another eyebrow-raising custom of the Victorian era: soul cakes. This dough was set to rise on the chest of the deceased, with the intent that the biscuits would be infused with the essence of the dearly departed. They were then given away at the funeral. You might open one of those wrappers to find an advertisement for a bakery.

Of course there was a large collection of hair art and mourning jewelry on display, as well as a demonstration of hair weaving. As you may remember from Leila's Hair Museum, these types of hair wreaths were usually  more of a family tree than an expression of grief. The lady speaking in this room had an extensive collection of jewelry, as well as mourning photography exhibited in another room.

Upstairs we have the sick room, where the nurse talks about some of the ways we might try to save someone before they expire. Most of it revolves around getting rid of "bad blood", whether by bleeding, cupping, or leeches.

Before we depart, I have to give a nod to the carpet. This carpet was woven on loom by a blind weaver, Penelope Strousser, assisted by Emma Jostes Keller (I'm reading off a photo of a plaque, so please correct me if I am misreading the names) for the Bicentennial (of St  Louis, I assume, as the house was built in 1850). Isn't this incredible? This is how carpet was done back in the day, on a household loom, and then sewn together. A lot of times you will see a reversible pattern, so it was taken out and beaten in spring and fall and then flipped over.

While you will have to wait until next year for A Death in the Family to return, you can tour Chatillon-DeMenil House, located at the corner of Cherokee St and DeMenil Place, Wednesday-Saturday year round. It is right down the street from Lemp Mansion, so make a day of it!

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