Monday, November 24, 2014

Kristen: Lincoln Mourning Ribbons

Death is an incredible concept to grasp. To imagine that everything ends, that this life can just stop at any time; the constant threat of mortality makes us human. Makes heroes, cowards. The Civil War gives us so many of these stories with tales of loss in the heat of battle. Nearly every household utilized that solemn black color, shed tears for a father, husband, son, brother, uncle, nephew...

The nation too felt a deep loss. Abraham Lincoln's death in the mourning hours of April 15th, 1865 shocked Americans. His violent end effected Mary Todd Lincoln for the rest of her life, and turned the figure of Lincoln to near martyr status. The funeral procession drew thousands of people at each stop. Even in death he held value, as criminals once attempted to ransom his body. Needless to say, Lincoln's legacy has even survived into the 21st century.

I can hardly imagine how I would personally deal with such a moment in history, and my only frame of reference would be 9/11. I was in 7th grade and completely overwhelmed with the images of death, felt the sting of that day in my chest. For weeks I had nightmare about the sky raining a metallic hell on those that I loved. Our country mourned. I've even visited the memorial, one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life.

For this particular post I will focus on the mourning ribbons themselves, rather than the whole spectrum of mourning during that time. For some reason I am fascinated by these little strips of fabric that tied together an entire country through the death of a beloved leader. Oh fabric, that beloved medium...

Photographic Documentation
As I've noticed in the past, finding a picture of someone using/holding/wearing a particular item in a 19th century photograph can be difficult at best. 

...And that's it. I've seen plenty of photographs of cockades, though I don't want to focus on those in this post. Heather Sheen over at Creative Cockades has so much (good) research already on the topic that I fear my mention would be redundant. Seriously though, go check out her site, since it has a lot of really delicious cockade information!

As in the past, I realize that I may not have access to the variety of photographic evidence necessary. This does raise many questions: Did people like/dislike photos wearing Lincoln mourning memorabilia? How do social status/financial/political factors play a role in the prevalence of this type of documentation? When am I going to get glasses so I can see these darn pictures better? 

Textual Documentation
I found so much textual information. Mourning ribbons were certainly in use, and the many newspapers and magazines documented the widespread popularity of these during that time.

Abraham Lincoln, Godey's Lady's Book, July 1865
As the news flashed over the wires from city to city, every dwelling, store, and public building was draped in mourning, the church bells tolled forth the dreadful tidings, badges of sable hue were placed upon every arm, breast, or shoulder, and with one accord the nation bowed in grief-stricken homage to the mighty dead.

Honors to the Martyr President, The New York Herald, April 25, 1865
Many ladies were dressed in full mourning . Nearly all the rest wore emblems of woe. Few men in
those living columns of the people did not wear badges of lamentation.

Frank Leslie's Weekly, May 13 1865
President Lincoln Mourning Badge . All should have one. Price 50 cents. Address UNION NEWS CO., Chicago, Ill.

Mourning Badges, Frank Leslie's Weekly, MAY 20, 1865
This beautiful Badge , printed on White Satin, draped in Mourning , with splendid Gilt Pin and Likeness attached, will be sent, postpaid, on receipt of 0 cents. Price by the 100, postpaid, $25; ditto, without Pins, $12.50.

 Arrival at the Metropolis, The New York Herald, April 25, 1865
New York's part in the last solemn honors to the illustrious dead began yesterday, and the metropolis presented such a scene as it never exhibited before since its foundation. Sadness, mourning and silence, deep and solemn, prevailed everywhere, but particularly down town around the City Hall,
where the remains of the first murdered President of the republic were laid out in state, receiving the last touching tribute of respect from a sorrowful people. The entire community observed the occasion in a proper manner. Business was laid aside, flags floated at half mast from every building, badges of mourning appeared on the breast of nearly every male and female in the streets, and crowds were to be seen in every direction wending their way down to view the corpse of the
lamented statesman, patriot and President

Feeding the Needy Populace, Frank Leslie's Weekly, May 20, 1865
Mourning Badges , Mourning Pins, BADGES , Satin, 5 x 1½, inscription
With neat PIN, the whole covered with Crape, Price, by mail, 50 cents; $20 per 100; Badges , without Pins, $10 per 100. MOURNING BREAST PIN.—Fine Portrait of A. LINCOLN , in silver plate oval frame, with eagle, flags, and inscription “ E Pluribus Unum ,” and silk mourning steamers, 50 cents; $20 per 100. MOURNING PINS, 10 styles, from $10 to $25 per 100.

Surviving Originals
This is perhaps my best form of evidence for these ribbons. When a tragedy such as this takes place, people save mementos. My grandmother still keeps a stack of newspapers from important days in history, from JFK's assassination to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. These are tucked away in books, cabinets, attics, until an unsuspecting, history-loving granddaughter pulls them out of a pile of dust. If only these ribbons could talk!

Silk, paper, crepe. These seem to be the most common materials found with the ribbons, with the occasional gilt picture of Lincoln. Newspapers sold different styles, while groups such as the Veteran's Union created their own design. I could also see a person modifying an old ribbon from Lincoln's presidential campaigns. It seemed that nearly every person found at least something small to publicly commemorate Lincoln.

There are other ribbons that I have certainly missed. Every time I look online I find another added bit of Lincoln mourning. This post is certainly not exhaustive; think of it more as a place to start your research. The sesquicentennial anniversary of his death will be in 2015. Reenactors are already preparing for the season, with The 2015 Lincoln Funeral Coalition held May 1-3 in Springfield Illinois. I do hope to attend that event, as I know the planners have already dedicated themselves to a high level of accuracy! 

As for myself, I designed a mourning ribbon based on an original because I totally wanted one. And now I have them to sell in my shop! If you're interested, you can find them here at The Victorian Needle on Etsy***. I could have waited until spring, but I figured that people might want to receive them as Christmas presents, and avoid that crazy reenactor rush that is April-June.

I'm excited to see pictures from this upcoming year's events. I know that our reenacting community will honor Lincoln's memory, as well as the many lives given on both sides of the war. 


***The ribbon is date stamped in accordance with APIC political memorabilia standards


  1. Another wonderfully researched post!
    Good job!

  2. Great post! I enjoyed reading it. And thanks for the mention too! :)



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