Thursday, December 11, 2014

The 19th Century Skull Motif

Sometimes my research takes me to strange places. Sometimes I want to stay in those strange places. It doesn't always make sense, but if I don't do it I can lose my overall research focus. That minor misdirection is necessary to my peace of mind. So I do apologize. 
That misdirection includes shopping
Photo by Ken Giorlando

I found a mention of a skull pin in Godey's Lady's Book. There is little photographic evidence, as well as written documentation. However, many originals are floating around online, so I know they did indeed exist. Welcome to my crazy world!

The Skull as Motif
Throughout my research, I've discovered that attitudes about death are completely different today than they were back then. To illustrate this flip, I think of it in terms of death/sex. Yes, sex. I don't know who told me about this (will insert citation later!), but thank you for illustrating this topic. I want to add your name/book here because you are awesome. 
Are you in here?
Photo by Ken Giorlando

See, back death was openly discussed. Men and women openly mourned with their clothing. Bodies laid in the living room, pictures taken. Death was a tangible, real thing that effected everyone. People could talk about it. In contrast, no one talked about sex, unless it involved some sort of scandal. Sex was almost a dirty thing, hidden behind closed doors or the naughty CDV. Heck, laws were passed that even banned such pornographic imagery, with soldiers losing the occasional letter if it included one of those "special" pictures. To illustrate:

Victorian Era
Death=Ok to talk 
Sex=Do not talk

As for today...death is very far removed. That infant mortality rate is very low-I have yet to lose a loved one that I've known personally! When a person does die, he or she is sent to a morgue, and eventually the funeral home. The idea of laying a body in my living room (even a family member!) feels...weird. When someone dies people will often avoid discussing the topic, and we are expected to move on as quickly as possible. No mourning crape for the 21st century woman! Yet she can openly wear that bikini ASAP (don't get me wrong, I love my bathing suit!). Sex sells everything, from cheeseburgers to car insurance. There are entire television shows centered around sex. To clarify:

Death=Do not talk
Sex=Ok to talk

I am not saying either is good or bad. Personally I feel that information should be shared openly, and that learning must be encouraged regardless of the topic (but age appropriate). This background is necessary to understanding the 19th century sensibility, explaining why a skull pinned to a lapel did not represent a morbid fascination with Halloween. It meant...more.
Pictured: Sentimental Reflection
Photo by Ken Giorlando

The skull itself can represent much, just as the serpent in one of my previous posts. An obvious connection is death. Remember death in that time was very real, so people could put loved ones' names/faces to the word. A seemingly morbid representation could remind a person of someone special. Mometo mori, or the reflection on death. In a way it reminds of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead in Mexican culture. The skull means remembrance, rather than a gory demise. See what I did there? CULTURE MIXING!
Another significant meaning lies in the occupation of the wearer. With my fiance in medical school, I have seen countless morbid representations of the skull and other body parts. The body is a working machine that must be studied, processed, understood; whether for humor or study, a medical, anthropological, or fraternity curiosity, the skull and its contents are essential to understanding the human body. The 19th century doctor might even have a real skull sitting on his shelf! 

So please examine my evidence with a different lens than your modern focus. Try to imagine yourself as one of the originals, accustomed to death in ways that we cannot imagine today.

Photographic Documentation
Most of my evidence here is later, and difficult to see. Could a person be wearing a skull pin on a lapel in other pictures? Certainly! As I've mentioned before, my nearly perfect vision is starting to blur from staring at these photographs!

Just as an aside, I showed these pictures to a few of my students. They were SO grossed out. When I tried to explain the whole "they thought differently back then" thing, I earned several eyes rolls and a confused sigh. I think I'm losing my fan base! It also reminded me of the great difference between the past and now, a societal shift that cannot be explained to an angst-filled teenager at my desk.

Textual Evidence
And here it is, the tiny quote that inspired a blog post:

Godey's Lady's Book. October, 1865.

 Instead of studs, gentlemen are wearing three small pins with fancy tops, connected by fine gold chains.The latest idea for a scarf pin is a fly, wasp, or beetle, transfixed apparently by the pin itself. A very odd design for a scarf pin, lately brought out, is a skull with double eye glasses suspended by a miniature gold chain and a lighted cigar between the teeth.

  Godey's Lady's Book. March, 1850.

 Godey's Lady's Book. October, 1850.
Before taking his departure, our hero opened the doors of his choice library to his fair guest. He laid before her his objects of vertu, his drawings, skulls , fossils, and curiosities of all descriptions.

I did note other mentions of skulls-I completely forgot about phrenology! The range of meaning behind the word startled me. Caterpillar skulls. Broken skulls. Grinning skulls. Skulls straight from the grave. Skulls glaring from a desk. Godey's was the only periodical to use the skull in terms of a fashionable object; the rest were mostly scientific.

Surviving Originals

There are also many bits of memento mori that I did not add, though I will probably do a separate blog post on that topic later! I wanted to see if the lapel pin actually existed, and boy did I find my evidence! Ivory/bone appeared to be the most common material, though the coral/crystal caught my eye. That pearl pin looked exquisite as well!
I am proud to add skulls to that growing list of motifs that were used during the 19th century. Most of the photos only included men, while the textual evidence points to them as a more masculine accessory. The material to make the skulls suggests that they were a more expensive item, probably not worn by the lower class. Maybe a doctor? A fraternity? A man interested in filling his curio cabinet? These are just assumptions based on my current evidence-if this changes, I will update the post!

In the meantime, I decided to reproduce the lapel pin! I have no men's jewelry in my shop, and seriously I was hooked by that Godey's description. I just LOVE reproducing things with evidence! 

Thank you for following the little twists and turns of my research...Sometimes it's good to take a break from the usual, and delve into the unusual!


On My Bookshelf: December

December has been a really rough month. Between what happened in Oxford (not far from where I live...) and just the general pandemic issues,...