Further Analysis: Victorian Mourning Brooch


As promised, I have done a bit more research on my recently acquired mourning brooch. In my previous post, you can read my preliminary analysis, however this post presents a more precise look at the history of this interesting piece (with some input from a few individuals who are much better versed in Victorian jewelry than I!)

My first goal was to determine the type of photograph the portrait on the front side of the brooch was. With a little dating help, (which I will discuss in a moment), and a closer examination with a microscope, I think it is fair to say that the photograph is most likely not a Daguerreotype. This photographic process hit its peak of popularity in the United States between 1842 and 1858 – and if this pin can be approximately dated between 1870 and 1880, it just misses the waning of the Daguerreotype in America. You can learn a bit more about the history of Daguerreotype photography here.

In any case, this portrait is most likely to be a tin type – a photographic process popular in the United States in the 1860s, 70s and 80s, which involved the printing of an image on a delicate iron plate. Below is a quick history of the tin type:

“The tintype photograph saw more uses and captured a wider variety of settings and subjects than any other photographic type. It’s like the elderly grandfather that saw everything. It was introduced while the daguerreotype was still popular, though its primary competition would have been the ambrotype.

The tintype saw the Civil War come and go, documenting the individual soldier and horrific battle scenes. It captured scenes from the Wild West, as it was easy to produce by itinerant photographers working out of covered wagons.

It began losing artistic and commercial ground to higher quality albumen prints on paper in the mid-1860s, yet survived for well over another 40 years, living mostly as a carnival novelty.”

Now to move onto the history of this piece itself. One of my first steps in locating the origin of this brooch was to contact the antique store where it came from (Jill’s Antiques in Brockport, NY). I was informed by the owner of this shop that the brooch had been sold to her by a woman currently living in Hamlin, NY (not far from Brockport), who had been handed down the brooch, but was uncertain of who the man was in the portrait. While this information confirmed my assumption that the individual likely lived in the greater Brockport area, it didn’t help with my dating of the piece or the identification of the individual.

My second attempt to learn more about the brooch was to seek out a historian who would be familiar with Victorian mourning jewelry, that could tell me more about the construction of the piece, and hopefully help me to give it an approximated date. I came across an excellent blog about Victorian mourning jewelry, called the Art of Mourning, and decided to contact the author of the site to take a look at my brooch. I got back a very astute analysis of the brooch and the photograph! See below.

“It’s very much a black and white enamel brooch, the black denoting death and the white being purity and virginity. This would signify an unmarried gentleman, but it could have been appropriated from an earlier time, as earlier jewels were re-purposed for death, just as they still are today by grieving family members. However, as this jewel was at the height of the mourning industry, it would have been made and given out in numbers at a funeral, unless it was ordered bespoke by a family member. 
The reverse woven hair with the woven base and above twist being dual colour shows that the piece would more than likely have been the hair of the loved one being twisted on the top and the hair behind being another that was colour-matched, as was typical. A loved one would hand over the hair of the deceased and the jeweler would match it to imported hair … as the hair was often not good enough to use for proper weaving.
(I found this portion of the analysis regarding the hairwork particularly fascinating, as I had the inclination that there may have been two individual’s hair represented, but I was uncertain).
With the full beard, turned down collar, parted hair and wide tie, I’d put it between 1870-1880, probably bring right in the middle of that. This would correlate to the brooch, as the style and size didn’t carry well into the late 19th century. You mentioned it was brass, which means it is an alloy, such as Pinchbeck, so this would have been post 1854 and the Hallmarking Act allowing for it in jewelry.”

 I was absolutely thrilled to receive this response, as it cleared up many of my questions surrounding the brooch, its construction and its origin. While the approximate date of 1870-1880 rules out my previous guess at the individual in the portrait (see last post), it opens up a whole new exploration of cemetery records in the Brockport and Hamlin area. Now I know that I am searching for a young, unmarried man who liked passed away between 1870 and 1880 in that region.

In any case, I will certainly post more about this piece as I delve deeper into it’s history and origin. Anyone that would like to add any information or take a guess at any part of this analysis – please do!

Further Reading:
History of Tin Type Photography
Previous post on Imponderabilia – Victorian Mourning Brooch
Jill’s Antiques in Brockport
Art of Mourning blog 


4 responses to “Further Analysis: Victorian Mourning Brooch

    • I am definitely continuing my research about this piece, although I hadn’t considered having the hair tested. While it would be a really interesting opportunity to locate the individual, I’d be concerned with altering the relatively pristine preservation of the brooch itself. So for the time being, I’m searching for this guy the old fashion way – cemetery records! Stay tuned!

      • Neat still would be cool to use the hair to test for Victorian medical practices and speculate on cause of death- arsenic ahoy! Still best to keep the brooch in pristine condition!

  1. Could very well be something related to funky Victorian practices… he was pretty young! I’m looking into other potential contemporary causes, for example the town of Brockport had a massive fire in the mid 1870’s which could align appropriately with the dating of this brooch. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find any references online to deaths that resulted from that fire. Hopefully I’ll find some kind of lead and I’ll be able to share a history of the individual. At least I have the initials – it’s a start!

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