Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Queen Victoria, Trendsetter

When Prince Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861 — at the tender age of 42 — Queen Victoria went into a deep depression. Then she went into seclusion and a period of mourning that lasted the remaining 40 years of her reign.

Victoria and Albert   |   Richard Hough   |   St. Martin's Press, 1996

Obsessive in her mourning, Victoria had the Windsor blue room in which Albert died photographed so that servants could better preserve it just as it was at the moment of death. For the next 40 years, hot water was brought daily to Albert's shaving stand, as though he might return at the very next moment.
For the rest of her life, Queen Victoria wore black dresses and jet jewelry not unlike the handsome brooch above.

Rock and Gem   |   The Smithsonian, 2005
Jet is a form of high-carbon coal that occurs in water beds, and much of Victoria's jewelry was made from the jet found at the beach at Whitby, Yorkshire, England. For more information about jet and its interesting relationship to the Monkey Puzzle Tree, I encourage you to visit Where Five Valleys Meet and my blogging friend Rosemary's posting about Whitby, here.

The English public recognized that Victoria's mourning was excessive, and she went through periods of unpopularity because of her seclusion. The passage of time, several assassination attempts on the Queen's life, and the expansion of the British Empire under her reign softened that view.

In the process, Queen Victoria influenced the trend for long mourning periods and the wearing of black. Those unable to afford jet jewelry, or onyx, wore black glass.

I recently attended a convention of antique button collectors, where I purchased these 19th-century black glass buttons. These are all in part a natural outgrowth of Queen Victoria's mourning. They measure half an inch in diameter, or less, and all came from molds. While not as lustrous as their jet counterparts, I think the detail of their designs is exceptional.



  1. I wonder how many other design trends can be linked back to a historical event? However, even in the case of Victoria and Albert, Victoria was already following a 19th century trend of morbid fascination with death--think of Edgar Allan Poe, popular songs about dying girls (such as Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair), etc. Still, Victoria did much to continue and institutionalize this trend.
    --Road to Parnassus

    1. Hello, Parnassus -

      My opinion of Victoria's influence on mourning was a bit definitive, wasn't it? You are quite right about that morbid fascination, and if you reread the posting, you'll see that I've moderated my words somewhat.

      Still, the Royal Family of the 19th century was closely watched, even as it is today, and their style was closely followed. One amusing example concerns the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) who changed his attire several times each day. One day, he was in such a hurry that he forgot to button the last button of his vest, and went out in public undone. To this day, it's proper not to fasten that last button.

      I like your idea of design trends linked back to historic events. That would make a very interesting seperate blog.

  2. Dear Mark - your glass simulated jet buttons are very attractive and I like your description of Queen Victoria's period of mourning. I wonder if you ever find Victorian Jet buttons?
    You may recall that I wrote about Jet from Whitby last November, in fact I believe we have both used the same jewel in our posts.
    I hope that you will not mind if I add to your description of the Jet from Whitby. Very interestingly it comes from the Jurassic period and is actually fossilised Monkey Puzzle Trees.

    1. Dear Rosemary,

      Your posting and that incredibly handsome piece of jet jewelry must have stuck in my subconscious! (Also, of course, I wanted a vehicle to talk more about my fascination with buttons, and to tie in my purchase of black glass buttons.)

      I've linked to your posting on Whitby, and I hope readers will enjoy two posts for the price of one!

      I have indeed seen authentic jet buttons, though they are of course more pricey!

  3. Dear Mark, A handsome woman Queen Victoria was not but think of what wealth and beauty she left for us to admire. The V & A museum is still one of my most favorite Museum, possibly because of the fine collection of Italian ceramics it contains.
    What do you think Mark? Did Queen Victoria ever become Mrs. Brown?

    1. Dear Gina,

      Writing for, Jennifer Rosenberg says that Queen Victoria left explicit instructions about items that were to be placed in her coffin at death. They included photographs of Prince Albert, his dressing gown and a plaster cast of his hand. These items were placed in the coffin while family members were in the room.

      Jennifer Rosenberg, continues, "Then, as instructed, Dr. Reid helped place Queen Victoria's wedding veil over her face and, once the others had departed, placed a picture of John Brown in her right hand, which he covered with some flowers."

      I think it is indeed possible that Victoria was Mrs. Brown. What do you think?

  4. I've always felt it a shame that Victoria could never recover from her constant, overwhelming grief. I think it must have colored everything she thought and did. Apparently she got so used to it that it just became part of her personality. She looks like a very disgruntled, unhappy old lady in all her later photos. I wonder if she ever laughed again.

    I can only hope that as Mrs. Brown (I saw the film and wondered if any of it was true) she found a few moments of shared happiness.

    I don't think it ever does a kingdom any good to have a reclusive monarch.

    Even so, Victoria's influence was great not only on mourning styles and time periods (Wasn't the 'normal' time period thought to have been a year?)but also on manners, dress lengths, the proper and the improper and all sorts of other goodies pertaining to life in the last half of the 19th century.

    1. Dear Yvette,

      I once saw a remarkable interview that David Frost did back in the 1970s with an elderly lady who had known Queen Victoria when she (the one interviewed) was a little girl. She had taken dancing lessons at Buckingham Palace with Queen Victoria's grandchildren. She described Queen Victoria as being very scary, banging a stick to keep time with the music.

      On the other hand, Royal Family members, commenting on all those frowning photographs, said that she was in fact often amused and that she was capable of roaring with laughter.

  5. What a fine post, this. I'd known nothing about jet, and find it very fetching. A wonderful mini of Victoria with a visual!

    1. Hello, Paul - It's interesting to imagine that in her grief, Queen Victoria was also acquisitive and creative.