The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Forty-Two

November 15-22, 1917

Kate Roosevelt’s diary entry for November 15, 1917 told the end of the sad story that had been building for many months when she wrote about her sister Georgiana “Lop” Shippen’s death. “Very depressed about Lop. They have begun to keep her under opiates.”  Lop desperately, hopelessly ill.” “Lop in a stupor since last night.” “Doctor phoned. Lop is failing rapidly. We instantly went over to mother’s apartment at 302 Lexington Avenue. We were with her to the end. She never recovered consciousness. She died at 11:15. She has suffered terribly. For her sake, so glad she has been released. She has been sick for one year.”

Charlotte Duclos (French), Mourning dress, ca. 1910

Never one to let emotions get the best of her, the next day Kate Roosevelt was writing about the practicality of dealing with a family member’s death. First things first, “Shopping all morning for black things. Sofie and Caroline (her sisters) here to luncheon. Bill (brother) has decided to buy a plot in Morristown Cemetery. It will have four plots in it.  Lop is to be buried there. Mother and Father and their other children (five who did not live to adulthood) are buried in the New York Bay Cemetery at Bayonne, New Jersey. A dreadful place!”

On November 18, 1917 she wrote, “My sisters, Ettie, Caroline and Sofie made last arrangements for Lop.” “They decided to hold her funeral at Incarnation Church on Madison and 35th Street. The center part of the church was filled with people. Left Lop to rest in the beautiful Evergreen Cemetery in Morristown, New Jersey.”

Mourning Dress

Kate did not say what she bought or where she shopped for the mandatory black mourning attire. Wearing black in deference to the dead gained popularity in the United States after the Civil War. According to an article in the New Yorker, written by Adam Gopnik, “In the spring of 1863, Lord and Taylor located on Broadway’s Ladies’ Mile in Lower Manhattan opened a mourning department inside their store where the new widows of the Civil War could dress their grief in suitable style.” In Philadelphia, where many of Kate Roosevelt’s relatives from the Shippen side of the family lived might have stopped by the Mourning Store run by Jones and Fisher at 918 Chestnut Street to choose something appropriately drab to wear to Lop’s funeral.

Whatever they chose to wear, it had to be black, the color of grief. According to a past exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire: 1815-1915,” “It was customary for widows and family members to wear black during the mourning period.” These dresses and accessories were usually made of a dull looking silk gauze called crape in the color of sadness. Accessories were made of black jet beads, made famous by England’s Queen Victoria while she was in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert. Sometimes a strand of hair of the deceased was placed in lockets and rings. Many of the more-fashionable department stores included mourning departments right up until the 1920s, where an entire household could be equipped for their journey into darkness.  Stores like Lord & Taylor in New York and Jones and Fisher in Philadelphia sold everything from black underwear to black-bordered stationary, along with handbags, shawls and black bunting to be draped over the deceased home’s entrance. A lucrative business, Courtland’s of England, built an empire on sales of high-quality black crape and took special orders from grieving American families.

Women in Mourning Attire

Kate Roosevelt and her spinster sisters were always the epitome of elegance and I am sure they all bid their farewells to Lop wearing what was in fashion in 1917, but making sure it was black from head to toe. Ankle-length walking suits, veils and wide-brimmed hats would have been considered appropriate attire for a funeral at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation where so many family memories had been made throughout the years, both happy and sad.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Church of the Incarnation
Madison Avenue and 35th Street, New York City

Photo Two:
Mourning Dress
Brooklyn Museum

Photo Three:
Mourning Dress
Brooklyn Museum

Photo Four:
Women in Mourning Attire
Public Domain