The mortality rate in the 19th century was much higher than today, therefore children were likely exposed to death at a very young age. It wasn’t unusual for a large family – especially those on the poorer side – to experience the passing of a child.
Death traditions at the time included creating an effigy of the person who died, which would be placed at either the gravesite or at the home — or both. Wax carvings of babies or children, dressed in their clothing and using the real hair from their heads, were common practice as a way for well-to-do families to mourn and remember the deceased. In fact, these Victorian-era mourning dolls, as they have been dubbed, were sometimes treated as replacements for the dead, with the parents keeping them in cribs or beds and changing their clothing.
Artist Flo Kane, of Gasport, New York, hosts a podcast with her boyfriend where they share researched information as part of the broadcast. Flo looked into Victorian mourning dolls, expecting to find symbols of soothing, honoring those who had died.
Instead, what she discovered were the replicas of babies and children mentioned above. Sometimes families even kept a framed wax bust of older children in the house. She also found dolls that had the body of a woman and the face of a baby, dressed as a widow.
These discoveries were interesting to Flo, but not exactly what she hoped to find. Flo is fascinated by human grieving processes and how we choose to talk about death. Not finding exactly what she hoped, Flo decided to start making her own Victorian mourning dolls — a couple of them named after her own loved ones.
“I wanted to create something representational and beautiful,” she said. “I liked the idea of creating dolls dressed in deep mourning and keeping their faces blank, because our grief is often held and unexpressed publicly.”
Flo purchased a pattern to create the doll’s bodies, but she constructs the clothing, hair and jewelry for the dolls from scratch.
“They all have messages written in their bodies that may or may not be seen, depending on how their clothes were made. They say things like ‘I carry you,’” Flo added.
Flo picks names that were common during the Victorian era and gives each doll a story. She posts photos of the doll’s progress on Instagram, has an Etsy store where they can be purchased and she also sells them at art shows.
“When I made my first doll, I didn’t have plans to make others, but the pleasure of making them, the challenge and the mistakes and the entire learning process was so deeply engaging. I really love them. I feel attached to them and though I’ve slowed a bit in production, I’m sure I will make more,” she said.