Some customs popularized in the 19th century remain with us today, such as decorating a fir tree with ornaments for Christmas or Yule. Other customs are decidedly strange to us. Here are five of them: Never wear anything new to a funeral, especially shoes. Now, I’ve seen this particular superstition around the internet, but it doesn’t quite square with other things I’ve read. Mourning clothing was probably the first off-the-rack clothing available in the 19th century, if you could afford it. Otherwise, you were expected to dye something you already owned black like a steampunk hat or bag. So if you experienced a sudden death, and had nothing appropriate to wear, and could afford ready-to-wear, and needed it quickly, what were you supposed to do? School houses had a girls’ entrance and a boys’ entrance.
This passage from “School Architecture and Hygiene” by John George Hodgins explains: “It tends to prevent crowding and disorder of the pupils before reaching, or on leaving, the school rooms, and removes the temptation for boys and girls to remain in the entries engaged in conversation.” Boys and girls speaking to each other? Horrors! Dead people were carried out of a house feet first to prevent them “looking” back into the house and beckoning a still-living member of the family to follow him or her into the hereafter. To me, this stands in contrast to the practice of memento mori, where people would actually sit for a photograph with a deceased loved one. Left-handedness was not tolerated. People associated the left hand with evil, so left-handed children were forced, by teachers and parents, to use their right hands to write. This particular brand of stupidity sadly outlasted the Victorian era, persisting into the 1960s. The customary black mourning clothing may have originated in Ireland. The idea was to wear black to appear as a “shadow” rather than a living person so the dead person’s spirit wouldn’t enter your body. You can read more about mourning customs in “What Was Everyone Crying About?”
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