Mourning a Child in Colonial Times

On a perfect fall Saturday, a friend and I attended a Fall Festival held in an historic local town. Tents for vendors and local religious and civic associations were set up along the main street. Although the main street was not closed to traffic, the crowds moved slowly and happily along the side walks, picking up free literature and Halloween candy as they went. Occasionally, my friend and I ducked into one of the many open shops along the way.


The historical society, also on the main street, was open to the public. A flyer announced that the society housed in a brewery turned tavern dating back to colonial times would feature mourning the death of a child during the colonial period. My friend and I decided to attend the presentation.


Actually, over one hundred years ago, the state bought and restored the building as it served as the first constitutional hall in the then colony. One of the restored rooms, open to the public contained a colonial desk and benches where the representatives of the various counties met with the crown appointed governor. A gentleman dressed in a French Indian soldier costume discussed the workings of the colonial congress. In another room a woman, dressed in colonial clothes, holding a life-size baby doll described the dress of a baby in the colonial period.


All babies wore plain white layers of clothing, which included a two- part diaper and a cap. The clothes were white because, to wash them, they were soaked in lye, which would have removed any color. The clothes were not decorated because infant mortality was high. In fact, while the woman held one baby, a less fortunate baby lay in a box in the corner covered with a thin white cloth. That baby was “dead”.


The room in which we stood would have been the bedroom of the mother who, in 18th century colonial America would have taken to her bed for one month to mourn her dead child. Visitors were invited to pay their respects, but the mother never left the room. Also included in the room were funerial artifacts. One that mildly shocked me was a doll sized toy coffin, a toy available in catalogues into the twentieth century.


The presentation reminded me that life and death are intermingled and intertwined, no matter how much we in the twentieth century western culture try to divorce them.





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