Funerary Featherwork: Conservation of an American Feather Wreath
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
During Treatment (2020.001a)
At the workbench today is an American mourning wreath and two corsage elements constructed of feathers. It dates to the early 1930s and was created for a beloved resident of the Village of Marine, Illinois, and later donated to the Marine Historical Society.
Feather wreath and corsages before treatment (2020.001a_c).
Detail of lower wreath that was submerged in the water event, before treatment (2020.001a_c).
Unfortunately, the wreath came to us following a damaging water event, after intense rainfall caused a sewage drain to back-up and flood the basement where it was stored. While mounted inside its shadowbox on the floor, the lower half of the wreath was submerged.
Preventive strategies in storage go a long way towards preserving your items of value. If you're forced to store pieces in a basement, a good rule of thumb is to keep objects at least 4-6 inches off the floor, such as on blocks or a storage rack.
What are Feather Wreaths?
Cultural heritage material takes many forms, and a large part of every culture’s heritage are items related to their mortuary cult and traditions. But I admit that my knowledge of past American funerary traditions is rather thin, so the notion of a feather wreath was a new one for me….and I loved learning something new!
As always, I began by doing some research, trying to learn what I can about this type of object — interested, of course, in seeing what others have dealt with in treating these, but even more so in learning its context and cultural significance so my decisions in treatment remain as respectful and ethical as possible. Unfortunately, there seems to be a dearth of information on either front.
Most people are likely familiar with funeral wreaths. In fact, wreaths have a fascinatingly complex history as a symbol used to communicate joy, celebration, victory, life, death, afterlife, and mourning. The choice of flowers and foliage assembling the wreath is its own language, and gives it added layers of meaning. For instance, evergreens for Christians represent the triumph of the immortal soul over death, and white flowers like lilies can express the deceased’s purity, symbolize the restored innocence of their soul, and give hope for a return to happiness.
Ancient Greek and Roman cultures wore wreaths as a type of diadem or crown to indicate their status or position. Christians began hanging them on doors to invite the spirit of Christmas. In Victorian culture, a wreath on a door was a sign of public mourning; it announced that there’s been a death, the family was grieving, and to kindly leave them alone during this time. The image of a wreath today is somewhat distanced from its more distressing associations, though as an indelible symbol of eternal life in many religions, its presence in memorials seems likely to endure.
Feather wreaths were part of a “mourning wreath” craft tradition that arose in the Victorian Era (mid- to late-19th century), a period known for its particular fixation on the macabre. Other crafts included jewelry (“mourning jewelry”), corsages, cross-stitchings, and dried flower arrangements. The creation of such items were intimate expressions of mourning and commemoration made by loved ones, and the materials themselves were often physically linked to the deceased and their family. Most notoriously, the deceased’s hair or the hair from family members was incorporated into jewelry or woven into flowers to form wreaths. These creations were keepsakes and kept close, either worn or displayed in the home.
Examples of mourning jewelry and mourning wreaths made from human hair.
Feather wreaths were a later incarnation of this tradition which obviously persisted several decades into the 20th century. This object comes with an anecdotal origin story that says the feathers were taken from the deceased’s pillow, who died in 1933. I’d like to say I trust in the oral tradition that accompanies it, but my study of the object leaves me skeptical. Though compelling and in keeping with the nature of items from this mourning culture, this detail remains unconfirmed. Regardless, one way or another, the feathers are intimately connected to the deceased, even if that means they were simply chosen with care from a catalog by the deceased’s loved ones to include in this tribute.
Comparison feather wreath. Image Source: The Harp Gallery
Comparison feather wreath. Image Source: Sturgis Antiques
As with other mourning wreaths, this wreath was mounted and displayed in a shadowbox. Comparisons I’ve found show many walnut-framed shadowboxes with simple interiors, however there are also many displayed as this wreath: with ornate, gold-gilded frames and shadowbox interiors designed to imitate the inside of a casket. I found this particularly fascinating. Such a presentation deliberately emphasizes the death of this soul, who’s embodied in the expression of the wreath. A reminder to reflect on mortality; a heavily emphasized requisite of religious culture at the time.
Display of mourning wreaths made from hair at Leila’s Hair Museum, located in Independence, MO. Image Source: Culture Owl
The owners chose to not proceed with treating the shadowbox and frame—also quite damaged by the water event (2020.002a_b).
Since material choice was so significant in this practice, and intimately connected to the deceased, I found myself speculating as to whether the wood of the box came from the deceased’s home, the exterior wallpaper from the deceased’s bedroom, and the interior lining from her bedding.
Today, we’ve continued in the craft of wreath-making, but most often to create something celebratory and festive for the holidays or the seasons. It is no longer an exercise in grief or a contemplation of mortality. Our mourning customs have changed as our culture has. Wreaths are still included in our funerary cult, but the act of making them ourselves is not part of our process in dealing with the death or expressing our feelings over the loss. Nor do we endeavor to keep funeral wreaths on permanent display in our homes.
Pouring ourselves into crafts and projects no doubt still plays a significant role for many of us in coping with loss; laborious or artistic expressions of grief remain a part of our process. Though this particular practice of mourning wreaths and other mourning crafts — once expected and accepted — would easily be viewed as morbid through our 2020 lens. I always find it incredible how we continue to be an echo of our ancestors, and yet, after less than a century, can be so far removed from their mind-sets and customs.
Materials and Construction
View of top corsage element (2020.001b) before treatment.
It’s really no wonder why floral mourning wreaths were made from keratinaceous materials like hair and feathers. True flowers would decay, but flowers made from hair or feathers (wool was used as well) would stay frozen in time and resist deterioration, at least, for the foreseeable future.
The wreath and corsages are constructed of several individual imitation “flowers” tied together at their stems using various threads. The attachments are a bit precarious and the structures on a whole are quite flimsy. The items were attached to support boards using monofilament cord to allow for safe handling during treatment.
Each flower has a long stem composed of wires bundled together and wrapped in brown paper. There’s some type of glue or gum-like binder present over the paper, or the paper may be waxed. It seems likely that the same wires in the stems continue upward and exit as the imitation “stamen” at flower centers.
Backside of top corsage element (2020.001b) before treatment.
View of the wreath structure (2020.001a).
There are a variety of stamen tips in different colors and shapes. Some tips are long, some have tear-drop shapes, others are large spheres with granular surfaces, and many are small and bead-like — all atop stems of wire covered in waxed paper. Tips are of varying material with different water sensitivities based on their responses to prolonged submersion in the water event. All experienced different degrees of disintegration. Tear-drop tips were the least affected and seem to be a sort of hardened clay, but small, red-beaded tips were uniquely water-sensitive, leaving behind only stems with pink tops.
Colors too were water-soluble and completely dissolved, bleeding onto nearby feathers. But stamen color remained intact at the top of the wreath, and include bright reds, oranges, yellows, and browns with a notable gloss or sheen.
Details of the wreath (2020.001a), showing the variety of stamen.
Feather attachment is not entirely visible, however it appears feathers are embedded within a hardened, resinous glue at flower centers around the stamen; the material is dark brown though somewhat amber in color, and very glossy.
Flower “petals” are primarily pennaceous sections of contour feathers, though some of the more modified ones seem likely to be secondary wing or tail feathers. Plumulaceous downy feathers are at every flower’s center. In my study during treatment, I found some of the calami of the plumulaceous feathers that missed gluing to be curled tightly in a spring-like fashion around stamen. By the end of treatment, I was convinced many of these "downy" feathers were actually the proximal plumulaceous sections of the same contour feathers whose distal ends form the flower petals.
Feather Identification and Modification
Feathers have a very rich history in different decorative arts and traditions over the centuries, and feather identification can provide important insights into cultural decisions that went into making an object. However, identification is especially difficult here since every feather has been significantly modified.
Feathers are often decoratively modified when they’re employed in cultural objects, and there’s no exception in this mourning wreath. Every feather received modification, and each bundled with others to create a variety of different “flowers”. Given the significance of flower choice in wreaths, some bundles certainly look inspired by specific flowers to me — perhaps lilies, gladioli or daffodils — but other flowers are also clearly fanciful imaginings.
All feathers have pointed or blunt-cut tips, and many have different serrated edges to modify their shape. In addition, curling was employed a lot, which is a modification produced similarly to curling a ribbon: the edge of the feather is pinned against the hard, blunt edge of a tool using one’s thumb, and that tool is “scraped” against the feather as one pulls away in a sharp motion.
The most eye-catching feathers are ones artificially colored pink and yellowish-orange. Though now largely faded by light damage, the original vibrance of these colors has remained intact on the backsides of the wreath and corsages in areas protected from light exposure.
View of the upper wreath and corsage before treatment (2020.001a_b), detailing the different flower bundles and feather modifications.
Light damage refers to the photochemical effects of radiant energy, specifically ultraviolet energy, which is deleterious to feathers’ keratin structures, as well as leads to the loss of both natural and artificial feather coloration. As an object created for long-term display, cumulative damages from light exposure have notably impacted its condition.