EAA Research Consultant
Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: Route 66
The 'mourning sword' topic has continued to really intrigue me, and Marks question about functionality or simply dress on these led to trying to discover more.
In extracts from "Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History". Lou Taylor , 1983, I found that mourning was not simply a brief event and attending of a funeral, but a protracted, expensive and very status oriented affair. This was particularly the case in the 17th century, and a person had virtually all elements of somber clothing and in mens case, accoutrements, specially in place for these sometimes long occasions. From what I have understood, depending on the protocol or etiquette according to the stature of the deceased, this could be weeks or even months.
In mens fashion of the times, it was unthought of in the 17th and 18th centuries for a man to go unarmed without his sword, and while this was decidedly a matter of fashion, it was clearly a matter of a very real potential for need of self defense. In a bit of my own speculation, in the case of mourning, such a drawn out affair in which a person was clearly visible with respect to the matter, it would seem that a man would be in a sensitive situation. Perhaps a misplaced remark or slight toward the person being mourned might lead to altercation, and an effective weapon would be far more than just a dress affectation.
While it seems that many smallswords of the 18th century were fashioned with 'blackened steel', as noted in Bashford Dean's "Catalog of European Court Swords and Hunting Swords" (1929), there was only one listed specifically as a 'mourning sword'....#105, English, 1805. There were no particular details, but it appeared mostly of the cut steel fashion of the times. (attached below, left)
It was noted in the previous work mentioned that along with a mans cloak for mourning and other somber clothing in black, black sword 'covers' and belts were purchased during the 17th into early 18th century. As the 18th century progressed, the strict elements of the mourning seem to have gradually relaxed, and eventually a black armband became widely accepted for men, while the women still followed more strictly somber fashion in dress.
George Washington, whose mourning sword was earlier mentioned as such, apparantly wore his to funerals, and was worn by him in Stuarts full length portrait of him. It was referred to as his 'Spanish Dress sword' and on its blade was 'recte face ice' (do what is right) and obverse , 'nemine timens' (fear no man). It would seem reflective of the standards of mourning in place even in high station by the 1790s, and that 'mourning' swords were by this time simply dress swords, with the term used more traditionally. (attached below, right).
I have seen very light dress swords of the mid to later 19th century from Europe which were termed 'coffin carriers swords', and seem to have had blackened steel hilts of simple hanger style. These are believed to have come from a royal house, but details are unclear, and just seemed worthy of note.
All best regards,