Farm story 9: Public signs of private grief

Jet mourning brooch, probably from Whitby in England in the late 1800's

Even the most unlikely places can be settings for terrible events. When people come out to our farm on Tjörn from the city they often remark on its quiet and its sense of calm. It doesn’t feel like a spot that has ever been touched by tragedy. But grief and suffering are no respecters of place. In 1921 poor Axelina, Olle’s father’s first wife, died of blood poisoning at the age of thirty-two while 50 years earlier two infants died on the farm . Olle’s paternal grandmother Elisabeth, who lived from 1867 to 1909, had eleven children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. However, her second and third children, both girls, died young. Britta, born in 1871, died at only two months while her sister, Beata, born two years later, died at sixteen months. Childhood deaths were far from uncommon at the time, caused often by accidents and childhood diseases which would be easily prevented today. But in 1899, twenty-four years after this sad story, another Beata Olsdotter was born to Elisabeth and Olof. At the time it was not uncommon for the name of a dead sibling to be given to a new baby and this Beata, the ninth of the eleven, had a happier fate than her namesake. She lived to the age of seventy-five and had six children of her own.

In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were few babies not born at home and childbirth was still a dangerous experience for both mother and child. At the same time there were few old people who didn’t die in the comfort (or agony) of their own beds. I remember Anna, Einar’s wife and from a family where money was tight , saying that the funeral service for her grandfather in the second decade of the twentieth century had had to be held in the open air as the family didn’t have enough money to pay for the body to be embalmed, and the stench of the corpse in an enclosed building (however holy) would have been unbearable. But whether held inside or out, funerals were important occasions for the whole community, and on the farm I’ve found some items which must have been worn on just such occasions.

The first is a little black brooch, almost five cm long and one wide, very shiny and cut so that it catches the light. I seem to remember that it was in the kitchen in a tin with a lot of junk – bobbins of thread, buttons and lengths of string for tying up parcels. It’s made of jet, a form of dense, fossilised coal that takes a high polish and was often used for mourning jewellery. These were pieces women wore at the funerals of loved ones and in the period of mourning which followed. In Britain, mass production made black jewellery affordable and Queen Victoria made it fashionable, so mourning jewellery was big business from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. Most of the jet came from Whitby, a small town on the north-east coast of England. This was a stretch of coastline with which many Swedish seamen were familiar, where they delivered timber for pit props and picked up coal and coke for the return journey. The brooch could well have been bought by one of Olof and Elisabeth’s relatives, for if the men on Tjörn didn’t work on the land in one capacity or another, most of them went to sea. There were few other alternatives.

The brooch is a light, modest-looking object only 5 by 1½ cm, but an astonishing amount of work has gone into it. Its outer edges are jagged, like the stubby teeth of a comb, 33 little teeth to each of the long sides and 10 to the short. When you examine it closely you can see that this outer edge is also scalloped to help the jet reflect the light. Then there is the inner section of the brooch, which must have been made and polished separately, and fitted later. It consists of a straight-sided, slightly raised bar of jet on which sit ten tiny black balls, less than two mm across, almost but not quite identical in size. These little balls sit in specially-made dips in the jet. They are held in place not by glue, but by tiny metal spikes which must have been hammered in from the reverse side. The metal plate on the back of the brooch is discoloured and a rusty red colour. One end has been turned up at an angle of 90 degrees and shaped to form a hook for the pin, which turns on a tiny hinge.

The raw materials for this brooch consist of only two materials, jet and metal, but the end result is attractive. It was probably inexpensive, but the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the maker are clear. This little brooch and its clasp together consist of almost twenty separate parts and even if it was made at a time when machines could mass-produce components, fitting them together took skill and an eye for the smallest detail. Even now when I put the brooch on and fasten it, the pin makes a satisfying click when it finds its place. I’ve often wondered whether it was worn at Britta and Beata’s funerals in 1871 and 1875.

Of course women aren’t the only ones to attend funerals and, after Olle’s death, looking through his belongings I found two articles of men’s clothing that I recognised. I knew what they were as I’d been to a few funerals on Tjörn over the years, and had got over the surprise I first felt when I saw several of the male mourners wearing white ties. For me they were associated with movies of Fred Astaire from the 1930’s, where the dancer is resplendent in formal evening wear including a white tie. However, I soon learned that close relatives of the deceased on Tjörn wore white ties at funerals to distinguish them from other male guests who wore black ones. Nowadays such traditions are starting to disappear and many young men don’t possess a suit, far less a tie, and in liberal Sweden few people turn a hair if a youngster turns up to a funeral in jeans.

The first white tie is nylon. I know this because the label sewn into the reverse side about 25 cm up from the broad end says Nylon. The boldness of the label with its forward-flowing cursive script and the double lines below the word, suggest movement and energy, and show the pride of the manufacturer in creating articles in this most up-to-the-minute of fabrics. Nylon was originally developed in the second world war and became synonymous with stockings in the 1940’s. Afterwards it became used for other types of garments including dresses and shirts. I guess Olle bought it for his father’s funeral in 1960 when it was the latest thing. The material is very similar to that of my shopping bag, the sort we’re all buying now so we can cut down on plastic bags. There isn’t the slightest “give” in the fabric and it appears to be waterproof, which is usually more desirable in tents than ties, but a lot of effort has gone into its manufacture. At 10 cm at its widest, it’s a little broader than modern fashion dictates and is lined with white linen stitched carefully into place, while the four short seams where the tie passes round the back of the neck are meticulously sewn.

The second white tie is narrower and Olle probably bought it in 1981 for his mother’s funeral. Nylon had passed its heyday by then and another man-made fibre was on the up and up. The discreet white label on this tie has a crest on the left and the words 100% polyester, finest quality underneath. The fabric might be different but the pride in using the most up-to-date material is still there. This tie feels a little more elastic than the earlier, rather hard nylon version, but it looks slightly faded and has a couple of small stains, confirming the fact well-know to those who set store by personal and sartorial grooming, that polyester is a beast for staining.

These two man-made fabrics couldn’t be more different to the linen and wool used by earlier generations to make clothes, and for that reason they were highly desirable when they first hit the market. Part of their glamour was that they were modern and labour-saving, the same reasons that my working mother in Newcastle in the early 1960’s embraced instant mash and Bird’s instant whip. In the case of clothing, new, synthetic fabrics drip-dried, which was a great development for the women (and it was nearly always women) in the US and Europe who were regularly faced with mountains of shirts and dresses to wash and iron. The recent past of the families of the agricultural workers and seamen of Tjörn was marked by poverty and mind-numbing drudgery so it’s not surprising that after the Second World War when they had the chance to embrace modernity in the shape of labour-saving materials and foods, young people did so enthusiastically.

In 1960 the new bridge linking the island to the rest of Sweden pointed the way to exciting opportunities and a brighter future for Tjörn residents, and in their small way these synthetic ties were a symbol of this brave new world. Suddenly young people’s horizons were no longer confined to the island where they were born. The music they listened to and the clothes they wore reflected a growing interest in the world outside the island, although the funeral services, for which they dressed so carefully, were held in the same churches and followed the same traditions as they did when their great-grandparents were christened.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account gwyneths_swedish_farm .

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