Gateway Object: Children’s Art Nouveau Coffin Handles

Three silver coloured coffin handles descending in size top to bottom


These children’s handles were produced at around 1900 and show an Art Nouveau influence, particularly the middle handle. Art Nouveau designs were very popular between 1890 and 1910 and were inspired by natural forms and structures, particularly the curved lines of plants and flowers. As with other forms of decorative art, coffin furniture was influenced by the design movements of the day.


In Victorian Birmingham, Child mortality rates were among the highest in the country. In Birmingham between the years 1873 and 1938 over 146,000 infants under the age of twelve months died. An average of 2,246 children every year, although most of these deaths occurred before the turn of the century prior to Joseph Chamberlain’s public health and sanitation acts. These acts improved life expectancy for children and adults alike.

Children’s coffin fittings were identical to those of adults only smaller. At the time these handles were produced children were dressed to look like ‘little adults’, even their shrouds were the same, but smaller.

According to Victorian etiquette, the first year after the death of a child was a period of deep mourning. After this clothing material was changed, and traditional black crape was dispensed with although mourning continued for another year. 

It was difficult for poorer members of society to embrace this etiquette, as they very often they could only wear what they already owned and couldn’t conform to these standards. As the likelihood of a child dying before the age of three was quite high parents would save for their children’s funerals ahead of time to ensure they could give a child a respectable funeral.

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