In the years leading up to the Civil War, the United States begins to thrive. Though life expectancy is still low, early scientific advances are beginning to eliminate some of the diseases that plagued previous generations. As the nation discovers its sense of self, uniquely American traditions are born.

Life Expectancy

The average life expectancy during this era was 37.


Fewer and fewer sailors, now drinking lemon juice, are dying of scurvy.


Vaccination for smallpox is becoming more and more available.

Knock Knock!

More and more doctors are able to hear unhealthy—or deathful—sounds through a new instrument called the stethoscope.


Golden lockets worn to funerals typically show portraits of mourners weeping over tombs beneath willow trees, or simply a portrait of the beloved person who is, alas, deceased.

Meanwhile in the South...

Southern funerals are often major social events, with folks coming from miles around, sent for by word of mouth to mourn, eat cake and drink hot rum.

Mourning Attire

For adults, nothing but black will do for proper mourning attire, though children are allowed to attend funerals wearing white in summer and gray in winter.

Silver Spoon

Gloves and handkerchiefs are now deemed too expensive to continue as gifts to mourners, but silver spoons—”coffin spoons”­—are still common as tokens of appreciation for those who nursed the dearly departed.


Coffins have no handles or padding; are made of poplar, mahogany, walnut or cherry; and are covered with fringed cloths called “palls” (white for children and women, black for men).

Hair Wreath

It has always been common to weave wreaths from the hair of the dearly departed.

Photo by AdmlCrunch (via Flickr)

Notable Deaths

Two former presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died on the same day in the same year: July 4, 1826.

In the News

1800 - Napoleon conquers Italy

1804 - Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel

1811 - William Henry Harrison leads surprise attack on Chief Tecumseh's settlement at Tippicanoe

1812 - France invades Russia, 600,000 men are lost in the winter retreat

1831 - Nat Turner leads unsuccessful slave revolt in U.S.A.

1839 - First Opium War between China and Britain

1845 - Edgar Allan Poe publishes The Raven and Other Poems

1846 - U.S.A. declares war on Mexico