Mourning Stationery’s Long History

Modern Mourning Stationery from Memorial Print in Australia.

Modern Mourning Stationery from Memorial Print in Australia.

Genealogists often drool over family Bibles, as they can find notices of births, deaths and marriages written on many pages within that book. But, the other piece of evidence that can hide within a family Bible’s pages is the mourning stationery, or a printed or written piece that talks about a deceased member or friend of the family. These family letters and notices can reveal much about the family’s history, but they also reveal much about American society and its perspective on social attitudes toward death.

First, mourning stationery is formal stationery associated with funerals, memorials, burials or mourning periods. This type of stationary ranged from formal letterhead bordered in black to funeral cards, fans and other printed matter. The point behind using this printed material was to create a boundary that stated the family was in mourning and to offer a ‘token’ to loved ones and friends that spoke of the deceased in a kindly, if not effusive, manner.

The habit of sending mourning stationery has a long history, but its true push to long-lasting use began in the Victorian era. The widow or family using black-bordered stationery was bound to use a large border early in the mourning period, and the border would diminish in size in the second year of mourning. The border size often began at .25″, decreased by 1/8″ by the beginning of the first year, and decreased again to a 1/16″ border by the end of the second year after a loved one’s death. If a genealogist discovers a mourning letter, he or she can determine when that letter was written or, conversely, when a person died if that letter was dated – simply by measuring the depth of the black border on the letterhead.

But, customs change and according to the Book of Etiquette, Volume I by Lillian Eichler Watson (1921, University of Virginia), “White stationery of a good quality is correct for all occasions and mourning is not exception. That which has a narrow black border is good but a border nearly an inch wide is in bad taste. After three months have passed gray stationery is permissible.”

Watson adds an inscription that was considered proper:

Mr. and Mrs. N.C. Graham
thank you for your kind expression of sympathy
during their recent bereavement.

According to Watson, this thank-you card may “have an unobtrusive border of black. The border on this and on the stationery may be lessened from time to time during the period of mourning or it may remain the same until it is discarded altogether.”

Other mourning printed matter included memorial cards or brochures to commemorate the deceased; these range from classic prayer cards with religious themes to small booklets with photographs, poems, and other tributes to commemorate the dead. At a formal funeral, programs may be printed on mourning stationery and distributed to the people who attend. Such memorial cards, programs, and booklets are traditionally kept, and they can also be sent to mourners who were not able to attend the funeral.

Mourning stationery today is much more colorful, eschewing the black and somber mood of mourning printed matter of days gone by. Rainbows, footprints in sand, and colorful religious icons adorn today’s merchandise, which can be ordered through a printing company, at a store or online through various merchants (such as the examples shown above from Memorial Print in Australia). While social mores are less restrictive regarding mourning stationery and its uses, it still remains ‘proper’ etiquette today to send notice to the bereaved that you are thinking about them during their mourning period. It is just as proper for the bereaved to respond to this kindness with a note, too.

Another way to solve the social dilemma created by death notifications is to create your own. Using resources such as your computer and printer, you can tap into Auto-fill labels such as the ones created by Worldlabel to define your mourning stationery. This option allows you to create a piece that fits your style, no matter if it’s the old-fashioned black border or the modern rainbow.

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