Messengers of grief: Death through the letterbox
Digging through the stacks of books in our dining room/library, the discoveries are often as much fun as finding a prize in a dusty, musty bookstore. For instance, this wonderful book, Mourning Covers: The Cultural and Postal History of Letters Edged in Black, had been languishing behind a pile of art and history volumes on the top shelf for who knows how long.
Written by Ernest A. Mosher, Mourning Covers is the most, if not the only, comprehensive guide to the field. Although geared toward the serious philatelic collector, there is still much that to be gleaned by anybody with an interest in social or even family history. Lavishly illustrated and enthusiastically written, this three hundred plus page book is a glorious if sometimes sobering reminder of the days when the mailman did not only deliver bills and flyers.
But what is a mourning cover?
Most popular throughout the 1900s and into the middle of the next century, mourning letters are identified by their black bordered envelopes. The cards held within were a memorial of the dead, a harbinger of bad tidings, a tangible announcement of the passing of a loved one.
What was once a fragile paper touchstone for the bereaved has become, for the collector, a highly sought after prize. It’s a lesson in social custom of days long gone, and a fascinating glimpse at frugality and ingenuity of an earlier age. Look between the leaves of those envelopes which still hold their enclosures, and one is more likely to find a long, newsy letter than a generically sterile card that states just the facts.
Of course there are many fine, and beautiful, examples of fancy cards and stationary, where the envelope’s content was a single calling card acting as an invitation to a funeral or memorial service. But far more interesting to the armchair historian are those envelopes that, when carefully opened, still hold pages of spidery handwriting on stationary meant for mourning.
While the majority of letters do indeed lead with a mention of shuffling off the mortal coil, an untimely accident or a prolonged illness from which a loved one did not recover, they also frequently diverge from the melancholy task of imparting sad news and arrangements for travel to unspooling a laundry list of what’s happening at the old homestead. The simple mundanity of the content is an intriguing snapshot of a way of life long since past; news of county fair ribbons, crop health, school holidays, canning put up for winter and church sociables.
That these people, these senders of mourning letters, grieved is certain although to our modern eyes there sometimes seems to be a lackadaisical haphazardness to the news. But, in the age of telephones and e-mail, texting and two hour plane flights, it’s important to remember that letters were often posted across great distances which, crossed once, were never to be retraced. Everything was important, and these missives provided a way to say “we’re ok…even if Uncle Fred isn’t.”
Often, too, once the period of mourning had passed, the grief-stricken found that they still had an ample supply of the carefully purchased, requisite stationary to hand. And, depending on a family’s circumstance, that paper was too expensive to feed to the fire. So the sheets that had been hitherto been used only for their intended purpose were now reincarnated as plain, everyday letter paper, answering the confounding question of why some letters on mourning stationary have absolutely nothing to do with death at all.
But, however these letters were intended, for the modern collector they have become a compulsive and often elusive companion. Whether one collects for the stamp and cover alone, or for the social history contained between an envelope’s leaves, mourning covers are a gratifying philatelic sideline and can be easily found at local and national stamp shows. It’s a fair bet, too, that your favorite antique store even has a few of these gems stashed away, making the hunt that much more pleasing. (AH 2001 Stamps)