Mourning And Black Edged Stationery

March 15, 2018
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Black Bordered & Victorian Mourning Stationery

In the Shapell Manuscript Collection, there are a number of black-bordered manuscripts that are available to the public to view online. It’s easy to overlook this aspect of letter writing and stationery, but to the writer and recipient of such papers, this border signifies an important sociological phenomenon. These marked papers, known as mourning stationery, are immediately identifiable by a black border surrounding the page, and are often accompanied by a black-bordered envelope. The recipient would instantly understand that the sender is in mourning. Though this practice has its origins in the seventeenth century, it became popular in the Victorian era and remained in vogue for much of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century.{1} Generally, the mourner would begin with a thick black border around his or her stationery, which would narrow over time.

While some have asserted that a genealogist can date a death by measuring the thickness of the black border on undated mourning stationery, custom varied and remained subjective.

Indeed, the custom also evolved over the centuries. By 1921, in her Book of Etiquette, Lillian Eichler Watson maintains that white stationery is “correct for all occasions, and mourning is not an exception.” If one were to opt for a black-bordered mourning, stationery, she opines, it ought to be narrow; a border nearly an inch wide is “in bad taste.” When it comes to thank-you cards, she echoes the Victorian idea of lessening the border during the morning period, or keeping it consistent (but narrow, of course) until it’s discarded altogether.

Black borders around print have been a powerful signal of bereavement in American culture since the nineteenth century. Not being confined to personal correspondence, nineteenth century newspapers would run death announcements with a border of black.

The Letter Edged In Black

Tellingly, Mark Twain explains in this letter that he can’t deliver a “light and nonsensical speech” to be printed in the paper, along with the “black bars of mourning” on the occasion of President Garfield’s death. Indeed, Hattie Nevada’s 1897 song, The Letter Edged in Black, has been covered by many artists throughout the years, preserving the idea of a black-edged letter or envelope as a portent of bad news or mourning well after the custom had fallen out of favor in the United States. You can hear Johnny Cash singing it here:


The Letter Edged In Black Lyrics

I was standing by my window yesterday morning, without a thought of worry or regret. When I saw the postman coming down the pathway, he was bringing me a letter edged in black. Well, he rang the bell and whistled while he waited. Then he said, “Good morning to you, Jack.” But he never knew the sorrow that he brought me when he handed me that letter edged in black.

With trembling hand I took the letter from him. I broke the seal and this is what it said. “Come home, my boy, your dear old father wants you. Come home, my boy, your dear old mother’s dead. The last words that your mother ever uttered, was ‘Tell my boy I want him to come back.’ My eyes are dimmed, my poor old heart is breaking. And I’m writing you this letter edged in black.”

I bowed my head in sorrow and in silence. The sunshine of my life, it all has fled since the postman brought that letter yesterday morning saying, “Come home, my boy, your poor old mother’s dead. Those angry words I wish I’d never spoken. You know I never meant them, don’t you, Jack? May the angels bear me witness, I am asking your forgiveness in this letter edged in black.”

For other great videos at Shapell, Check out The Funeral of Robert Kennedy, Dreamland: Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem, & The Executions at Beverly Ford, and more!

Nineteenth-century horse-drawn hearse with driver and ornate wagon for the coffin
John Hislop Undertakers, Brisbane, ca. 1902. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Wikimedia.



Learn more about black edged stationery and other historical manuscripts!


  1. [1]
    Letter Writing as a Social Practice, ed. by David Barton and Nigel Hall, (John Benjamins: Philadelphia, 2000), p. 99