Finding Family

One woman's obsession with family history.

Late last year when I visited a cousin in Australind she made mention of ‘letters edged in black’. Being of a different generation and never having heard it spoken before, I looked at her blankly. She gave an explanation and the ‘letter edged in black’ has left a lasting impression.

Despite being commonly known as letters or envelopes ‘edged in black’ it was properly known as mourning stationery or mourning paper and harks back to the Victorian era when being in mourning meant adhering to certain rules.

Throughout this era the loss of a loved one was memorialised in many different ways. They took photographs of their relatives after they had died and posed them to make them look alive and at peace. They cut a lock of hair from the deceased and kept it as a memento or had it turned into jewellery such as a ring or locket. Elaborate funerals were held, death notices were placed in the paper and letters and envelopes with black edging were used to break the news gently to the recipient that the contents contained information of a loved one’s death. This wasn’t always the case however. Generally, letters continued to be sent ‘edged in black’ for up to a year after the death and was considered a mark of respect for the deceased.

While there were official books concerning proper etiquette to follow while in mourning, newspapers also printed brief guides for those who did not have access to such books. Readers often sent in their questions asking about the correct rules to follow when in mourning and the papers would happily answer them by printing such rules in their editions. These articles provide a fascinating glimpse into what was right and was what wrong when it came to mourning etiquette and gives insight into the behaviours and customs that our ancestors may have adhered to.

The following snippets from an article printed in 1874 illustrates how restrictive mourning could be for widows in particular. Considered the “deepest mourning” the dress requirements could last for two years and women were advised that they should “accept no invitations, and should frequent no public places” for a year. After the year had passed it became acceptable for widows to slowly make their way back into society.

Widow Mourning

The guidelines further state that children should mourn their parents for one year with strict requirements as to what type of dress they should wear and for how long. For two months they had to abstain from society but after that time they could re-enter it.

Mourning etiquette also applied to the deaths of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, first cousins and on occasion, second cousins. It became even more complicated when considering extended relationships that came through marriage. For example women who’d married a man who was a widower often had to wear mourning if either of the first wife’s parents died. Though not considered compulsory, it was however considered good taste.

Extended Relationships Mourning

Funnily enough, such rules and restrictions seem only to be applicable to women. While men were also required to be in mourning after the death of a relative, they could however get away with wearing their usual black suits and gloves for six months to a year accompanied, perhaps, with a black band in their hat. They could also continue to be seen in public and at work and were not restricted socially as women were.

Half Mourning 1890

Half Mourning Costumes in 1890

Deep Mourning and Half Mourning

Examples of Deep Mourning (left) and Half Mourning (right) in 1899

Mourning stationery had its own particular requirements. Generally the paper was cream or grey with a black edge and was to be used for the duration of the time that the person was in mourning (this was of course dependent on the person’s relationship to the deceased). It would also appear that during the Victorian period the stationery would be edged with an extremely thick black border and as time went on, and mourning requirements began to relax, the border would become thinner until it ultimately disappeared once mourning clothes were put aside.

The following article from 1918 illustrates some of the changes in mourning etiquette that occurred after the Victorian era.

Mourning Etiquette

Though the extremity of Victorian era mourning was eased amongst most of the population, letters edged in black continued. Various State Governments also often carried out the tradition as a mark of respect for a deceased sovereign or dignitary.

Mourning Stationery

The Commonwealth Government itself issued a special Gazette “heavily bordered with black” on 22 January 1936 which formerly announced that King George V had passed away.

Gazette Extraordinary

While the ‘letter edged in black’ is more commonly associated with the Victorian era, a search on Trove indicates that it continued into the early 1940s with advertisements for mourning paper still being printed in newspapers. Perhaps however this was a slight carryover from the older generation who still adhered to such traditions. It was most certainly out of fashion amongst the younger generation and by the late 1940s the advertisements for mourning paper reduced significantly.

Today letters edged in black are non-existent except amongst old family papers and archives. We may no longer write letters on paper with an ominous black border or follow strict mourning guidelines but over time we have developed our own ways to respect and commemorate the death of a loved one. Who knows, perhaps in another 200 years the traditions will have evolved again and our own practices will look as archaic as those of the Victorian era.


7 thoughts on “Letters Edged in Black

  1. andrewsarch says:

    Hi, Jess. I hadn’t heard of these letters either, until this week when I came across a reference to them in Geoffrey Blainey’s “Black Kettle & Full Moon: Daily Life in a Vanished Australia”. Blainey only mentions them briefly, so I’m pleased to find your detailed post.

    1. Jess says:

      Thank goodness I’m not the only one! And I’m glad the post was perfectly timed for your search. 🙂 PS: Love the title of that book! I’ll have to google it. 🙂

  2. GeniAus says:

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing your research.

    1. Jess says:

      You’re most welcome, Jill. 🙂

  3. Pete says:

    I may be wrong but I seem to remember hearing that the black colouring used for Veils contained arsenic, which is why Victorian women mourners were prone to faint in public, if the Veil was worn for too long. One of my ancestors husbands wore brown shoes at his wife’s funeral in the early 1950’s, very poor taste and many of my family never spoke to him again, of course the fact that he moved his lover into his house while his wife was still in the front room in her coffin, may have played a part in that. Nothing to do with black edged letters Jess, but I thought you might like the story.

    1. Jess says:

      I can remember reading a similar story about a new material becoming quite the fashion in Victorian England. The only problem was that it was extremely flammable and many women suffered horrific burns (or even death) from their dresses catching on fire! Loved the story Pete! 🙂

  4. Luise Wells says:

    I have a letter edged in black advising of my grandfathers death. Posted from Germany to Australia in December 1978. Yes, 1978. I remember my Mum saying that it would be advice of a death before we opened it.

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