[Tom Biederbeck] Nancy Sharon Collins thinks the time has come to revive a useful asset for our letter library: mourning stationery. Collins, a designer, researcher and writer about paper and print, says mourning stationery was intended to help the bereaved adapt to a new role in society. I asked her about her interest, how mourning stationery functioned graphically, and how it might have relevance for our time.
What are some of the ways we used to grieve when there were rules?
Mourning stationery was integral to the communication toolbox in the 19th century, and may have reached its apogee in the grief-obsessed Victorian era. In those days, women wore heavy black veils to separate them from the public. Most cultures allow for this outward sign of grieving to “protect” the mourners from the rest of society. A lot of these traditions have been lost, and these days it’s expected we just “get on” with our lives. I feel we are missing customs that could help those who are grieving heal.
How did you become interested in the subject?
I have some knowledge of bereavement customs from my family. My maternal grandfather founded a funeral home in Detroit still operated by descendants. So I know that bereavement acknowledgment cards are part of the funeral package — these cards are what the mourner sends to everyone who came to the funeral, sent flowers, helped out, signed the guest book and the like. I have an old, uncut flat of engraved acknowledgment cards from one of my engravers. I hope these are still offered by funeral homes in lieu of the online services provided by the local newspaper.
Not long ago, bereavement acknowledgments and other condolence-related correspondence would have been on the bereaved’s own stationery — or, ideally, the bereaved’s own mourning stationery.
Recently I viewed vintage mourning stationery, once offered by Strathmore, in Mohawk Fine Papers’ archive [shown directly above]. I’ve also done research at the Harry Ransom Center on the letters of famous authors like Edith Wharton and Mark Twain, some of it on their mourning stationery, with its distinctive heavy black borders.
When my husband passed away unexpectedly earlier this year [see Collins’ moving article], I was asked if I wanted to create my own mourning stationery [shown at the top of this post].
How did mourning stationery work, graphically?
The graphic trick or clue to real mourning stationery is the distinctive black bordering on each sheet and envelope. This sends an immediate message to the recipient: When you get one of these in the mail, you’re made aware that someone you know has passed.
There are stages of grief and mourning … grief comes first. The stationery, usually based on the owner’s regular personal stationery, had black borders diminishing in width with the passage from grief through the various stages of mourning.
Why should we be concerned with mourning stationery today?
I was chagrined to find that, of the stack of thoughtful condolence missives sent to me since my own husband passed away, only a couple were on personal stationery. The rest were commercially produced cards with sentiments written by copywriters. Mind you, most of these had long personal notes written in the sender’s own hand … but so few real notes or letters on blank or personal letter paper.
[1950s sympathy card, courtesy of the Hallmark Archives, Hallmark Cards]
As a society, we need customs that help people recover from grief and loss. Corresponding with friends and relatives plays an important role in mourning, and in recovering. Taking the time to sit down purely for the purpose of writing a personal note or letter is a wonderful act that allows ample time and attention to focus on expressing true feeling.
Adding mourning stationery to one’s wardrobe of personal letter papers is important when the unfortunate occasion arises. It’s good form and offers a formal catharsis. When I realized that mourning stationery is for the bereaved and not the deceased, it was a revelation … as if to say, “Oh, yes, now I have to make decisions for myself.” It was a big moment for me when it came.
Nancy Sharon Collins is known for her exemplary bespoke hand-engraved social stationery. She is a stationer; graphic designer; typographer; print history scholar; partner in Collins, LLC; director of special projects for AIGA New Orleans; and an educator forUCLA. She is working on a book about American commercial engraving. She also sells her work at Felt & Wire Shop; see all of her products here. And visit her engraving blog here.