Visiting Cards and Mourning Cards

I can remember as recently as 1994 on a trip to visit family in rural Italy, seeing posters on the sides of public buildings in the village announcing the death of a local resident. These posters had a black border around them. This is the memory that sprung to mind when my brother reminded me about the old tradition of leaving what are known as visiting cards.

Visiting cards were used during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. It was considered the polite thing to do when visiting someone’s house to leave a visiting card as you passed through the hallway on your way to the sitting room for your visit. If no one was home when you called, your visiting card was left with a servant.

If you were in mourning after having lost a loved one, your visiting card depicted a black border around it as well as around the edges of your writing paper and envelopes. In some countries it was customary to depict a thick black border if the death of a loved one was recent and if it was a spouse. Thinner borders appeared when the death was that of a sibling, aunt, etc. The border would diminish in width over time, to signify the softening of the grief with the passage of time. It was customary to use mourning cards for two years after the death of a spouse.

Men’s mourning cards were always smaller than women’s and the black border was always narrower. Interesting. I would bet a man made up that part of the custom.

What people today call mourning cards are keepsakes given at funerals and memorials and are not really like their predecessors. They are paper sentiments that commemorate the life of the dearly departed.

I do like the idea of mourning cards as a therapeutic way to come to terms with a loss, but I can’t see the mourning card of the Elizabethan era finding new life (no pun intended) in the digital age. Can you imagine receiving a mourning e-card? Yick.

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