Mourning Stamps and Covers
Among people of European background, the color black is usually regarded as the color of mourning from the hanging of black crepe during the 19th century funeral held in the home, to the black dress of the widow and the black band around the widower’s arm, right on to the decoration of stationary purchased to announce the death of a loved one. Mourning covers usually show a black edge of various widths around the envelope, often are lined with black, and contain a card announcement, or a letter on black edged stationary. They were commonly used from the mid-1800s into the first quarter or so of the 1900s in the US. They were also used in other countries. At least 250 countries have passed mourning covers through their mail services. In some countries around the world, this custom did not disappear and mourning covers can be found to this day. Some mourning covers especially include black edged stamps which commemorate the death of a well- known person honored by the stamp. On many occasions, when the interior letter is still present, there is only a brief mention of a death, or even no death is mentioned at all. The cost of mourning stationary produced this strange anomaly. Making this stationary was expensive for many people. Therefore it was not thrown away after the year of grieving was past. In order to obtain every penny of value of this precious paper, it was used for even routine communication. Even if the letter inside did announce the death, it often went on to report all sorts of other family news since these letter communications across the miles were often infrequent and precious opportunities.
I delved into my various collections and came up with these mourning stamps edged in black. Both are from Greece. The first set of three stamps, shown in Figure 1, was issued December 21, 1945, seven months after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, showing a frontal portrait of the US President. The set of 3 stamps included a 30 dinar violet purple, the 60 dinar green, and the 200 dinar grey brown issue. All include in the design a narrow black rim characterizing them as mourning issues.
Figure 1: Greek FDR mourning stamps
Less than 2 years later, Greece developed a second mourning set, seen in Figure 2, of 3 stamps: the 1 drachma green, 3 drachma brown, and the 8 drachma deep blue issue of 1937 picturing Greece King George II who died April 1, 1947. They were created by quickly overprinting the 1937 issue with new denominations, 50 drachma, 250 drachmas, and 600 drachmas respectively and with black borders(Scot 498- 500 ) Using overprinting of standard preexisting issues allows these stamps to be available rapidly after the loss of a renowned person like King George II. They were released April 6, 1947 on the day of his funeral.
Figure 2 Greek King George II stamps
Other examples of mourning stamp issues include Yugoslavia’s King Alexander issues, Germany’s Hindenburg issue of 1934 and Belgium’s Queen Astrid memorial issue of 1935.
Here in Figures 3-5 are two mourning covers sent to the same people about 3 months apart. The two covers have a different width of black outlining the envelope. Some people think that the mourning stationary was ordered purposefully with the width of the black lines indicating the closeness of the deceased to the sender of the mourning letter.
Shown slightly reduced in size in Figure 3, the first mourning cover was sent from East Orange, NJ to Rev and Mrs. John M. Thomas, 281 Springdale Ave, East Orange, NJ on Nov 22, 1899, utilizing the patriotic machine cancel Type “N” 13 star flag motif (originated in 1894 in Boston), only used at large stationary Post Office (PO). The cover is franked with Scott US 220 - the 2 cent George Washington red stamp. The second is a smaller cover (Figure 4) which could be classified as a “Lady’s Cover” sent on Feb 12, 1900 from Rutland, VT, to Mrs. John M. Thomas, at the same address. This one is cancelled by the Type N machine cancel with numeral 1 signifying PO 1 in VT. It is also franked with the 2 cent George Washington red stamp Scott 220. On the back of the second cover (Figure 5) are two receiving stamps, Feb 13, East Orange, NJ, and the word “Received” with the numeral “1” which also may refer to the post office.
Some interesting information can be ascertained about the addressees of these mourning covers. The good Reverend John M. (Martin) Thomas was born in 1869 in Fort Covington, NY and died in 1952 in Rutland, VT. His home town, Fort Covington, is a couple miles from the Canadian border in upstate New York. His preparatory school was in Malone, NY, 20 miles south. In 1890 he graduated Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT, across Lake Champlain and south, very near Rutland, VT. In 1893 he graduated from the Union Theological Seminary in New York, married Sarah Grace Seely on May 18, 1893, and immediately took a position as Pastor of the Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, NJ where he served for 15 years. It was during this time at East Orange, that he and his wife received these two mourning covers. He and his wife had 5 children. It is interesting that this man went on to become a scion in education, serving as 9th president of Middlebury College, his alma mater (1908-1921); 9th president of Penn State University, then called Penn State College (1921-1925); and 12rh president of Rutgers University in Newark, NJ (1925-1930). During those last two presidencies, he strove to move both colleges toward becoming public universities, an economic challenge that caused him to resign and move on at both places. From 1925-1930, he was vice president of the National Life Insurance Co in Montpelier, VT. But he couldn’t resist the academic life and the educational challenges. He agreed to serve as acting President of Norwich College, Northfield, VT, in 1937, and then was elected president from 1939-1944. He had written prolifically about education, especially in terms of the Middlebury’s educational vision. He served as chairman of the Vermont State Board of Education. And to add even more glory to his life, he served as US Army Chaplain for the Vermont National Guard, First Infantry, 1913 to 1914, served on the Mexican Border in July and August of 1916, and became a First Lieutenant in the US Army from 1918 to 1919. I am not sure of the connection to Rutland where he died, but that city is within 20 to 60 miles of Middlebury, Northfield, and Montpelier, the capitol of Vermont. It is also the origin of the mourning letter sent to Mrs. John Thomas. And that connection drew Reverend and university President Thomas back to Rutland where he died. Figure 6 shows President Thomas” while at Rutgers. www.rutgers.edu
Figure 6 President John Martin Thomas
Mrs. Thomas was no slouch either. She was born Sarah Grace Seely in Middlebury, VT in 1870, the daughter of Professor Henry Martyn Seely who served as professor in the chemistry, natural history and geology departments at Middlebury College. He was also an MD and had taught medical sciences academically as well and descends from immigrants who came to the American colonies in the 1600s. Sarah Grace graduated from Middlebury in 1891 and did graduate work at Vassar College from 1891 to 1892. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Hawthorne and Essay Clubs of Middlebury, the Mosaic Club of East Orange and the Ethan Allen Chapter of the D.A.R. For another thing, she served for 15 years as the wife of the Pastor of the large East Orange Presbyterian church. During this time she bore and raised 3 daughters and 2 sons.
Both Reverend Thomas and his wife Sarah Grace were buried in the West Cemetery of Middlebury, VT where they had both gone to school, as young adults.This research and the people I learned about are an example of how two covers, in this case, mourning covers can shed light on lives that previously were unknown to me and the significance that their lifetime accomplishments had to the local history.
Collecting these items as a topic is not a dead-end interest. Shown in Figure 7 is a German issue from 2011 of mourning stamps which are meant to be used on mail sent at times of grief. Even though we now have the Internet, email, Facebook, and telephone, sometimes a personal handwritten note still seems the best way to communicate very heartfelt sentiments. Germany like many other countries, the US included, has provided various stamp issues that meet some of these sentimental needs. However, Germany is a rare country that meets the needs of bereavement. The motif of the stamp is the white Calla lily, known to be symbolic of mourning and expressing the solidarity with the grieving people. There is a black bar at the base of the stamp emphasizing its symbolic meaning and coordinating with the age old black bar we recognize and written about in this article.
Figure 7: German Mourning Stamp 2011
For anyone interested in pursuing this avenue of collecting there is a topical club which specializes in these mourning stamps and covers. It is called appropriately Mourning Stamps and Covers Club. The website is http://mscc.ms