It’s an old tradition from the German side of my family. The envelope had a black border around it. That was a sign to the post office and anyone getting the letter that the letter was about someone dying.
It’s much better than calling someone and telling them to “sit down” pause “I have have some bad news”. I’ve had to do that a lot lately.
The letter inside would also have a black border, then a few simple words about someone’s passing. Even back in the 1800s you couldn’t put your grief into words on the page.
If you read some of these letters from the 1800s you will find that even as sad as the beginning of the letter is the writer would not waste the money or time it cost to send the letter with just bad news. I remember one where after the news about someone passing, the letter went on with how everyone was doing well and that there was an enclosed homemade blanket. The old line “We the living have to go on” means a lot. Survivor guilt was just as strong back then as it is now.
What does this have to do with writing steam punk? When your character receives a letter add the little things to it. Is the letter sealed with a kiss. Is there a heart in the corner of the letter or more boldly in the front corner of the envelope. A red heart was very risqué. What stamp did they use. That could have a huge symbolic meaning. Was the letter sealed with a stamp or a wax seal. Wax seals were old fashioned but embossed seals were the rage at one time. All these things could mean a multitude of things, and in a mystery if all that was left of the letter was the burnt corner with a black edge or a red heart could hint at so much.
Don’t forget that paper was fantastically expensive. Even at a penny a sheet. Ten cents could get you a good room and a meal. The old cowboy legend that he kept a $20 dollar bill in the last hole in his six shooter to pay for his funeral. A funeral now cost five or six thousand dollars. People did not waste money on an envelope, they folded the letter up in the shape of an envelope with the blank side out, and sealed it with glue or other ways. We think nothing of putting a letter in an envelope, but we are so rich compared to someone in the 1800s, yet now-a-days both parents have to work and only the super rick can afford a cook, maid, or housekeeper.
Don’t think of a letter as a simple prop. Getting a letter was a big thing and there was a lot of unwritten emotion in a letter. The simple “Why did she write a letter?” could have so many layers.
Stay strong, write on, and surprise someone and write them a letter.
Professor Hyram Voltage