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Return To Sender Four Thousand Years Of Envelopes

  • By Dominic Donaldson
  • Published 11/21/2008
  • Writing

The envelope, in the dimensions that we now know, first appeared in New York in the 1870’s. Samuel Raynor & Company created a series of different sized envelopes for social and business stationery. The envelopes were numbered 0 to 12. The number 10 is still widely used today. However there are many examples of similar items dating back to as far as 2000 B.C. In fact in every civilization in recorded history where there are examples of writing there are examples of envelope-like items as well. The Babylonians, who lived in the region that is now called southern Iraq, used clay wrappers to protect important documents like accounts and mortgages. The documents were wrapped in the malleable clay and baked. It provided protection but was not something that could be re-used as the clay had to be broken to access the document inside. It is however one of the earliest examples of what could be termed an envelope. The Egyptians were using paper as far back as 3500 B.C. The used the papyrus plant fibers to create a thin sheet that could be used to make marks on. However what we recognize now as paper was probably created in China in the second century A.D. Its production and use spread quickly throughout the Islamic world and through the trade routes was eventually brought to Europe.

In the 10th century paper started to be widely used and in subsequent centuries the use of scrolls and documents became more important. The need to protect these scrolls became increasingly important as well. Royal and government information had to be kept secret while being transported from one place or person to another. Scrolls were kept in wrappers and idea of a wax seal was introduced so that any infringement could be detected; the principle behind the se

aled envelope today. In 1510 Henry VIII of England appointed a Master of the Posts and the seeds were sown for what was to become the postal system. Official letters in the new system had to be covered or enveloped. The person sending the message had to take care of the enveloping and so there were lots of different shapes and sizes as a consequence. Perhaps the biggest leap forward in envelope design and use came in France in 1635. M. de Valayer was given permission by King Louis XIV to put post boxes on street corners. He declared that he would deliver letters placed in the boxes provided they were enclosed in the envelopes that he sold. They were the first example of pre-paid postage envelopes. The idea was revolutionary and 200 years ahead of its time…but it failed. The industrial revolution and the ability to create products cheaply and en masse using machines had a large impact on the paper industry and enabled envelopes to be created in large quantities. The growth of industry and the scientific breakthroughs of the renaissance also fueled a desire for information among the middle and upper classes. So the time was right for the kind of postal service that M. de Valayer had envisioned. In 1840 George Wilson in England patented a method of cutting a large quantity of envelopes from a single sheet of paper. Four years later a steam driven machine was patented by Edwin Hill and Warren de la Rue that did the same but also creased and folded the envelopes as well. The machine made envelope overtook the handmade equivalent and when sizes were standardized at the end of the 19th century the journey was complete.

Today more than 400 billion machine made envelopes are manufactured all over the world. They now include elaborate colors, text and graphics and are used by everyone from pen pals keeping in touch to huge corporations trying to sell their own products.



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