Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I was wondering the other day about the history of envelopes. You know, those folded pieces of paper into which you insert your mail? So helped a bit:

The first envelopes were made of cloth, animal skins, or vegetable parts. The Babylonians wrapped their message in thin sheets of clay that were then baked.

There is also this tidbit from Made How?

The early history of the paper envelope is not known. Paper may have been used to wrap messages at a very early date in China. They did not appear in Europe until the seventeenth century, when they began to be used in Spain and France. Until that time, messages were simply folded and sealed. Even today, some stationery is designed to be folded and mailed without an envelope.

This last phenomenon is in fact what made me ask the question to begin with. I was writing a note on a piece of stationery that folded itself into an envelope for mailing. Similar to a postcard, this card came complete with a seal and a printed circle on which to adhere the gold sticker. Scrolls were sent rolled up and simply sealed with wax, sometimes several seals. That is certainly old fashioned.

According to the Smithsonian, Benjamin Franklin had a similar (or more practical, I'll admit) fascination with the postal system. As in he implemented it. The renowned Pony Express not only delivered enveloped letters (supposedly these paper coverings were to protect the letter inside), but also doubly protected them by putting them in oilsilk inside saddle bags. I don't know what it is like inside a saddlebag sandwiched between a postman and a running horse, but I imagine it is dangerous and maybe even moist. I'm sure the letters benefited from the extra precaution.

The national magazine continues, "By the early years of Queen Victoria's reign the Mulready envelope had appeared in England, 'the first prepaid postal wrapper...' " Even today I like to use the priority mail flat rate envelopes for my business shipping. And buying stamps - with those one- and two- cent additions is such a hassle!

Though not directly related to envelopes, one fact presented in the article made me jealous. In London, you can send a letter to a friend and receive an answer all in the same day; they even have a subway rail set up just for mail! Or at least this was the case in the 1960's.

During the Civil War, some people resorted to using wallpaper or the pages from books as envelopes, because paper was short in the Confederacy due to a blockade. The famed Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind was a blockade runner, I believe. The fact that paper was scarce makes General Robert E. Lee's letters to his wife during that time all the more precious - and he did write letters!

The etymology of envelope is French, appearing in the English in 1705, meaning the same as envelopper, which would have been the standard adaptation for "to envelop" (see envelop). As directed, I did "see envelop," and got this information: the English form of this word dates 1386 and originally meant "be involved in," from Old French envoluper, which directly translated is "wrap up in." The portion meaning "wrap up," voloper, is of uncertain origin, perhaps Celtic. So the word probably began in the British Isles, slid over to France whence England got it back in the form of "envelop." But France kept it, and developed the verb into a noun, which England then also borrowed: "envelope."

Now you know.

To God be all glory.

1 comment:

Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

Wow...I must admit, I never even though about anything like this!