Lost in the Mail: The History of Envelopes

Few people put much thought into selecting envelopes. Sure, they’ll opt for one with security features when they’re mailing a cheque. They may even dig through the stacks in the greeting card section to find one in a certain colour. In the end, though, the average person simply wants an envelope that’s big enough to contain the item in question—without being too big, of course.

However, there are certain people out there, who live, breathe, eat and drink envelopes. They wake up in the morning, yawn and prepare for another day devoted to everything about them: their colour, size, shape, closure type, thickness, intended purpose, durability, recycled material content, and more. Millions of people around the world work in the envelope manufacturing industry.

Need to know the basic dimensions of A5 envelopes in millimeters? These people could rattle off, “A5 envelopes are really called C5 envelopes, which are 162 by 229 millimeters and perfectly hold an A5 sheet of paper. Further, an A5 sheet of paper is actually just an A4 sheet of paper folded in half widthwise,” while patting their heads and rubbing their stomachs. It’s second nature.

But envelopes as we know them aren’t exactly as old as the written word itself. In fact, before 1845, people had to construct their own envelopes to mail letters. The common man simply folded a rectangular sheet of blank paper into a smaller rectangle and enclosed his letter inside, gluing the loose flaps with whatever sort of adhesive he could get his hands on.

The more affluent sect liked to get a bit fancy with their stationary. They had the time to cut out rectangles with triangular flaps on each side, and the overall effect was a diamond shape. This style of envelope allowed the posh demographic to secure their letters, party invitations and RSVPs inside this diamond shape, the enclosed it with a single, elegant wax seal. Think of film adaptations such as “Pride and Prejudice” to get a visual—or just look in your mailbox. This variety of envelope is still around today, although it no longer depends upon a wax seal to hold it together.

When 1845 came around, two men applied for a British patent for the first envelope-making machine. Their names were Edwin Hill Warren De La Rue, and their proposed machine’s final product wasn’t exactly C4 gusset envelopes. It was merely sheets of sturdy paper cut to shape and outfitted with fold marks. It was up to the envelope buyer to actually do the folding and sealing. It wasn’t until the 1890s that someone invented a machine capable of producing pre-folded envelopes featuring gum—that’s the substance you moisten to stick the top flap closed.

Much has changed in the century since then. Today, C4 envelopes can be purchased at your local drug store in a variety of colours and with your choice of sealing options. Next time you buy a Sunset Orange envelope with Peel and Seal adhesive, remember the envelope’s humble origins.

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