The History of Envelopes Part II: In the Beginning

Meet the writer: Karen Pieper

Hi, I'm Karen! I've been in the industry for 21 years and can't wait to share my perspective on all things direct mail. I'm currently the Digital Marketing Manager at Letter Jacket Envelopes and deal with tasks from managing the website, facilitating conversations with customers, and much more!

In our first installment of the History of Envelopes, we discussed a general overview of the development and evolution of the envelope through the ages. The envelope has been a vital part of documentation and communication for literally thousands of years. It exists to protect documents, not just from prying eyes, but also from the elements and environmental factors.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the very beginning of the envelope, those wrappers that were used to protect letters all those thousands of years ago. We will examine how those primitive coverings eventually began to give way to a more familiar form of letter jacket that would eventually evolve into what we use today. Here’s a look at the early days of the long and fascinating history of envelopes, where they came from and where they are going in the future.

A History of Envelopes…

It is perhaps appropriate to begin our article on the early days of the history of envelopes with the same phrase that commences in the Bible because it is in the Bible that we have one of the earliest references to mail. In the Book of Esther, the King Ahasuerus finds a need to punish his queen, Vashti, who after days of partying refuses to present herself to an assembled gathering so the king can show her off.

He goes so far as to writing a proclamation that she is no longer queen—in effect, an early divorce, which is a rather severe punishment for not showing up to a party. The proclamation also sets up the authority of husbands over their wives in the ancient world. The event paves the way for the heroine of the book, Esther, to become the new queen.

This proclamation of divorce and remarriage had to be delivered to the people, so the Bible writes that letters were sent to every province in the kingdom. These proclamation letters would likely have been placed in some protective covering on their journey. It also may be the earliest mention of a direct mail marketing campaign!

Envelopes in Babylon

We know that as far back as 2,000 B.C. the very first coverings for letters, what we would call “proto-envelopes,” came into being in the Babylonian Empire. These coverings were clay wrappers that were used to protect such things as accounting documents, mortgages, deeds and all manner of important legal documents. It is entirely possible that these clay wrappers were also used to protect letters from the harsh environment and from the gaze of those who had no business looking.

These clay envelopes were formed by wrapping a thin layer of soft clay around the document to be protected. The clay was then crimped down to seal it and baked hard. To access the document within (which in those days was generally etched into a stone or clay tablet), one had to break open the envelope. It was a highly effective system, if not overly portable—imagine being a mail carrier in ancient Babylon!

Early Paper Envelopes

These clay envelopes were widely used throughout the ancient world even after papyrus and other early forms of paper came on the scene ─ clay vessels were used to protect and secure documents, scrolls, proclamations and codices (early books) from unfriendly eyes, and the harsh weather, moisture and heat.

It was not until the medieval times that paper began to be used as an envelope covering. At this time, paper was just folded around the letter and sealed with wax. Envelopes at this time were a novelty, by and large, used by the wealthy noble classes for invitations to gatherings and sometimes sending personal missives. Important documents were still often crafted as scrolls and placed in scroll cases to protect them.

Early Postage

As postal services began to develop in Europe and the early days of the United States, fees for sending letters (postage) were charged based on the size of the letter and the distance it was to be sent. Sending a letter from Boston to Philadelphia in 1775 cost Sam Adams 22 cents, which was a princely sum in that day!

Even more, this letter was a “single letter,” which meant a single sheet of paper. You could also send double letters, triple letters and such, which consisted of two sheets, three sheets or more. These cost a degree higher (that is, a double letter cost twice as much as a single). “Envelopes” weren’t really used at the time — the letter was simply folded and sealed with wax, allowing for the postal service to count the sheets of paper used just by looking at the open sides.

Early International Mail

It was even possible to send international mail. Postage for this cost eight pennies on the penny and the letters were transported from place to place via ships, with the ship captain serving double-duty as a postal carrier. The captain took personal responsibility for carrying letters to the post office at their destination port, and in turn, was paid a penny for his troubles. You can imagine that if they delivered many letters, the pennies would add up to what at the time was a very nice supplemental income for the seafarer!

Today, envelopes have come a very long way. We use them for everything from letters to important documents, such as bills and receipts, to church offering envelopes to custom direct mail marketing campaigns, and more. They are an absolutely vital part of our communication and correspondence in the modern era, and though we tend to take them for granted, it is hard to think of our world without envelopes. The history of envelopes is the history of communication, and it all started with those early clay wrappings over four thousand years ago.

If you would like to know more about what custom-printed envelopes could do for you, Letter Jacket is here to help. Check out our product offerings, and give us a call for more information today!

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