Pushing the Envelope

At the National Postal Museum, envelopes are as critical a part of history as the letters inside

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In reading the various newsletters and calendars published by the Smithsonian, I have decided that the Institution is rather like Cairo: you can find just about anything here.

I see that one Maynard Benjamin gave a slide lecture on the history of envelopes at the National Postal Museum recently. He has also written a book on the subject, and he signed copies after the lecture, held in conjunction with two Postal Museum shows, "Undercover: The Evolution of the American Envelope" and "The Graceful Envelope," featuring beautifully handcrafted works by designers and calligraphers from around the world. The Postal Museum is one of my favorites, if only for the architecture--it's in the magnificent 1914 Washington City Post Office Building, right next to the equally grand 1908 Union Station.

Benjamin is a stamp collector with a special interest in the Civil War, which is why he belongs to the Confederate Stamp Alliance. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and he happens to be the president of the Envelope Manufacturers Association.

According to Benjamin, it was the Babylonians who first thought of enclosing clay tablets in clay "envelopes" baked hard around their contents.

I'm going to have to slip off the track here, already. It seems to me that the envelope must have been invented by that mythic emperor who wrote a message on the shaved pate of a slave, let the hair regrow, and sent the man to his destination to be shaved anew and read. The only drawback with this ingenious plan is that the message had better not be terribly urgent.

"No one knows when envelopes came to China," Benjamin announced, "but we do know that by 1200 B.C. the Chinese had developed a crude form of paper made from reeds and rice." Presumably they would protect the letter with a paper casing. The ancient Egyptians protected missives by rolling up the papyrus scrolls. Because paper was so expensive, for many centuries letters were usually just folded, sealed and sent that way. But by the 17th century separate envelopes appeared in Spain and France.

And what a relief that must have been. We have some English friends who still insist on using those tissue paper aerograms dating from the 1930s. You write the letter, fold it, lick some gummed flaps, and suddenly your letter has turned itself into an envelope.

The trouble is, our friends keep having afterthoughts, and they write all over the margins. No matter how carefully we cut open the flaps, we lose vital information. As in, "Yes we'd love to have you visit, but we'll be out of town after the first of . . ."

The early envelopes were often sealed with wax impressed by a signet ring to prevent the wrong people from reading them. For a really important letter a gallows mark could be put on the cover, meaning that it had to be delivered under pain of death.

That seems to me an empty threat. If you didn't receive it, how would you know? And since letters sometimes took months to deliver, the derelict postman would have absconded long since, anyway. Benjamin explains that you might actually have been able to trace it, as each wayside kept a record of passage.

It was Louis XIV of France, that master of the dramatic flourish, who popularized the use of a cover to ensure the privacy of letters, according to Benjamin. Louis had his secretary cut out forms with a template and fold and paste them to make envelopes for his communications to his court.

In America, Benjamin Franklin is known as the father of our postal service, hiring on in 1737 under the postmaster general for the Colonies. Franklin organized distribution, designed pigeonholes for collecting letters that were bound for the same place, and set milestones along the post roads, for in those days postmen were paid by the mile. It cost Samuel Adams, for instance, 11 pence in 1775 to send a letter from Boston to Philadelphia.

It is all too easy to veer off into a discussion of stamps here, or of the letters themselves, but I am determined to concentrate on the subject at hand. It just occurred to me: letter writing is coming back these days via e-mail and faxes, but what about the envelopes? In the virtual world, free of floods, fire and puppies, there is no need to protect your letter from damage. Benjamin notes, however, that most people still prefer the esthetic advantages of paper for personal letters and résumés.

Of course, in the days of the Pony Express, letters needed special protection. Already enveloped, they were then wrapped in oil silk and stuck into the four pockets of the mochila, a leather sling that fit over the saddle.

At that, the letters were still in for a rough ride. In 1860, "Pony Bob" Haslam, galloping up to an outpost on his exhausted horse, found it a smoldering ruin, the stationmaster killed and the spare horses stolen. Bob had to ride on, covering 120 miles in eight hours and ten minutes. When he reached safety he said he was a little tired.

As an ad for riders put it, "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18, must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

By the early years of Queen Victoria's reign the Mulready envelope had appeared in England, "the first prepaid postal wrapper and the grandfather of the modern envelope," Benjamin says. Soon, volume increased at a tremendous rate, and machines to make envelopes were invented. Mail service in Britain was a wonder of the world.

Even in the 1960s, living in London, I could mail a note in the morning from Earl's Court to a friend in Highgate and get a reply in the afternoon delivery on the same day. Benjamin explains that London has an automated subway system just for mail--trains zip letters around the city.

The French also developed a foot-powered envelope-making machine, the Rabbate, turning out more than 100 pieces an hour. The development of envelope-making machinery led to mass production; that and postal reform made postage affordable to everyone. Manufacturers still did not turn out enough envelopes, though, and many people persisted in just folding up their letters and sending them uncovered. One reason for the holdup was that the gum was still being applied by hand. Eventually drying machines, like the Arnold Drying Chain, solved that problem. Later geniuses even invented ways to vary the sizes of the envelopes in production.

During the Civil War the Confederates had trouble getting paper for envelopes, which they had always imported from the North or from England. When the blockade tightened they had to use wallpaper and book pages and other papers, all of which today are valued by collectors. Sometimes envelopes would be turned inside out for reuse. Handmade or not, some covers were used by both sides in the war for incidental propaganda, with patriotic slogans and drawings covering much of the face. Even before the war, merchants had begun putting their ads on envelopes.

Envelope decoration had a history of excess. In 1840 the British government offered a prize for the best designed prepaid envelope. William Mulready's winning design showed Britannia, the British lion and figures representing the farthest corners of the empire. With a massive Maltese-cross cancellation mark, it made an impressive collector's item, but the small blank space left for the name and address must have been a pest for the mailman to read.

Speaking of collector's items, there are many in the "Graceful Envelope" show, a result of the Postal Museum's third annual envelope-design contest. Usually the graphics and calligraphy are coordinated with certain commemorative stamps. On one envelope with the Paul Bunyan stamp, the artist has drawn a full figure of the giant to match, and attached a smaller crumpled envelope next to him. Hands out and leaning into the job, Paul is, of course, pushing the envelope.

Benjamin's book about envelopes chronicles the work of men like Ferdinand Ludwig Smithe, the Henry Ford of envelopes, and recounts the development of the Keating Adjustable Bed, the Arnold Drying Chain and the Smithe Plunger. I had no idea envelopes took so much manufacturing.

But since this is the postindustrial age, there is now available on the market a kit with which you can make your own envelopes.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: this country is moving backward, and I don't like it one bit.

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