The History of Envelopes – From 2000 B.C. to the Present

The History of Envelopes – From 2000 B.C. to the Present

Can you imagine getting your monthly cellphone bill in the mail without it being sealed in an envelope? Or sending them back a check without an envelope to keep your personal banking information a secret? I cant either. Envelopes have been around for centuries and have changed countless times throughout history. The history of envelopes begins with a little clay and a lot of work.

The First Envelopes – 2000 B.C

history of envelopes: brown cracked clay envelope with ancient carvings

More than 4,000 years ago, way before the invention of the pre-gummed paper envelopes, the Babylonians created an envelope like folder from clay. Wet clay was folded over the original tablet message and sealed by pressing the ends together. It was then baked, causing it to harden and ensuring the tablet’s contents were safe inside. To reveal the original tablet message, one would have to brake the clay envelope. And so the history of envelopes begins!

Paper Envelopes are Born

Fast forward a couple hundred years to the 1800’s when envelopes we seen as an extra piece of paper that would be wrapped around the letter and charged as an extra piece of paper when mailing. Only the wealthy could afford this second charge, while most commoners would simply fold the letter into an envelope and seal it with an adhesive. The address could then be written on the blank back of the letter.

It wasn’t until 1837 when Rowland Hill published “Post Office Reform” that paper envelopes were created. He stated that a “physical stamp containing a gum wash and a prepaid penny wrapper were to be developed.” Local businesses created these by cutting and hand folding an envelope template.

Invention of the Envelope Folding Machine

history of envelopes: red themed store with man at black envelope folding machine

Envelope Folding Machine at the 1851 Great Exhibition

Edwin Hill 

This was a turning point for the history of envelopes. The demand for envelopes quickly grew in England after the acceptance of universal postage. No longer could the envelope manufacturing companies keep up by hand folding and cutting envelopes. Edwin Hill is credited with designing the first envelope folding machine in 1840. His work would be short lived after a number of other envelope folding machines surfaced in 1951. These machines featured a vacuum which would transfer the envelopes and could produce 240 envelopes per hour.

Dr. Russell L. Hawes

Before the mid-1850s, envelope folding machines had to be imported from Europe. In America the first successful automatic envelope folding machine was created by Russell L. Hawes. With his background in medicine, he would create the machine to work with the human body, spawning science of ergonomics and kinetics. His machine could produce 2,500 envelopes an hour.

George H. Reay

With dozens of automatic envelope folding machines available, none was more widely used then Reay machine. This machine was extremely reliable and became the standard machine for envelope manufacturing.

Self-Gumming Envelope Making Machine

white envelope with black and white lining and beige gum on v flapIt wasn’t until the invention of the self-gumming envelope machine that envelope production really took off. A man by the name of James Green Arnold took the envelope folding machine to the next level when he added a brush that would apply the gum to the envelopes seal. This step was previously done by hand.  Unfortunately Arnold’s design was never put into production. It wasn’t until two brothers by the name of  D. Wheeler Swift and Henry Swift took Arnold’s design and perfected it. In 1876 the Swift Chain Dryer Machine was born. One of the main difference in this machine was that it was constructed of metal, not wood, like the Arnold design.

Envelopes Today

Today, well over 185 billion envelopes are produced each year in a wide array of sizes, styles and shapes. A long way from the rich history of envelopes to what we consider ‘normal’ today.

Envelopes for Business

Businesses like Netflix use paper envelopes to mail customers DVD’s which are then returned later via the mail. Monthly bills are sent in remittance envelopes with pre-stamped response envelopes enclosed. Bubble mailer envelopes are a great shipping alternatives to bulky boxes for many shipping companies.

Popular Styles:

Envelopes for Personal Use

Brides can spend hours looking at different sizes and textures of envelopes to find their perfect invitation envelope. Festive envelopes are used when sending out yearly holiday greeting cards to family and friends.

Popular Styles:

green and beige chart showing colorful envelopes of different sizes with details

From 2000 B.C to 2013, communicating a written message has been an important need of mankind. Sure we have come a long way since hand making clay envelopes, but who’s to say the envelope evolution is over? I guess we will just have to wait and see if any new innovations can be made to this communication staple. Thanks for reading about the history of envelopes with JAM Paper & Envelope!

Author: Nicolina Cabezal

Nicolina Cabezal - Marketing Manager at JAM Paper. Providing readers with an inside look at all things paper.

4 Replies to “The History of Envelopes – From 2000 B.C. to the Present”

  1. Hi. I am interested in finding information about the history,design and manufacture of security envelopes. Anything you could suggest that would further my research would be much appeciated! I’ve not been very successful searching online.
    Thanks!

  2. i’m interested in who invented the way in which envelopes are addressed – in other words, who said the return address has to go on the upper left hand corner and that the addressee goes in the middle of the envelope?

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