by Mike Rendell
Scene 1 : 1770, London; Arabella sits down at her writing desk, extracts the envelope which she placed in the drawer earlier, and fingers trembling, inserts the paper-knife and cuts eagerly across the top of the envelope, pulling out the beautifully written letter and starts to read…’
My great (x4) grandfather Richard Hall’s pen knife (literally: knife for sharpening quill pens)
Fact or fiction? Almost certainly fiction, since the use of envelopes was almost unheard of at that time! Why? Because envelopes did not make a significant appearance until Rowland Hill’s reform of the Post office in 1840. Prior to that date only the very wealthy, or terminally stupid, would have used envelopes (which would have had to have been made by hand). The reason was that postal rates were fixed not by weight but by the number of sheets of paper. Why use an envelope, which counted as a separate sheet, when the address could be written on one section of the main letter, and folded into place? Known as ‘entires’ by modern collectors, these letters, usually of a single sheet of paper, would be folded into three, then the ‘wings’ tucked in at the back so that the address could be written clearly on the face of the entire. Unfolding it, the writer would then fill every part of the letter, often turning it sideways to fill in the inside of the wings. Once the letter was finished it would be sealed across the back so that the wings could not be opened up. The seal, made of wax, was known as a wafer.
One of the people called to give evidence to the Select Committee on Postal Reform in 1838 was the paper maker John Dickinson. He referred to ‘the new fashioned envelope with the four corners of the paper meeting under the seal’. In other words at that stage envelopes existed but were not in widespread use. The upshot of the parliamentary deliberations was that Hill’s proposals were largely accepted. Gone was the idea of the recipient paying for the letter. Instead the sender would pay a uniform rate of one penny. Gone was the need to count sheets of paper, or to frank the envelope, and the cost of delivery was drastically reduced because Hill was convinced that this would result in a massive increase in volume which in turn would bring down the cost to the Post Office of delivering each item.
Before long, in back offices up and down the country, it was customary for a clerk to laboriously cut out an envelope-shape on paper, using a tin template. He would cut through perhaps two dozen sheets at a time, using a craft tool or sharp knife. The cut-outs would then be passed to another clerk for folding, and then to another for the side triangles to be glued together. The result: an envelope which ensured that the contents remained secure, private, and protected from the elements. The first envelope-folding machine in this country resulted from a collaboration between Rowland Hill’s kid brother Edwin and Warren de la Rue in 1840 (i.e. almost immediately after the postage stamp was introduced, when it quickly became apparent that hand-made envelopes could not keep pace with the new demand). Various other people came up with design improvements, and by the mid 1850’s the modern envelope was being churned out by the million.
There is a rather nice story as to why Rowland Hill was so passionate about reforming the postal system. He explained to a parliamentary committee that he was inspired by the plight of a poor servant girl who was observed receiving a letter. Unable to pay the required fee of one shilling she turned the letter round in her hand for a few seconds before returning it to the postman, declining to accept it because of the not inconsiderable cost. Horrified that such a potentially valuable and important missive should go unread for the sake of twelve pence, the gallant Rowland dashed forward and paid the fee, expecting gushing thanks from the grateful servant. Not so, for she seemed not to care one way or the other. When challenged as to her indifference she replied that she knew who it was from and when looking at the marks on the outside of the envelope could quite readily work out the contents, and had no need to pay a fee. It reminds me of the time when phone calls from a public phone box gave the caller a chance to Press Button A or B –and in that time you could just about shout a brief message for free down the line before being cut off!
Addendum:The window envelope? Patented 1902 by an American (what else could he be) called Americus Callahan. And airmail? The first mail to be delivered by air was in January 1785 in a cross channel balloon flight from Dover to Calais, carrying a letter from William Franklin addressed to Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. The first aerogramme i.e. an envelope specifically designed for the purpose and which opens up to become a letter is surprisingly modern – it was first issued in Iraq in 1933.
Dickens, with Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and Thackeray in Vanity Fair (1848) both refer to the use the black edged envelopes as bringing news of a bereavement. The mourning envelope became part of the ritual of coping with death, and would be used by the family of the bereaved for up to 12 months (except for business letters which were always on plain white paper).
Mike Rendell does a blog, three or four times a week, on all matters linked to the Georgian era. You can also visit his website.