Sunday, November 27, 2011

The humble envelope

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.

An entire addressed to Richard Hall's father-in-law in Worcester, sent from Oxford but marked 'via London' because roads between the towns was slower than the much longer journey via the capital. Several examples appear in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, where I have tried to pull together all these different aspects of everyday life to build up a picture of what it was really like to be living in the Georgian period. Letters to London were usually sent by reference to nearby public buildings (the local church, or pub etc) and although the 1765 Stamp Act introduced street numbering throughout the City it was some years before this caught on. Richard Hall was still receiving letters addressed to him 'opposite St Magnus Church' rather than 'Number One London Bridge', well into the 1780's. Rowland Hill published his paper ‘Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability’ early in 1837. Here was a crusader for reform who in his own words admitted ‘I had never been inside the walls of a Post Office’. Untramelled by historic considerations he was able to take a completely fresh look at mail deliveries and came up with some startling proposals, which led almost immediately to the development of the machine-made envelope. He examined the cost of delivering a carriage-full of letters from London to Edinburgh and, having apportioned the cost per letter, he concluded that we needed a system which had a uniform rate for a letter of moderate weight, regardless of the distance it was to cover and ‘without reference to the number of enclosures’.

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.

The result was the commissioning of the country's first postage stamp, a gummed ‘Penny Black’ with a portrait of the 18 year old Queen Victoria based on the design for her coinage by William Wyon. It also led to the design of a penny wrapper – an envelope which people could buy which already had the postage paid. A prize of £200 for the best design of the penny wrapper was awarded to William Mulready after a competition held in 1840. He came up with a flamboyant design with Britannia seated on a lion, dispatching post to the four corners of the globe via winged messengers. The public hated it, and the Mulready envelope was quickly withdrawn. However, the stamps, and the new postal system, were hugely popular. In the very first year no fewer than 68 million Penny Blacks were moistened, and stuck down on to envelopes which had the advantage of completely concealing the contents. Even Her Maj. was delighted with the stamp – so much so that she refused to countenance a change to her portrait, meaning that her youthful face was still adorning her stamps some 60 years later! Arguably, our postage stamp designers are flattering to a similar degree with our present monarch, although she has been allowed to age gradually as time goes by.

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.

Photograph by Michael Marx
Black edged mourning envelopes? Popular immediately after the Penny post was introduced, as a way of preparing the recipient for ‘news from the grave' contained in the letter within. 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). 

"The Governess" (later re-named "The Poor teacher") by Richard Redgrave and dated 1844 (courtesy of the V&A Museum). I can't say I would want to look at such a miserable scene on my living room wall, but I suppose it takes all sorts! The sad governess has just received news of a death in the family, as shown by the black-edged envelope sitting in her lap. And while we are on the subject of bereavement, for me, the saddest letters I came across when researching The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman were the ones detailing the illness and death of Richard’s sister in law from smallpox. Not only were the letters sent at almost hourly intervals as the disease progressed, but by a remarkable coincidence I have all the letters received by Richard – and the ones sent by him by way of reply! Read the book for the story of an extraordinary event which happened 250 years after the letters were written, whereby the whole correspondence was re-united!


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.



  1. That is good to know when envelopes first came along and when the postal services were regulated.
    All the little details that are important for authenticity in stories.

    Too cute about the servant who had a little 'code system' on the exterior so she didn't have to pay for postage.


  2. Love this! I was researching this while writing my last novel but sure wish I had had your post then. The black-edged envelopes bringing news of death caught my imagination. A way of preparing the reader for the bad news, and alerting all who handled the letter as well.

  3. Before the Penny Post it is amazing how small the writing was, so as to get in as many words as possible onto the one page!The other interesting thing is that Members of Parliament were entitled to free franks (i.e. their post went free) so friends of MPs would badger them for the right to add their letters to the pile of freebies! The system got totally corrupt, but my ancestor Richard Hall notes with some sadness when this privilege was withdrawn, because it meant that he then had to pay the full rate!

  4. Many thanks to Mike Rendell for sharing this article on the development of the humble envelope complete with pictures of his great (x4) grandfather Richard Hall’s pen knife--i.e. a knife for sharpening quill pens.

  5. Thanks so much, Mike, for sharing this piece of history with us. Soon you will have us at your house digging through the 250 year old bits and bobs of your ancestor, Richard Hall. I would really love to see your collection!

    So was Mr. Hall, then, an MP or the friend of one?

  6. His parents in law had 2 MP brothers at one stage.Franks were doled out as rewards to the party faithful as well as to family members!

  7. Thank you so much for this. Just researching envelopes for a novel set in the very late 19th-early 20th century in Britain and wasn't sure how common envelopes were ... now I know they were everywhere by then.


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