The internet is constantly delighting me with Interesting Things I Didn’t Know. The other day a colleague handed me a stack of 19th century envelopes. Now, I had never considered a world without “store bought” envelopes, but it turns out that, prior to the 1840s, that was exactly the way the world worked: you had to cut and fold your own. It wasn’t until 1840 that George Wilson patented a process of tiling envelope patterns on a large sheet of paper, and not until 1845 that Edwin Hill and Warren De la Rue obtained a patent for a steam-driven machine that not only cut out the envelope shapes but creased and folded them. Hill and De la Rue displayed their machine at the Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition of 1851–along with the Koh-i-Noor, the world’s largest known diamond at the time, Samuel Colt’s prototype for the Colt Navy revolver, and one of the world’s earliest voting machines. Who would have thought that making envelopes could be so interesting as to merit a spot in the Crystal Palace?
But as I learned, the fascinating history of envelopes, or covers, as they are known, continues. During the Civil War paper was extremely scarce, so hand-made envelopes were created out of wrapping paper, tax receipts, wallpaper, flyleaves torn from books, maps, music sheets, or other available materials. These handmade envelopes are referred to as “adversity covers” and they are considered quite collectible. People at this time also used envelopes for propaganda purposes, printing or drawing cartoons, emblems, pictures and messages that expressed their political sentiments. Collectors call these bits of postal history “patriotic covers.”
In the latter part of the 1800s, businesses began to create printed envelopes. These advertising covers could be printed with anything from a simple corner card (picture and return address) to elaborate decorations and ad copy covering much of the envelope. Early advertising covers eventually led to both the cacheted first day cover and modern junk mail.
At The Texas Collection, we have a group of 19th century advertising covers from the Rufus Burleson Collection which you can see displayed on our flickr page. These envelopes are from all over Texas and come from a range of businesses and colleges. They’re stamped on the front with a postmark from the sending post office and on the back with the receiving post office. We hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse into life in the late 1800s.