I know I’m old fashioned when I pay my bills. For the credit cards and utilities that pile up at the end of the month I usually write out checks and submit them along with the payment stubs through the mail. My kids say that nobody does this anymore and everyone in the world pays their bills online because it’s much easier. Maybe that’s true but somehow I hate giving any creditor the ability to put their greedy fingers into my checking account. With all of the data breaches that have happened over the years I feel safer when I alone control my funds.

With this said I was paying my accounts yesterday and noticed the various blank envelopes sent along with the bills I receive in the mail. This is the pre-addressed envelope they give you to send in your payment. I get a green, letter-sized envelope from NV Energy, a smaller one from Elko Sanitation with a little hole that displays the Zip Code and for some reason, no envelope at all from Elko Water.

To send you a blank envelope like that must be important to the company that wants your money or they wouldn’t do it. Somewhere along the line they must have determined more people pay on time if they include a return envelope and all you have to do is throw in a check and slap on some postage.

Today we take envelopes for granted but that was not always the case. In medieval days people handcrafted their own and sealed them with wax impressed by a signet ring to prevent the wrong people from taking a look.

The idea for a container to ship a letter in seems to have taken off 150 years ago in England during the early years of Queen Victoria. At that time, a forerunner of our modern envelope, the “Mulready” had appeared. With it, you could inset your private letter, seal it up, and not have to worry about the postal clerk reading your love letters after you dropped them off for processing.

A well known artist, William Mulready, was commissioned to illustrate the front part of the envelope with outlines representing important events of their country. Unfortunately, the sketches were so elaborate and sprawling that the address was relegated to a small clearing on the face, lost in the confusion. Within months of its debut the Mulready envelope was a failure and remaining stock were burned by the British Postal Service.

Mulready envelopes found today are highly sought by stamp and letter collectors (philatelists). To offer an upgrade, the Penny Pink was designed to replace the ill-fated Mulready, having just a simple blank front. Now with postage easy and affordable to everyone, letter writing really took off and it was almost impossible to keep new envelopes in stock.

Up until 1840, all envelopes were handmade, each being individually cut to the appropriate shape out of a rectangular sheet of stock. To keep up with demand, a foot-powered machine was devised called the Rabbate which could turn out 100 pieces an hour when operated by one worker pressing the floor pedal 100 times.

Because the sealing gum was still applied by hand, manufacturers could not turn out enough envelopes for the demand — the gluing being the most time consuming part of the process. In the end, many people just folded up their letters and sent them uncovered, hoping nobody would peek.

In 1845 Edwin Hill and Warren de la Rue of London obtained a patent for a steam-driven machine that not only cut out the envelope shapes but creased and folded them as well. These machines utilized a vacuum pick-up system which when fully running would transfer the envelopes along, producing up to 240 per hour.

In America the first successful automatic envelope cutting machine was created by Russell Hawes in 1851. Because he had a background in medicine, he created one of the first ergonomic friendly machines that allowed a worker to efficiently operate it without wearing themselves out. Working out of Worcester, Massachusetts, Hawes put a lot of thought into its functionality and his machine could produce 2,500 envelopes an hour — an order of magnitude increase over existing designs.

In 1858, another Worcester man, James Green Arnold, probably after seeing the success Hawes was having, devised a machine that cut an envelope from a roll of paper and also gummed and folded it in one complete operation. Here the glue on the flap was allowed to dry on a conveyor belt as the pieces advanced. This raised production to almost 10,000 per hour. Most envelope making machines today stem from this design.

In 1902, the first U.S. patent (#701,839) for a window envelope was issued to Americus Callahan of Chicago, which he called the “outlook envelope.” He leased the patent to the Envelope Company Inc. of Springfield, Massachusetts, which immediately began production. This style of envelope was able to save expense of printing and labor of addressing a blank envelope since the addresses was already on the letter being sent inside.

I checked the box of envelopes sitting on my office shelf. Sure enough they come from a company started in Massachusetts in 1888, Ampad.

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at: garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.


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