Whoever thinks envelopes are passé today sure haven’t known the nostalgia that these small packets of papers holds from times of the past when they had been in their prime. Serving then myriad purposes of the pretty ordinary to the rather distinguished and everything else in between as well, whether that be sending personal letters or mailing official documents or even letting them bear tokens of good will and blessing as in cases when they served as harbouring a monetary wedding gift, envelopes have seen long trails of history furthered along their journey from antiquity to the present day. And while these paper pockets specifically folded in certain some techniques dictating their ubiquitous form and shape in which they appear, with also specific assertions of them referring to exclusive almost serving of some purpose in particular, they hadn’t been so convenient modes in folding and shaping when they started out. They instead were made out of clay and weren’t exactly reusable- a matter contentious still with the paper envelopes but in a different context altogether.
Bearing royal leanings of a time dating back somewhere between 3500 to 3200 BC, they likely were characterised by mostly financial transactions occurring along their provision in security. Hollow clay spheres were moulded around the monetary content to make for envelopes that would need to be smashed open for receival of its bearings. Simultaneously, a similar form of clay envelopes found use among the Babylonians though asserting in more modern day likeness across their folder like shapes. Message bearing clay tablets would see wet clay folded over them that was then sealed by pressing together along the ends. Baked to hardening texture, much like the tablets within were these really ancient carriers of message that resided also in needing to be broken open to allow access to whatever it was that they would be bearing.
The beginnings rested in clay soon expanded along the natural course to take shape instead out of animal skin and leaves before finally settling on paper as the classic case in confinement as soon as this Chinese invention set in motion a whole different way of convenience for the world. Thus by the 2nd century BC when the innovative technique of paper making was thought out of the human geniosity, paper envelopes also came to be. Unsurprisingly this derivative of the paper kind would also be as authentic a development by the Chinese who used them then as holders of monetary gifts. Known as chih poh, these were mainly in use in the Chinese imperial courts even as the contemporary Japanese people of that time also charted out a similar such purpose for these early paper envelopes.
Wealthy people in Japan used these hand crafted envelopes to send gifts to relatives after a death. In fact so popular had been this notion in enveloping money to be presented at funerals in the country that specific types of them with distinct patterns are earmarked to serve such purposes in condolence. White and black cords specifically demarcate this intention in evoking a certain emotion of all sombreness indeed along the dimension of this specifically designed span of paper. Equally distinctive would be the traditional red envelopes so customary of the Chinese way in celebrating festivals and special occasions. Bearing monetary tokens indeed of wishing goodwill and luck and in brand new assertions of the currency notes as well are these prominent sights of the Chinese way of life that though has crossovered to some other cultures as well. Rooted in history much like the humble carrier of messages that envelopes have been but much more dignified for sure are such symbolic notions of the envelope that are more than just securely significant.
Of course, the exclusive status of paper owing to its prominence then as a really expensive item meant that paper envelopes could not be used for ‘mere’ purpose of dispatching letters of all kinds and of every substance, nor would they be catering of the whims of the common masses. It wouldn’t be much, much later, only during the times of the Medieval Era that paper envelopes came to be the commonplace beings of stationery that they are today. Even then though, for a considerable period of time from the 13th century to the mid 19th century, the envelop per se did not even exist. In fact it happened to be just an extra sheet of paper- distinctly diamond shaped at that- folded over the message, thus shielding it from glaring view and securing further by stitching or seal waxing at the intersection.
This particular form of the envelope rose to prominence in the French royal court under the ‘patronage’ of Louis XIV who used this rendition of the cover to secure privacy of letters and document thus circulated. Even outside the royal alluding though, the diamond shaped envelopes found mostly non essential use perhaps as novelty wraps around letters and invitations. The real ‘revolution’ was initiated in the enveloping arena when mass production of them was made possible with the patent acquired for an envelope cutting machine in 1840. That however did not mean that machine folded envelopes were a thing by then since the human hands were what was still relied upon to execute that all important step in manufacturing. Even realer a state of affairs prevailed upon the enveloping essence some years later in 1845 when the Hill/De La Rue machine obtained a patent as the first envelope folding machine.
A swift production of sealed envelopes thus followed out of this means of the mechanical even when the machine itself was hand operated. But this mid 19th century invention did indeed paved the way for advancements and improvements to follow along the envelope making path, eking out thus a growth trajectory in the production and mass usage of envelopes. And along this path in innovation, the envelope has come to unfurl across a range of interesting iterations as well. Most remarkable should be the lickable envelopes that emerged way back in 1837 but that which continues as an enduring ‘legacy’ almost despite more civilised means of securing these protectors of documents and letters and stuff today available as multiple options.
Catering to the multi purpose alluding of them are the many different shapes and sizes across which envelopes are made to measure to suit indeed every mode of their functioning. The long popular diamond flap continues to be the most common design even today as long as personal use is concerned. For matters concerning of business or professional importance though, the types occur in such variations as the DL Wallet or the DL Wallet Pocket, the latter rather distinct in its elongated appearance. Another very distinctive design of the envelope availed strictly out of functional necessity and not so common in personal usage as it is in commercial prevalence would be the windowed envelope. As the name suggests, this is a typical envelope with a built in window that allows for the address of the recipient printed on the document within to be visible but ‘protected’ still through the mounting of some plastic film upon the opening.
Among the visibly more different styles of the envelope, the most striking would be the two types that stand out also in their tremendous scope for reuse. The String and Washer style might seem like a very chic take on the envelope design but makes use instead of a technique that would have been the norm before gum took over that functioning in sealing. With indeed a string and a washer making up the ‘mechanics’ of this envelope in tying, this is a very discrete method of securing envelopes over the conventional. Equally alluring is the working mechanism of the Tuck and Slit envelopes that feature of course a slit to tuck the flap into as yet another manifestation of the reusable potential strictly not availed out of gummed envelopes.
Interestingly though, deviating somewhat from the standard requirement of an envelope that inevitably should possess such flaps allowing the holding together of them by means of sealing at a single point would be the style that identifies as the Topless Thumb Pocket featuring a thumb cut rather than the classic design element of the flap. The purpose of the cut built therein is to allow easy access to the contents within that though is ironical a prospect in overruling the very essence of security that envelopes are expected to adhere to. That said though, envelopes essentially being agents in enveloping something as far as their etymology is concerned, this isn’t actually a straying away from the enveloping identity, at least not one that amounts to a gross violation of the literal meaning of it. As concerns however its reputation in securing as has been the case since times deep rooted in history, this might not be the most enveloping of all envelopes but it still is very much one of them, enveloped as it is within that range of the envelop classification!