The Flat Cap on ... Envelopes
Today The Flat Cap has been sorting through his junk mail and this in turn prompted him to find out more about envelopes, their origins and usage.
Whilst the envelopes we see today are largely made out of paper this wasn’t always the case. The first known envelopes originated in the ancient Middle East and date back to around 3,500BC. They were nothing like the ones we know of today. Discovered in the early twentieth century by a couple of French archaeologists ancient envelopes were hollow clay spheres. These were moulded around financial tokens and used in private transactions. Terracotta examples of these early envelopes, and their contents, can be seen in museums. Back in 3,500 BC the bicycle hadn’t yet been invented so only the strongest men were allowed to be postmen. They had to go through a series of physically demanding tests which included lifting great boulders above their heads and running down obstacle courses. And if you had flat feet, or skinny arms you were immediately weeded out. The World’s Strongest Man competition that we see on television today basically follows the same format that was used to select the world’s earliest postal workers. According to legend ancient postmen could carry three times their body weight in clay envelopes, and a man’s stature back then was often measured by the size of his sack.
By the second century BC, and after thousands of claims for work related injuries plus the time lost due to bad backs, a man in China decided to develop paper envelopes. These envelopes, known as chih poh, were used to store gifts of money. As well as being lighter they also now meant that women could deliver the mail. History records that during the Southern Song dynasty, the Chinese imperial court used paper envelopes to distribute monetary gifts to government officials. And so was born the first pay packet!
In the UK the first recorded usage of envelopes took place in 1215. After signing one hundred and fifty copies of the Magna Carta at the Runnymede branch of Waterstones near Windsor the copies were put into commemorative envelopes. King John then left it to his civil servants to send them out. Priced at five guineas, each one was accompanied by a certificate of authenticity and a desk calendar. Sadly for history, and King John, this nice little earner floundered when the donkey carrying all but a handful of the Magna Cartas fell off a bridge and into the fast flowing river Thames below. The donkey and its load perished, and today only four signed copies of the Magna Carta remain in existence.
By the nineteenth century machines began to be developed that could produce envelopes in large volumes. These were necessary to satisfy the burgeoning demand to send Christmas cards. In Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” published in 1843 a chastened Ebeneezer Scrooge apologises to his employee Bob Cratchit for not sending him a Christmas card, “I should have sent one to thee but alas I couldn’t find meself a blummin’ envelope my good man, but I have sourced thee and thy family of poor wastrels a jolly big turkey by way of compensation”. The book sold in its thousands and highlighted the need for envelopes. The Prime Minister of the day Sir Robert Peel called on envelope manufacturers to step up production and their failure to meet demand has been cited as to why he lost popular support and the end of his ministry. Other historians have put his resignation down to the repeal of the Corn Laws.
By the time of the outbreak of World War One envelopes were in plentiful supply and this enabled soldiers to write home with tales of life in the trenches, and requests for tins of boiled ham and other luxuries not readily available on the Western Front. The result of the Christmas Day football match in 1914 was sent home by letter in an officially provided envelope, but the result (a 3-2 win for Germany) was suppressed lest it damage morale. Nowadays football journalists use laptops or have Twitter accounts with names like @footiefred or @shearersshorts followed by some random hash tag such as #goallinetechnology. None of it makes any sense to The Flat Cap who was born before the advent of the internet, and when a wagon wheel biscuit took at least twenty minutes to eat.
The Flat Cap spoke to Emily who works for a large stationers and she was able to provide some interesting envelope related facts:
• Security envelopes have special tamper resistant features which make it obvious if they have been interfered with. The Flat Cap joked that he wished he could have bought his ex wife some underwear with the same design features • Mail sorting machines can process up to 198,000 envelopes per hour. This is equivalent to an experienced human sorter working 412 days non stop • Envelopes bearing the correct post code arrive at least nine days earlier than other first class mail • A window envelope is one with a plastic window in it. The plastic in these envelopes cannot be recycled. Emily advised that people who don’t want to go to the trouble of ripping out the plastic window should put the used envelope in their general waste bin • You can buy special shipping envelopes which have padding to provide stiffness and some degree of protection from errant Royal Mail sorters and “clumsy folk” • The padding in shipping envelopes can be mashed up newsprint, plastic foam sheets, or air filled bubbles. The last of these is the most fun as you can amuse yourself popping the bubbles once you no longer have a use for the envelope • Only rectangular envelopes are accepted by the U.S. Postal Service. Sending mail in square envelopes still carries the death penalty in some states • 9% of people in North Korea cannot afford to affix postage stamps to their envelopes • U.S. politician and entrepreneur Donald Trump has a team of four people whose sole job is to lick the edges of his envelopes before sealing them • Celebrated escapologist Harry Houdini used to allow himself to be tied up in old mail sacks and lowered into tanks of water. On one occasion he was so engrossed in opening an envelope he had found in an old mail sack that he nearly forgot to escape and almost drowned