History of the humble envelope
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Date: 3 May, 2007

'The word 'envelope' in English dates back to the mid-16th century.'

The first Christian Aid envelope collection took place 50 years ago - but where did these little bits of folded paper come from in the first place? Andrew Chapman investigates

If you think weight-based postal charges can be hefty today, spare a thought for the Babylonians - they invented the predecessor of the envelope around 4000 years ago, using a wrapper of clay folded around the message and baked.

This protected the message itself, and led to the actual writing medium being kept light.

The word 'envelope' in English dates back to the mid-16th century - by that time state-run postal systems were common across Europe.


In Britain, Henry VIII appointed a Master of the Posts in 1510 to formalise the system for royal messages getting around the country.

Over the next century, letters began to be sent 'under envelope', where the sender would cut paper to wrap a message individually.

The first state service for conveying private letters across Britain was instituted by Charles I in 1635 - in the same year a similar, private enterprise was permitted to be set up in France, with envelopes available on sale, though the system failed when an enemy of the founder put mice in the letterboxes.

In those times 'envelope' simply meant wrapper, but the precise use of the term to describe a folded piece of paper covering a letter as we use it today began in the early 18th century.

In 1837, the English schoolmaster Rowland Hill invented the postage stamp, completing the picture of the mail system that we are familiar with today.

The Penny Post system that began in 1840 used a lozenge-shaped sheet more akin to today's aerogrammes, though in the same year George Wilson patented a system for printing several envelopes from one large sheet of paper, and in 1845 a steam-driven cutting and folding machine was invented.


Karl Marx noted this emerging envelope industry in the mid-19th century, observing that manufactories of the 1860s were churning out envelopes at a rate of three thousand an hour - a hundred years later it was around 20 times that.

In 1957, the first automated post sorting machine was invented in Canada. A traditional envelope is made from a sheet of paper cut into a lozenge, cross or kite shape, with the arms or points folded over to make the enclosure.

Various standard sizes were defined by the International Standards Organisation, which started in 1947. The most common sizes are labelled C0 to C7 and DL, with each folding to accommodate paper sizes from A0 to A5 folded in different ways.

When the Christian Aid envelope pops through your door, spare a moment to think of all this history that has gone before it - and do please spare whatever money you can.




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