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Happy Birthday to the Envelope

From the most recent management briefing of the Envelope Manufacturer’s Association:

The envelope is now 200 years old…According to all sources, the inventor of today’s envelope is British paper merchant K.S. Brewer from Brighton. In 1820, he sold the first envelopes. He cut every single envelope using a template and a shoemaker’s knife. His envelopes quickly became famous because of their uniform shape and easy handling.”

Like all great ideas, it seems so obvious after the fact.  But Mr. Brewer figured out that a folded and glued piece of paper was a perfect way to transport other folded pieces of paper.  Shortly thereafter the first machines were designed to make it an automated process suitable for mass production.  

This caused me to think about how printed communication was transported before the envelope. A quick Google search brought me to an article from the website entitled “Before Envelopes, People Protected Messages with Letter-Locking”.  Letter-locking was an intricate method involving folds, slits and wax seals to keep “prying eyes” from viewing the contents. Practitioners of this ingenious method included Mary Queen of Scots (who wrote a final, inter-locked letter to her brother before being beheaded for treason in 1587) as well as Galileo, Machiavelli, Marie Antoinette and Boston philanthropist Isabella Gardner. The history of this is fascinating and I encourage you to check out the article. 

Despite the disruption of digital technology and an overall decline in use over the past 15 years, the envelope converting industry remains a source for thousands of jobs throughout the US.  While a younger demographic relies more on their smart phones for things like bill paying and the financial industry sends more information online than in the mail, direct mail has seen a resurgence due to its effectiveness and proven ROI in relation to digital marketing. 

The digital world has created new opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses many of which have been of great benefit to the envelope industry. The last 10 years have seen an increase in custom greeting card and announcement companies.  And the enormous number of products that are sold from websites are shipped in packaging like bubble envelopes and mailers of the sort that Elite Envelope prints.

My personal feeling is that, like all things, the pendulum will swing back more to the printed page including hand-written letters which are irreplaceable and have lasting value in ways that bits and bytes just don’t. Kids will rebel against their parents who will exhort them to just “use their phones” because it’s all they’ve known.  I don’t expect to see typewriters make a comeback, but the permanence of print will continue to have a substantial place in our culture and across the world.

So, long live the mighty envelope! And here’s to the next two hundred years.

P.S. Elite Envelope is in its 17th year of converting and printing envelopes.  Several years ago, our story was added to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum website under America’s Mailing Industry category.  You can check it out here.


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