Well over 185 billion envelopes are produced each year in the United States. More than 85 percent of these enter the mail stream to be delivered by the Postal Service. The envelope industry has about 26,000 employees.
Envelopes Provided Privacy and Security to Messages
Envelopes have been used throughout recorded history. As early as 2000 B.C. the Babylonians baked clay wrappers around documents for protection . In many cases, the hardened clay, called "cuneiform," was used for delivering messages . When delivered, the receiver had to break these "envelopes" with a hammer. The weight of the Babylonians' cumbersome clay envelopes soon forced the invention of envelopes made of lighter materials such as skins, leaves, and bark.
The modern envelope was created in 17th century Europe as a means to ensure that communications between merchants and nobles were kept confidential. Letter writers folded their documents and then sealed them with a spot of wax. Modern envelopes still provide privacy and security to messages. Envelopes also carry messages printed on them that can tell receivers a bit about what is inside, as well as information about who sent it and where it was sent from.
Reductions in Postage Prices Made Letter Writing More Affordable
Postage at that time was so costly that only the wealthiest could afford to use an envelope. Often, the recipient had to pay the postage. The envelope we know today were introduced in England after the introduction of postage stamps – placing the responsibility for postage on the sender. Meaningful postage rate reductions in the United States came in the 1850s, increasing the demand for envelopes and the volume of mail.
Envelopes were Hand Made
Envelopes in America were first produced by hand. Store clerks used a template blank and shoemaker’s knife to cut out a pile of envelopes. The envelopes were then gummed, except for the seal flap. When the finished envelope was sold, the user would apply sealing wax or a wafer seal to secure the envelope. Today, making envelopes by hand is an art form and people still use such envelopes for special occasions.
Mechanization Transforms the Industry
As envelopes came into more common usage in the 1850s, hand-folded envelopes gave way to machine-made envelopes. The first patent recorded for an envelope folding machine was issued to Jesse K. Park and Cornelius s. Watson in 1849. Their machine was based on the concept of a water or steam-powered cylinder (known as the plunger) that punched a sharp die through several hundred sheets of paper. Less than 10 years later the gummed envelope machine was developed. A good machine operator could make 150 envelopes in an hour. [Deeper Learning: Envelopes In The Machine Age]
In 1863, George Reay received a patent for an improvement on early machines. For years, this machine was the only successful envelope folder available. The next major advance was introduced by Ferdinand Smithe in the early 1900’s. His machine became the new industry standard and instituted mass production of envelopes. Beginning as one of the smallest of eight manufacturers, he became the major, and then the only, manufacturer of envelope machines in the United States.
Automation Responds to the Need for Different Kinds of Envelopes
The envelope folding machine remains the backbone of the industry, although its speed, capability and quality have improved dramatically. The machine applies the seal gum to the flap and folds the envelope. Attachments cut and patch windows, apply print and other functions.
The envelope industry is largely comprised of individual and family owned companies, many of which have been in business for over 75 years. They have learned to adapt to changing business requirements and most have been successful in adopting new technologies.
Industry Standards were developed in Cooperation with the Postal Service and Others
There are many kinds of envelopes, each designed to meet customer needs. The industry developed a set of basic sizes, so more efficient equipment could be designed and so customers could know what they were getting.
However, many envelopes are custom made to exacting specifications. These include requirements for being handled through the Postal Service’s high speed processing machines, and ensuring that addresses printed on envelopes can be read by electronic scanners. Envelopes also need to meet the requirements of mailers who are inserting documents into the envelopes at very high speeds. This requires constant testing and close cooperation with the Postal Service and mailing industry equipment providers, the printing industry and others. The Envelope Manufacturers Association was founded in 1911 to help the industry manage the development of these requirements.