Powered by the United States Postal Service

Envelopes in the Machine Age

Article from Enroute*

By Nancy A. Pope

Volume 6, Issue 2
April–June 1997

The need to communicate is endemic to human nature. Letter writing, materializing out of this drive to express ourselves and sustain contacts was, for ages, the only method available to many. Letters, folded and sealed with wax, needed no containers. In fact, when postmasters counted sheets of paper to determine rates, one would have been labeled a spendthrift for wasting money on such an extravagance. Postal reform, which spread from England to the United States in the 1840s, changed the way people and businesses used the post. Lower postage rates encouraged more Americans to use the mails on a regular basis. Postage rates were no longer to be based on the number of sheets in a letter but on the weight and distance. By 1851, Americans could send-ounce letters across the country for as little as three cents.

Reasonable rates encouraged more businesses and individuals to use the mails, and helped launch the development of the envelope industry in America. These early envelopes were made by hand, about 25 at a time, by stationery store clerks. Using sharp knives and tin patterns, clerks would cut out a stack of envelope sheets. They then folded and sealed the side flaps of each envelope by hand. The top flap remained ungummed, of course, for the same stores also sold sealing wax, seals and other items to seal the envelopes.

On May 6, the National Postal Museum celebrates the captivating history of American envelopes in its newest exhibit, Under Cover: The Evolution of the American Envelope. The exhibit traces the history of envelope manufacturing in America from the 1840s through the end of the 19th century and the industry's entrance into the field of mass production. The stars of the exhibit are six 19th-century envelope manufacturing patent models. Built between 1849 and 1879, the models were created for submission to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Between 1830 and 1880, machinery inventors were required to include fully-operational models with their patent submissions. Most of the models are now housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Several of the envelope manufacturing patent models are in the National Postal Museum's collections. Intricately designed, these models trace envelope manufacturing methods from early folding techniques to complex mechanisms that solve the problem of applying gum to a series of sheets of paper without gluing them together.

Patent models represent the growing captivation of Americans by all things mechanical. Most Americans of the early decades of the 1800s did not anticipate the changes and growth in manufacturing that would soon capture the nation's fancy. No doubt many still believed that Adam Smith was right when he declared in The Wealth of Nations that it would be folly to direct capital into manufactures in America. Many assumed that the United States was too large, its population too scattered, to sustain significant manufacturing growth. Cheap land and scarce capital were not promising foundations for manufactures.

By the 1830s, thanks in great part to the successful applications of harnessed steam power, Americans came to view the development of native manufacturing centers as appealing and even inevitable. In what would become known as The Machine Age, people readily succumbed to a romanticized view of mechanisms. Americans praised machines as able to embody and realize the dreams and goals of the Republic. A few dissented, fearing that manufacturing in America would bring the evils of the Old World into the new — poverty and a more rigidly classed society, or even recast machines as master to mankind. But those few were no match for the prevailing attitudes of admiration and wonder that greeted each new mechanical achievement and milestone.

As the creators and heralds of these new wonders, inventors quickly found a place as highly respected icons — leaders on America's mechanized road to glory. As a writer noted in Scientific American in 1849, "inventions are the poetry of physical science, and inventors are the poets." The inventors who created and developed machines for manufacturing American envelopes worked both from within and without the manufacturing industry. Some moved between various manufacturers, working to improve existing machinery. Others tried to be both inventor and entrepreneur — with varying degrees of success.

The first patent registered for an efficient, automatic, envelope folding machine was registered in England in 1845. It was held by Edwin Hill, the brother of Sir Rowland Hill, well known for his postal reforms. In 1851, Edwin Hill and Warren De La Rue exhibited an improved version of that machine at the London Exposition.

In America, Dr. Russell L. Hawes, a Massachusetts physician, invented the first commercial successful envelope folding machine. Hawes, bored by the daily routine of his profession, was drawn to the magical world of invention. He tried to apply his knowledge of anatomy to the task of creating a folding machine that fit the movements of the worker. The workers, mostly women, who operated Hawes' machines could produce 2,500 envelopes an hour.

Dozens of inventors and manufacturers produced an ever improving series of envelope folding, gumming, and drying machines in the 19th century. Irish born inventor George H. Reay developed a folding machine so reliable that it became an industry standard. Reay and a number of other inventors worked for Berlin and Jones of New York City, a leading envelope manufacturing firm. Thomas Waymouth, who had previously worked on paper bag machinery, developed a self-gumming and folding machine for Berlin and Jones in the late 1860s.

Waymouth's creation was not only a major advance, it proved an obstacle to other entrepreneurs and inventors. At first, no one could see a way of making their own self-gumming machine without infringing on Waymouth's patent. Finally, two brothers, Henry D. Swift and Daniel W. Swift, found the answer while working for G. Henry Whitcomb & Co., in Worcester, Massachusetts. The brothers produced a gummed envelope by covering almost the entire piece with a plate and gumming a small uncovered strip. Unlike Waymouth's machine, the Swifts' creation could gum envelopes without worker assistance.

The six patent models now on display at the National Postal Museum represent an advance in manufacturing techniques that helped propel the industry from small shops to mammoth factory floors in less than half a century. Each is a testament to and celebration of the American inventive spirit.

* EnRoute was the National Postal Museum's newsletter.

America’s Mailing Industry