Undercover: The Evolution of the American Envelope

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J. Armstrong Envelope Mach. Patent diagram 1862

Between 1840 and the end of the 19th century the United States grew from a largely agrarian nation concentrated on the eastern seaboard, to a modern industrial giant that was leading the world in invention and technology.

Hundreds of thousands of inventions and a new system of manufacture based on standardization of parts led to increased production of goods. Crucial to the everyday conduct of business and daily life for most Americans was the ready-made envelope, an innovation that helped make possible the inexpensive and reliable delivery of mail to every part of the country. Between 1840 and 1900, the manufacture of envelopes was a catalyst for continued commercial expansion and diversification.

The six models on display in this exhibit span the development of automated envelope production from the first American patent issued in 1849 to a sophisticated 1876 invention that featured a built-in gum dryer. In the intervening quarter century, the envelope industry came of age as competing manufacturers and their stables of inventors vied with one another to create a fast and self-contained mechanism.

The displays are from the Smithsonian's collection of working models that were submitted with patent applications in the 19th century.

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R. Parks Envelope Mach. Patent diagram 1866
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E.W. Goodale Machine for Making Envelopes, Bags, &c. Patent diagram 1855