Four thousand years ago, in Babylonia (modern-day Iran and Iraq), messages were pressed into wet clay tablets with sticks. The message was set in the sun to dry. When it had hardened, it was carefully wrapped in more wet clay. Then the address was pressed into the outer layer and the tablet set in the sun again. The receiver of the note had to crack open the clay 'envelope' to read the letter!
Modern paper envelopes arrived with the postal reforms of the 1850s. Before then, letter-writers were charged by the sheet, so letters were folded and sealed with wax. Sending letters was also relatively expensive. The new rates were cheaper and depended on distance and weight. More people started using the mail. The envelope industry grew.
Envelopes were handmade at first. Stationery clerks cut out 25 envelopes at a time using tin templates, then glued them by hand. Customers bought special glue to seal the envelopes. (When the Civil War created a paper shortage in the South, people made "Adversity Envelopes" out of wallpaper, newspapers, or anything they could find.)
A machine to cut, glue, and gum envelopes appeared in the late 1860s. By 1930, machines could make 300 envelopes a minute. Today's machines are six times as fast.
*Want to know more? Go to the National Postal Museum's Web site at: www.si.edu/organiza/museums/postal/start.html
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