The Art of Correspondence: Letters, Envelopes, and Stamps

The journey through letters, stamps, and envelopes in Britain begins in this article with the novelist Jane Austen. Austen is a suitable starting point because she mentions letters many times in her novels. and she was a popular novelist in her own lifetime, although she published her novels anonymously.

She was born in 1775 and died in 1817, so the characters in her novels simply did not send their letters in envelopes. And they did not put stamps on their letters because stamps hadn’t been invented.

In her day, a person writing a letter would fold it and tuck in the ends to make an envelope out of the letter itself.

One way to do that is to fold the letter in half vertically, then fold the two halves into the middle fold line. Up to this point it’s a bit like making a paper aeroplane.

The next step is to fold the top one-fifth of the letter down and fold the remaining four-fifths of the letter up almost to the top. Then tuck the longer part into the shorter bit, and that’s it.

Of course someone could un-tuck and open the letter on its way to the recipient. And that is what sealing wax and a seal were for.

So the questions are:

  • When did envelopes come into general use?
  • When did stamps come into general use?

Stamps and Envelopes

And Jane Austen’s characters would not think to put stamps on their letters because stamps were not yet invented. Letters, ,stamps, and envelopes were not yet a thing.

And you might ask why we bother with envelopes today? Coudn’t we just go back to folding letters?

The answer is cost (as usual) and convenience. People started using envelopes when the price of paper fell. With enveopes so cheap, it was easier to just stuff a letter into an envelope and stick the flap down. It’s quicker and there’s no need for sealing wax.

This is not to say that envelopes weren’t invented earlier, it’s just that paper was too expensive to waste on a cover for a letter. But envelopes in some form or other have existed for thousands of years. In ancient Mesopotamia they used clay envelopes to protect important documents were on clay tablets.

And the Chinese used envelopes for important papers as long ago as two hundred years before the Common Era.

In England it took the falling price of paper and the introduction of pre-paid stamps in 1840 to make envelopes popular as a cover for a letter. And before stamps there was the question of how you paid for delivery, and who paid.

Who Paid For Delivery

Before the introduction of postage stamps, it was the recipient who paid the cost of delivering a letter.

You can think of it a bit like the receiver paying the cost of a reverse charge telephone call.

It worked like this. You wrote a letter, folded it, put a seal on it and handed it in at a post office. The postman would deliver the letter and collect the delivery cost from the receipient.

But what would happen if the recipient wasn’t at home? How would they even know someone had writen to them? What if it was an emergency? Maybe there would always be someone home. In a wealthier household that may be true, but in a working man’s house would someone always be there to receive a letter?

Who Sent And Received Letters In 18th Century England

In 18th century England, who could write, who could read, who could afford to send or receive a letter? And who had access to the postal service?

Education was not available to everyone in the country. Literacy rates were higher among wealthier people, so naturally it was they who wrote letters and received letters.

Then poorer people had to consider the cost of paying for the delivery of a letter. The cost of letters to and from several people could mount up over a year.

And actually getting to a post office could be a problem. Of course they were easy to get to in urban centres, but not every village had a post office. It could mean a special journey just to send or collect a letter.

But this is not to say that it was only the wealthier who sent and received letters. Sailors, soldiers, travellers,.and people in domestic service sent letters home.

Enter Rowland Hill

In 1839 the United Kingdom Treasury apponted Hill to come up with an idea to make postal deliveries smoother. That was the motivation for the one penny (1p) and two penny (2p) postage stamps, which he, invented. He didn’t design the stamps himself but rather used the idea of William Wyon and Benjamin Cheverton of putting the Sovereign’s head on the stamp.

The Soverign’s head appeared on the penny black and the two penny blue. Eighteen months later the Post Office introduced the penny red.

An ordinary letter cost 1p. A letter weighing over half and ounce (15g) or to a distant destination cost 2p.

These were the first pre-paid stamps in the world and that is the reason that UK postage stamps do not state the name of the country. After all, when Hill invented pre-paid postage stamps they could not be confused with the stamps of any other country. No other country had postage stamps.

Here is a block of penny black stamps, penny red stamps, and two pence blue stamps with the head of the young Queen Victoria.

penny black penny red and two pence blue British stamps

William Mulready

Although the idea was not successful, the Treasury also appointed William Mulready to come up with an idea to speed up the postal service. His idea was pre-paid stationery and envelopes with an intricate design printed along the top part of the sheets. The design indicated that the sender had paid for delivery. Mulready made one penny and two penny versions so they worked the same way as stamps. But the public didn’t like the idea of pre-paid stationey and Mulready’s stationery was withdrawn after a year.

Mulready’s designs were thought to be too heavy handed and jingoistic, and people made fun of the designs. I can see another reason why people didn’t like them and that is that once you started writing you were committed to that letter. If you made an error you had to throw away that pre-paid stationery. Much better to only have to throw away a sheet of writing paper and not commit to your missive until you put a stamp on the envelope.

Greeting Cards

Now we have covered the subject of letters, stamps, and envelopes, and who sent them and how they sent them.

What about greeting cards? How did people send birthday cards or Christmas cards in the 18th century? And it is not just how did they get them to their destination via the postal service but also the fact that you cannot fold and close a greeting card.

A congratulations card with an inkwell with a quill in the inkwell and a trace of blue ink, and text 'Congratulations'

A greeting card needs an envelope. You wouldn’t send a greeting card without an envelope because even if you put a stamp on it, anyone could open and read it.

So how did people send greeting cards before envelopes became common? And the answer is that commercially avilable greeting cards weren’t available until the 1840s. So when greeting cards appeared and became a thing, envelopes and stamps were already invented and in use.

Before then, if you wanted a greeting card you made it yourself. And you wouldn’t post it; you would hand it over personally.

Greeting cards as we know them started in 1843 with Sir Henry Cole. He was important and busy. He was so busy (read this article and this one) that he had a printer print his Christmas cards. And the rest is history.

So envelopes and stamps for greeting cards conveniently came in at the same time more or less. That progressed in a chain of events and technological advances through to the present day.

Of course, email, social media, and electronic greetings have taken a slice out of letter writing. But people in Britain send as many greeting cards as they ever did. And that’s a lot because Britain is the leading sender of cards in the world. Why is that? research suggests that the fact you can hold a card in your hand is at the heart of it.

The answer to the questions I posed at the beginning of this article is that stamps and envelopes came into use in the 1840s. Letters themselves many years before then. So people used letters, stamps, and envelopes as a thing in the 1840s. It was mostly in the wealthier classes who were more literate and could afford the postage.

But by 1900 it had all changed and everyone was sending letters. In the UK people sent approximately two billion letters in 1900. They also sent around 600 million postcards in the same year. That was a meteoric rise in popularity. It raises a question in today’s world where we are hyper-aware of environmental risks. Question: Is paper a renewable resource? I looked at this question in the article.

And I will write later about what drove the rise in sending postcards. Watch this space.

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