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The History Of Envelopes From Babylon To Paris

Jul 12, 2008
While most people would switch off at the first mention of the history of envelopes, it is in fact a rich and diverse history that has much to do communication and society at all stages of the human development. Modern envelopes may be a relatively new invention, but the process of sealing documents for correspondence can be traced right back to the earliest civilisations.

Some historians argue that the first envelopes were in fact used in ancient in Babylon. While they in no way resemble the envelopes we use today they were used for much the same purpose. Around two thousand B.C. the Babylonians coated their precious documents, such as accounts, and property deeds in clay and then baked the envelope hard. More precisely the clay was moulded around the tablet and then baked. The system worked well as there was no way to get to the document without breaking the coating, letting the owner know if anyone had tampered with the records.

Tablets however were limited in terms of portability being so heavy and cumbersome. Understandably for written correspondence materials such as hide, papyrus and leaves were used. It is extremely doubtful that these early messages were placed in envelopes like our modern variety. More likely is that to protect the messages from prying eyes they were rolled into scrolls and covered in a thin wood. This however was never a foolproof method of keeping the message secret.

The scroll system continued with the introduction of paper in the tenth century. Post was definitely a fundamental part of running the kingdom as any king would find it impossible to run the administration without regular dispatches to generals, knights and lords. The crown kept its domination of the postal system throughout the medieval period with Henry VIII appointing Brian Tuke as the king's postal master. This situation was still in existence during the sixteenth century when official documents were sent "under the cover of envelope".

This is when the first real envelopes were seen as paper was folded around the message and then sealed with a wax mark. The early envelopes that remain today show that each sender had their own methods of making them; the shape and size of envelopes was as much to do with personal preference as anything else.

The development of the first standardised size envelopes is extremely difficult to determine. While no official body has laid claim to the development it is likely that it was an entrepreneurial stationer who first had the idea of making a standard sized envelope. This however is conjecture, unlike much of the history of postal services and mail; it is not well documented or contained in official records.

The first emergence of what we could call a postal service was during 1635 when Charles I established the State Postal Service by royal proclamation. The service was primarily used to convey letters of a private nature in the two kingdoms of Scotland in England between rich noble families. At a similar time, the streets of Paris were beginning to fill with post boxes; to use these post boxes however it is vital that all letters had to be contained in specific envelopes that the creator of the postal system sold in various shops around the city.

While this early scheme failed, it did bear a remarkable resemblance to the postal system of today. While it would be at least another two centuries until the modern postal system arose, these early developments show the importance of communication to society. Without letters the modern nation state would never have arisen as central control would not have been a possibility. Without the humble envelope it is doubtful that the administrative and organisational capabilities of the world we see today would be a reality.
About the Author
Cultural expert Thomas Pretty looks into the development of envelopes and how they have shaped society.
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