Thinking about letters, the old-fashioned kind which are sometimes now seen as proto-typical, it is interesting to ask the question of whether its envelope is part of a letter itself or something different, extra to it and supplemental rather than a component of the thing itself. Consider for instance the photograph of an envelope postmarked September 1868 which accompanies this blog (and click on it to go to the Victorian Web for some more information):


The envelope here is a mourning envelope, with its black edges signifying that a death has occurred of someone close to the writer, which might have occurred previously, but which might also be communicated by the letter inside the envelope. This envelope, then, tells one part of a story, that a death has occurred and is being mourned for and this needed to be known by other people because it would affect how they behaved towards the person mourning and vice versa. And the letter inside might well have told more of this story.

Postal services and ‘jobsworth’ postal officials being what they are, this envelope also tells part of a different story as well, one introduced – indeed, imposed – by a different set of people with different priorities. This is a story is about postal rates and of various kinds and levels of postal services provided, as shown by the value of the postage stamps on the envelope and that it has been marked by a different kind of stamp, one of registration, with the word ‘registered’ also hand-written onto the envelope. This particular letter was sent on its way  particularly quickly and would have had a special delivery status because it had been ‘registered’ and an extra amount paid for this. This lends support to the possibility that its contents might indeed have announced a recent deaths to Mrs Charles Tilly, to whom the envelope is addressed.

Not all letters arrived. Letters were written because things need to be communicated from the writer to the intended recipient, but while proficiently addressed and posted, they might never actually arrive in the sense of being handed over and read by the intended person. This was in circumstances where there was postage due because an insufficient amount of postage had been paid for as indicated by the value of the stamps on an envelope’s front.

Non-delivery in such situations was often because the intended recipient could not afford to pay the postage due. Under such circumstances, they often took hold of such a letter while hmm-ing and ha-ing about whether they had money to pay the due amount in order to look at the writing – which would most likely tell them who had written it – and anything on the envelope that might tell them what it was about. In this particular case, the black edges, the handwriting, how the address was written, would have told the intended recipient a good deal of what the letter inside was intended to communicate. In other cases, brief messages might also be written on an envelope as part of ordinary letter-writing, and even more so when the writer knew that neither they nor their intended recipient could afford to pay full postage.

Is an envelope to be seen as part of a letter inside it? Clearly, in this instance and also more widely, the answer is yes, it is a constituent element. And in some circumstances envelopes can be as fascinating or sometimes more so than the contents of the letters inside.

This envelope? Under unknown circumstances, it entered the public domain. It now appears along with numerous other examples when searches are carried out on the word envelope and is part of the Victorian Web pages.

Last updated: 9 June 2016


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