Prior to the 1840s, this is how the world worked: If you wanted to mail something in an envelope, you had to make it yourself. It wasn’t until 1840 that a Brit by the name of George Wilson patented a method of tessellating (tiling) a number of envelope patterns across a large sheet of paper. Then, in 1845, Edwin Hill and Warren De laRue obtained a British patent for a steam-driven machine that not only cut out the envelope shapes, but creased and folded them, as well. Hill and De laRue displayed their machine at the Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition of 1851 – along with the likes of Koh-i-Noor (the world’s largest known diamond at the time), Samuel Colt’s prototype for the Colt Navy revolver, and one of the world’s earliest voting machines.
Who would have thought that the lowly envelope could be so interesting as to merit a spot in the Crystal Palace?”
But wait! There’s more…
The fascinating history of envelopes (or “covers,” as they are known to collectors) continues: During the Civil War, paper was extremely scarce, so handmade envelopes were created out of ledgers, wrapping paper, tax receipts, wallpaper, flyleaves torn from books, maps, music sheets, or other available materials. These make-do envelopes are referred to as “adversity covers” and they are considered quite collectible.
Around this same time, people began using envelopes for propaganda purposes by printing or drawing cartoons, emblems, pictures and messages that expressed their political sentiments. Collectors call these bits of postal history “patriotic covers.”
“Disaster covers” are letters and envelopes that have been salvaged from shipwrecks, train derailments, airplane crashes, and the like. Mail salvaged from the Hindenburg fire of 1937 is especially collectible (only 200 pieces were salvaged out of the 17,000 that were on board), but more recent examples of disaster covers are the letters and other pieces of mail that were hand-cancelled on April 3, 2006, the first full day that the U. S. Postal Service resumed normal operations after Hurricane Katrina. Also of interest to collectors is mail that was irradiated during the anthrax scare of 2001. A radiation-burned envelope with the words “Mail Sanitized” on it can command some serious dough.
In the latter part of the 1800s, businesses began to create printed envelopes. These “advertising covers” could be printed with anything from a simple corner card (picture and return address) to elaborate decorations and ad copy covering much of the envelope. Early advertising covers eventually led to both the modern postal “first day cover” (or “FDC,” if you’re in the biz) and the infamous “junk mail.”
First day covers are some of the most sought after items for today’s postal ephemera aficionados. Some enthusiasts focus on collecting a series of events like the opening days of Olympic Games, while others gravitate toward FDCs for historic events (like the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon, for one example). Each collector has his unique preference of subject matter, recipient, postage stamp, cancellation style, destination, and cancellation city.
Illustrated advertising covers became ubiquitous in the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. They were quite favorably received in those days – welcomed as novelties – the more intricate and colorful, the better.
Today, advertising covers bridge hobby categories to include stamp collecting, postal history and ephemera. Ad covers are usually collected more for the quality of the illustration, or cachet, of an envelope than for the rarity of its stamp. Advertising covers are historical snapshots of a range of goods and services from a particular time, giving the collector a lot of information about the sender, and the delivery system itself.
Perhaps you will enjoy this selection of vintage Indianapolis advertising covers recently found on eBay:
Tell us in the comment box below:
– Do you have family stories about any of these long-gone businesses?
– Do you collect postal covers or other Indy ephemera?
Collectors Weekly, online