Overview & Origin of the Envelope

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Old World European flap envelope

What makes an envelope special?

Most of us receive paper correspondence, Monday through Saturday, in our mailbox. Depending on who is the sender and how the mail is packaged, it may be tossed in the recycling bin or opened with anticipation. Whether the contents are dismissed as junk or treasured as a keepsake can often be determined just by handling the envelope, even before it’s ever opened.

A beautiful envelope cuts through the clutter and distinguishes itself from other envelopes that are just, well, “mail.”

But have you ever wondered what exactly differentiates a particular type of envelope from the others?

What defines an envelope?

Cut from paper, an envelope is made to enclose a letter or document, offering both protection and mailability. Its most recognizable feature is its sealable top flap.

Aside from mailing, how else are they used?

Envelopes are not just for mailing. Gift cards are often enclosed in envelopes with the dollar amount that you paid written or pre-printed on the envelope. As a professional touch and for your convenience, your cash withdrawal at your bank may be presented to you inside an envelope. Commercial products ranging from screen protectors for handheld electronic devices to planting seeds use different forms of envelopes as packaging.

From Handmade to Machine Made, an Envelope History

Mulready Envelope

Envelopes have come a long way since 2000 B.C. when the Babylonians used hollow clay spheres or wrappers to protect important items including documents.

In 1840, Great Britain’s Royal Mail introduced the first standard mailing envelope: paper cut into a diamond shape, folded to form an envelope, and held together by a seal at the edge of the top flap. The envelope featured an illustrated design by William Mulready and become known as the Mulready Envelope—the grandfather of the modern envelope.

Although the use of envelope templates (“dies”) was introduced a number of years earlier, it wasn’t until 1845, when a steam powered, automatic envelope folding machine was patented, that envelope production went from a handmade process to a mechanical one. Early folding machines could cut out the envelope shapes from paper, crease, and fold, but it would be 50 more years until a machine could successfully integrate adhesive into the process to produce pre-gummed envelopes.

Today’s modern envelope machines, particularly web machines, can produce up to 1,500 envelopes per minute!

2 Main Envelope Types

Standard wallet envelope

Most common type, also referred to as wallet, where the top flap is on the long side

Pocket envelope policy envelope

Top flap is on the short side, for example, on a Policy style envelope


Envelopes For Wedding Invitations

Double wedding envelopes open closed

Wedding Double Envelopes

Double Envelopes are a longstanding tradition used with wedding invitations. They consist of (1) an un-gummed inner envelope (lined or unlined) to hold a wedding invitation, response card, response envelope & any additional cards, and (2) an outer mailing envelope.


lined envelopes silver gold

Lined Wedding Envelopes

Adds a decorative lining starting from the folding flap—just below the gummed seal, or if no gummed seal, just below where the gummed seal would have been—down and past the top fold into the envelope’s middle section or “throat.”


response envelopes pointed flap square flap

Wedding Response & RSVP Envelopes

Small envelope included in a wedding invitation set to accommodate an RSVP (“please respond”) card. In the United States, the typical size is 3 5/8 x 5 1/8.


square envelopes pointed flap square flap

Square Wedding Envelopes

Height and width share the same measurement. This envelope style requires extra postage in the United States.


Additional Envelope Types

window envelope

Window Envelopes

Primarily for business communication, a rectangular hole (or “window”) is cut out on the front side so that the printed address of the enclosed letter aligns with the window. This design means envelopes do not have to be addressed provided the printed letter is addressed and positioned within the window. Envelopes may have more than one window and windows may be cut on the front and/or back side. Windows are often covered with a transparent or translucent film for added protection.


security envelope

Security Envelopes

Another style primarily for business communication, a printed pattern on the inside restricts seeing contents through the envelope.


Now that you have a better general understanding of envelopes their varieties, you may be interested in what differentiates a better quality envelope from that of lesser quality. We’ll show you what to look for as we walk through the process of how envelopes are made.

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