I was enthralled this week with news of the new technology which has unlocked “letterlocked” letters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: before the onset of the envelope in the nineteenth century there were often-intricate practices of folding, cutting, creasing and sealing letters to secure their contents, making it impossible for modern scholars to pry them apart without causing considerable damage to invaluable sources. With every discovery of a locked letter, or a cache of locked letters, the pressure mounted to discovery another way to reveal the writing inside, and this very week, a team of scientists announced their process of “Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography.” This is BIG news: the letters are scanned and “virtually unfolded,” rendering their physical integrity intact. Secrets are revealed! I just can’t think of anything more exciting.
I’ve worked with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letters before but they had already been opened up: hopefully they weren’t quite as “locked” as some examples and no harm ensued. It’s so interesting that envelopes became common so late in western history: really only from the 1830s. With the completion of my manuscript (and before readers’ comments come in) I had the time to indulge my curiosity a bit this week, the first opportunity in over a year, so I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, putting a Salem spin on a much larger and more global topic. I haven’t engaged in “ephemeral history ” for a while so it was also nice to look at some pieces of paper. Both epistolary and postal history can reveal all sorts of interesting things, even on the surface, and two great sources for all things philatelic are the Stamp Auction Network in general and Daniel F. Kelleher Auctions in particular: all the letters below come from the latter source unless otherwise noted. First up, some folded 18th-century Salem letters from the Kelleher archive: addressed to Mrs. Hannah Pickering, Widow from 1725, and the nephews of John Hancock, Thomas and John, from 1796 (via the Salem “packet”).
Once envelopes arrive, they become increasingly elaborate, especially with the coming of the Civil War. The Phillips Library has a large collection of Civil War Covers which I hope to see one day but the one below is from Kelleher: as you can see, it contrasts quite strikingly with the simple letter addressed to Mr. Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle. The Salem printer-publisher J.E. Tilton specialized in embellished envelopes: here is one showcasing John C. Frémont’s western expeditions in support of his presidential campaign in 1856. In the next decade Tilton moved his business to Boston, but other Salem printers took up the patriotic paper trade. The envelope illustrations seem to get larger and more colorful over the second half of the nineteenth century, leaving little space for the address—illustrated by the Spanish-American War cover from 1898.
In addition to patriotic purposes, envelopes were great means for advertising and commemoration: all sorts of engines start to appear from the 1870s on, along with a variety of other industrial (and agricultural) goods and of course, the company headquarters. Salem’s famous hotel, the Essex House, appeared on numerous envelopes in the later and early twentieth centuries. Clothing and shoe manufacturers took full advantage of their stationery (the 1895 letter to the Naumkeag Clothing Co. in Salem is from Downeast Stamps), and before the stamp became the chief expression of commemoration, it was all about the envelope.