Dot Wordsworth


Pre-paid letter sheets were all the rage – until a little thing called a ‘stamp’ was introduced

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One can push many things — a pen, one’s luck or (up) daisies.

But the MP Dominic Raab told the Daily Telegraph last week that Theresa May and Boris Johnson ‘are demonstrating courage in pushing the diplomatic envelope’. Since the most famous envelope recently enclosed Mrs May’s letter to Donald Tusk, this figure of speech might have obscured rather than illuminated his meaning.

I don’t mean to write about pushing the envelope, on which I’ve remarked before. The metaphor is from aeronautics, where it refers to parameters (often confused with perimeters) or limits. The late Gerald Kaufman complained of this Eurojargon 37 years ago, explaining in a book that ‘an envelope is a limit within which budgetary dispositions can be juggled’.

What about real envelopes? In 1839, Sir Rowland Hill’s ideas for a penny post involved the sale of ‘little bags called envelopes’ with postage pre-paid. Envelopes had been known earlier. Jonathan Swift in his ‘Advice to the Grub Street Verse-writers’ laughs at the ‘paper-saving Pope’ who delights in a ‘letter with an envelope’ as free stationery on which to write his verses. Paper had been made dearer by a tax under Queen Anne.

To send a letter, the writing paper would usually be folded and secured with sealing wax, with the address (or direction as it was often called) written on the blank side. For the 1840 Penny Post, Sir Rowland got Henry Cole, the future founder of the V&A, to invite painter William Mulready to design a cover — in the form of an enclosing envelope or a letter-sheet. This worthy object was mocked for its ‘landscape of savages, camels, barrels, and Britannias’. Parodies were sold, showing Britannia at the piano singing ‘I want money’, while the lion at her feet smoked a pipe and nursed a foaming tankard. Others featured a sailor brandishing his peg-leg in joy, a washerwoman, and postmen

in nightshirts and regulation tail-coats flying through the air.

Sir Rowland was surprised by the popularity of the alternative ‘small stamped detached label’. The name Mulready had hardly become a common noun before his covers were discontinued and the Post Office stopped pushing the envelope.