The humble envelope is often not given the credit it is due. Designed to protect correspondence from damage and prying eyes, this ubiquitous item of stationery can be the bearer of both good and bad news.

But when and where did the envelope first appear?

The answer to this question is probably more fascinating than you realise.

The early days of the envelope

Historians believe that the first envelope made its first appearance in ancient China, where it was used to guarantee the privacy of royal correspondence. However, these first examples were nothing like what we use today.

They were made from clay, which was moulded into a sphere, in which the message would sit. The envelope was sealed with more clay, and then smashed to reveal the contents upon delivery.

A similar method of secure messaging was developed in Babylonia, around 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. This version was more like a folder than a spherical case, and it was sealed by pressing both ends of a rectangular clay sheet together.

The first paper envelope emerges

Around 200BC, the Chinese developed the first envelope made from paper. But rather than messages, these simple protective wraps were used to send monetary gifts.

At around the same time, wealthy Japanese men used early versions to send gifts to relatives after a death. Both the Chinese and Japanese versions at the time were believed to be rather crudely made by hand.

It wasn’t until the Medieval era that production techniques improved to such an extent that a paper envelope could be used for the sending of messages. Even then, however, the design was little more than an extra sheet of paper folded over the message and sealed with wax.

Such messages were very common between the aristocracy and senior members of the Church. The seal was made with beeswax and resin, and was sealed with a coat of arms – sometimes with a ring.

The Industrial Revolution changed the envelope forever

One of the first ever long distance messages to be sent in a modern envelope was written by Sam Adams in 1775. He sent a single letter from Boston to Philadelphia, and paid 22 cents for the privilege.

As printing and manufacturing processes improved, the cost of envelopes – and the cost of sending mail – plummeted. Sir Rowland Hill published his Post Office Reform in 1837, which for the first time introduced the concept of the stamp.

He proposed that a prepaid penny “wrapper” with a stamp would be used to send mail around the UK. At first, it was left to local printing and manufacturing firms to fold the paper into the classic shape of a modern envelope – by hand.

The process of making an envelope was relatively laborious, however, until Edwin Hill invented and patented a steam-powered machine that could fold and stick paper into the shape of an envelope.

This was followed up by the first automatic envelope maker in 1853 – invented by Russel Hawes in America. At the time, this machine was a revelation, as it was capable of producing up to 12,500 envelopes every day.

Henry Swift and D Wheeler Swift perfected a machine initially designed by James Green Arnold in 1876. This was the world’s first machinery that was capable of applying sticky gum to an envelope.

And the last significant envelope patent was granted to Americus Callahan, who developed the first envelope with a window.

Despite the advent of the Internet, billions of envelopes are produced and sent around the world every year. Whether they’re protecting personal messages, business correspondence or marketing materials, these essential items of stationery and still part and parcel of modern life.