What's wrong with an envelope?
In Regency times, without landlines, emails, or text messaging, letters were the go-to method for communication between businesses and households. In literature of that era, letters carried critical news of an inheritance or, perhaps, the longing sighs of parted lovers.
Letters can make for interesting plot-points. Whose handwriting is that? Why is this person suddenly writing to her if she hardly knows him? They also play an important role in my novel, First Impressions.
So, that means envelopes can hold promising mysteries in Regency literature, right? Oddly enough, the answer is, mostly, “no.” Envelopes really only came into regular use in Victorian times.
This is what Wikipedia has to say on the matter:
“In Western history, from the time flexible writing material became more readily available in the 13th century until the mid-19th century, correspondence was typically secured by a process of letter folding and sealing which sometimes employed elaborate letterlocking techniques to indicate tampering or prove authenticity. Some of these techniques, which could involve stitching or wax seals, were also employed to secure hand-made envelopes.”
- (2021, March 12). Envelope. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Envelope
Shannon Donnelly explains further:
“The letter itself differed from its modern form. The letter usually comprised a single sheet (sometimes folded once in the middle to make a booklet-like page). This was folded in thirds, then the ends were folded together, with one end tucked inside another. Hot wax dripped onto the joining ends sealed the letter.
- Shannon Donnelly. (2010, May 29). The Regency Post — A Pity We’ve Lost Letters. Shannon Donnelly’s Fresh Ink. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://shannondonnelly.com/2010/05/
We can see that it would be unusual for a Regency author to write a scene in which the heroine eagerly rips open an envelope. More likely, said heroine would eagerly tear open the wax seal and unfold the letter which it is attached to.
Of course, the sender might have chosen to encase the letter in a folded blank sheet of paper, serving as a makeshift envelope. But this would not have been typical for the simple reason that paper was expensive.
To save this valuable commodity, it was very common to write on both sides of the sheet, which would have been sturdier than modern letter paper, being made from rag cloth rather than wood pulp.
In fact, in poorer homes, where paper was at a premium, writing was often so crowded onto the page as to be virtually illegible. The possibility of adding another sheet as envelope, purely for the purposes of privacy, was unthinkable.
In wealthy households, a private messenger was used for correspondence within the same town. The messenger would deliver the letter directly to its intended destination. Without fear of interference, the senders would have felt no need for the security of an envelope. A wax seal would be sufficient.
Thus we have scenes in Jane Austen film adaptations like the one linked below, with Elizabeth Bennet prying open a seal sans envelope to retrieve multiple folded pages of urgent news:
Tiny details such as these may trip up the modern author of Regency dramas. We have the task of accurately reproducing a world which we no longer live in. Fortunately, our love for that era, and the wide range of available resources, make such a task a joy.