The Document That Portended a Revolution in Postal History and Practice in the US: The Original Patent for the First American Envelope-making Machine, Signed by Secretary of State James Buchanan

The entire patent language is present, describing the invention

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Such machines ended the previous age-old practice of sending letters with the recipient’s name and address on the back of the same sheet

The practice of enclosing letters in separate sealed covers (envelopes) is a fairly recent development. For ages letters were folded, turned over, and the recipient’s name and address written...

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The Document That Portended a Revolution in Postal History and Practice in the US: The Original Patent for the First American Envelope-making Machine, Signed by Secretary of State James Buchanan

The entire patent language is present, describing the invention

Such machines ended the previous age-old practice of sending letters with the recipient’s name and address on the back of the same sheet

The practice of enclosing letters in separate sealed covers (envelopes) is a fairly recent development. For ages letters were folded, turned over, and the recipient’s name and address written on the back of the same sheet of paper. These were called address panels, and they used sealing wax to keep the folds in place. In the 1840s, the idea arose of covering a letter by folding a separate sheet about it to physically protect it and prevent infringement of confidentiality.

Americans Jesse K. Park and Cornelius S. Watson patented the first American envelope folding machine in 1849. Little is known of the inventors, but they transferred their rights to William W. Rose, a manufacturer with offices in Wall Street, so likely they were inventing this machine at his behest and with his financing. Their treadle-operated, foot-powered folder first glued and then creased and folded the envelopes. Park and Watson were granted patent number 6055 on January 23, 1849. That machine is now at the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.

Document signed, four full pages, Washington, January 23, 1849, being the patent, plus attached copy of the description and claim, for his historic invention, signed by James Buchanan as Secretary of State and Edmund Burke as Commissioner of Patents. The Journal of the Franklin Institute from 1849 records patents issued that year. In January 1849, this patent is listed as number 63. It summarizes the patent and claim as follows: “For an Improvement in Machines for Making Envelopes, William W Rose assignee of J.K. Park and Cornelius S. Watson, City of New York January 23. The patentee says: “The nature of my invention consists in the combining and arranging in a table or frame certain levers or treadles having upright sliding bars connected thereto for stamping or creasing the paper for envelopes and gumming the edges of the same with a folder frame and folders attached in such manner as when the treadles are operated upon by the attendant of the machine the paper is gummed and folded into envelopes at one operation.

“Claim: What I claim as my invention is the invention herein described for making envelopes the same consisting of the stamper rod the gumming apparatus and the folding apparatus.”

This is clearly one of the most important, if not most important, moments of invention in U.S. postal history.  It was not until the mid-1850s that envelope-making machines were perfected and envelopes came into common use. By the Civil War, they were the rule rather than the exception.

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