My Hand-illustrated Envelopes
by Collector Allan Weiss
I got started collecting the hand-illustrated envelopes when a stamp dealer friend showed me 10-12 of Gladys Adler’s hand-illustrated envelopes with ladies in fancy hats. He knew my interest in folk art and asked me, “Are these folk art?” I had never seen anything like them before and they got my interest. My mother was in a nursing home and I thought the envelopes with the hats would entertain her for a few days so I bought the whole group. The envelopes became a hit at the nursing home and stayed there for a couple of weeks. They brought back fond memories for the ladies as they all had worn that type of hat in their younger days. Since then my collection has grown to well over 1,500. I never collected just a few of anything.
Hand-illustrated envelopes bring together the worlds of folk art, postal history, and ephemera; Folk Art, as these are idiosyncratic and done by ordinary people who liked drawing and wanted to show their skills on correspondence with friends and family; Postal history, as the postmarks and stamps tell a story to the philatelist; and ephemera as the envelopes were not done as a lasting object – fortunately, some survived. The drawings on the envelopes must have entertained many people as they passed through the postal service when mail was still sorted by hand and the postman became a family friend.
Why Art Matters on Envelopes
There may be almost as many reasons someone decorated envelopes as there are decorated envelopes. Collectors can rarely learn much about the people who decorated their envelopes; however, their art reveals much about them. While their artistic ability is plain to see, their art reveals glimpses of their personal life – their interests and what was important to them.
An examination of envelopes tells us a great deal. Some are political much like early broadsides. Other envelopes memorialized trips, birthdays, special events, special messages of love, holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day, or just the writer’s personal interests.
Many artists incorporated special cancellations to add to the art of their hand-illustrated envelopes. It was a common practice for some envelope artist to draw a picture related to the name of the town and send the envelope to the Postmaster for it to be cancelled and mailed from the town. As an example, the Postmaster of St. Patrick, Missouri was a Priest who got many requests for a special cancellation on St. Patrick’s Day. He had a form letter which requested the artist send 3 cents in coins rather than pre-stamp the envelope as the sale of stamps was used to help support the parish. Gladys Adler and her daughter Florene Edmiston did the same thing with ladies’ names. Christmas letters were mailed from Santa Claus, IN or Christmas, FL; and Halloween letters from Witch, KY.
The World of Postal Ephemera
A little history of mail and envelopes will help explain this genre of folk art. Prior to 1840, letters were folded, held in place by a wax stamp, and postage was marked on the folded letter. The adhesive postage stamp was invented by Sir Rowland Hill in Great Britain and first used in 1840. To encourage people to use postage stamps, William Mulready, an English artist and a member of the Royal Academy, was commissioned to design decorated letter sheets and envelopes. Postage was now based on weight, rather than distance, making possible the pre-payment of postage. On the whole, letter writing increased significantly.
Soon afterwards, the figures on Mulready letter sheets and envelopes began to be embellished with beards, mustaches, and other simple additions. Other artists of the time created caricatures, propaganda for temperance, peace, anti-slavery, and politics. The use of “envelope” as a noun followed the use of envelope as a verb—to surround and protect. Philatelists in this country call an envelope that has been postally used a cover. The British still use the word envelope, which I believe is the best term to use for the material which accompanies this short essay about art. The term cover would be more appropriate for an article about philately. I have made an arbitrary, but what I hope is an educated, decision to exclude First Day Covers and similar envelopes—which are primarily philatelic in nature—even if done by hand, rather than exchanging a personal message or thought.
Letter Writing Heyday
Letter writing had an explosion with the advent of postage stamps, and mail quickly became the warp and woof in the fabric of personal communication in Europe and the United States. Decorating envelopes by hand swiftly became a hobby and it continues today. The Victorian Era in England brought with it an explosion of decorated envelopes from the British colonies around the world. The earliest known hand-illustrated envelope is from New Zealand, dated May 23, 1855. Another early example is part of the Appleby correspondence that took place in Australia between 1912 and 1914.
As America’s population expanded geographically, letters were the only manner in which families and friends could keep in contact. Telephones were invented in 1876 but did not become a regular part of a household until the early 1900s. Long distance calls were very expensive, even through the 1950s, and were used only for important messages such a birth, death, or other important family events. The importance of the mail is best escribed in the following:
Messenger of sympathy and love, Servant of parted friends, Consoler of the lonely, Bond of the scattered family, Enlarger of the common life. – Charles W. Eliot, Inscription on Southeast corner of Post-office, Washington, D.C.
Many people had pen pals, who were people you got to know though friendly correspondence. School children were introduced to pen pals at an early age, and letters were used as an adjunct to teaching penmanship and spelling. And the ever-beautiful love letters at the start of the 20th century, and what some illustrators did to show they were thinking of the women they loved, made hearts melt as shown.
If a collector is lucky, they may find a letter in an envelope. Some letters detail suffering for weeks and weeks with the “croup” – what we now call a cold or the flu. This was before antibiotics, when today’s comparatively minor ailment could last for weeks and even months. Stories of the trying times over the past century bring it all to life through the words of the people who lived it.
Artwork Cover Exchange
Leonard J. Turley (January 27, 1893 – June 14, 1980) of Louisville, Kentucky, founded the Art Cover Exchange (ACE) in 1934. It was formed for sole the purpose of using covers (envelopes) to exchange art work, sometimes accompanied by a letter. The Art Cover Exchange combined Leonard Turley’s interest in art, correspondence, and philately. There’s also artwork from Keisuke C. Kanoh, an ACE member in Tokyo, Japan.
Each ACE member had a number assigned to them and was always included on the cover. This was a way of identifying the artist if there was no return address on the cover. Leonard Turley was ACE 1. ACE Officers were elected by January, 1935, and the Art Cover Exchange grew to over 400 members worldwide by the end of World War II. There were members from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Canada and several other countries. Leonard Turley was also a member of the Patriotic Cover Exchange Club. The Art Cover Exchange slowly dissolved after the end of World War II but was revitalized by Leonard Turley’s granddaughter in 1985, and remains active today. (visit artcoverexchange.org)
Patriotic envelopes and cartoons by soldiers came with every war, and as early as the Civil War. Most of the surviving examples are those done by the soldiers and sent home, as it was difficult for the soldiers serving in combat and in outposts to preserve them. An exception to this is a collection in the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. These are the subject of a book, Mail Art, by Nancy Myers Hopkins, which documents the hand-illustrated envelopes done by her Grandfather and sent to her Father during WWI. The story of how these survived is remarkable. After being lost in the midst of combat in France, Private Walter L. Myers’ kit bag, which contained the envelopes, was found and returned to him. Some examples from WWI are seen here. Two other books that preserved personal correspondence and hand-illustrated envelopes are A Romance in Watercolor, by Charles D. Wrege and World War II Envelope Art of Cecile Cowdrey, by Robin Berg. A few examples from WW II are shown as well.
Thoughts on Communication by Paper
Radio was in its infancy with the first news cast in August, 1920. Public entertainment, mostly music, quickly followed. Early radio stations had a range from 100 to several hundred miles, so broadcasts were all local. One could listen to the radio and draw at the same time (a pastime not generally possible while watching television). In the 1930s and 1940s tuberculosis was a dreaded disease, and people with tuberculosis were completely isolated from their families and the outside world in TB sanitoriums. But radios were everywhere, including TB sanitoriums. Some of the patients in the sanitorium at The Dalles, Oregon, and Hamilton, Ontario were members of ACE and were avid correspondents.
In my mind these are truly a folk art tradition and fit all of the academic and collector definitions of folk art. It is important to preserve the envelopes as they represent an important story of the late 1800s up to the end of WWII. The letters, when they survive, tell an even more important story of he times. These letters are people telling their own story in their own words, not a historian writing about how things were in the past. It is one thing for a historian to tell us people were poor and did not have much in the 1930s but the story has a different attentiveness when a lady writes her friend and excitedly reports she got a new veil and two pairs of stocking for Christmas.
In 2008 the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute did a major three month exhibition of the collection. In 2017, I did a exhibition of about 280 envelopes (early 1930s to 1948) by five Texas folk artists at Texas Folklife in Austin, TX. I have from time to time exhibited the envelopes at stamp shows but they get much more appreciation in the art world. I encourage everyone to take a moment and go through the correspondence of their grandparents and great-grandparents. This is where human history was recorded.