Civil War Envelopes
Publication of Civil War envelopes began as early as the mid-1850's, when north-south divisions began to take shape, but ended prior to the war's conclusion because most believed that it was too indulgent and expensive to continue production in a time of war. These Civil War envelopes, some of which have been called early versions of pictorial postcards, were very popular with collectors of patriotic propaganda. The subjects illustrated on these envelopes varied from the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, to caricatures of important war heroes. Though popular with collectors, these envelopes are a very underutilized source of Civil War iconography. The majority of the envelopes are about 3 x 5" in size, and were published in nearly all of the major cities, with New York and Boston being the largest producers. They were first created for use in the mail, as the production of envelopes became faster and easier. In the Confederacy, paper had become scarce during the war, which prompted Southerners to turn to reusing wallpaper and book pages to create envelopes, as well as turn envelopes inside out to reuse them.
The American Antiquarian Society's collection of Civil War envelopes is a nice representation of the various styles and political themes that were popular during the Civil War era. The decorations on these envelopes are done in every way imaginable: hand-colored, printed, engraved, embossed, etc. Sometimes the illustration was small and in one corner on the front of the envelope, and other times covered both sides and included a poem or stanzas from a song.
The collection includes envelopes with illustrations of flags, Coat of Arms, various poses of patriotic women and men, portraits of war-time figures, and caricatures of animals and war themes. There are a total of nine boxes, that include approximately 4,000 envelopes, as well as a notebook of cut-outs from other Civil War envelopes, and a Union and Pacific Album Illustrated Envelope Holder, published in Boston in 1861.
The collection is fully cataloged online in the General Catalog.
All Civil War envelopes in the collection are also digitally available in Readex's American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I under "Civil War envelopes." This resource is available onsite at AAS and via subscription from Readex.
-Terri Tremblay, Assistant Curator of Graphic Arts