Enveloping Obsession : Gene Freeman of Santa Ana Has Spent Five Years Researching and Writing the History of Envelopes

One of my lingering fears in this job--aside from the thought of ever having to share a bed with 25 ventriloquist dummies again--is that someone might really put me on sometime. There I'd be, nodding earnestly as a Fixations subject was going on about his collection of toast--"Now, look at all the raisins in this 1923 slice!"--or devotion to Freddie Prinze, and the whole time he'd be making it up on the spot and laughing up his sleeve.

I had to wonder for a while if this weren't the case last week when I was talking with Gene Freeman. Though the 63-year-old retired aerospace project manager already has a track record for extremes--he has a rare book collection that's heavy on Longfellow, with some 80 copies of "Hiawatha" alone--it was a mite hard to accept the idea that he's devoted a goodsome chunk of the past five years to writing a history of envelopes . He's only three-fourths of the way through, by the way, and estimates it will weigh in at around 300 pages.

Maybe I'm limiting myself, but I haven't devoted any more thought to envelopes in my life than I have to, say, gravel or pockets or any of a great number of other items that so readily lend themselves to being taken for granted.

Freeman, though, has been pushing the envelope, making scholarly searches through obscure books, trade publications, census and patent records and a maze of microfilm to fill in the not surprisingly huge gaps in mankind's existing knowledge of the humble envelope.

It helps considerably in establishing Freeman's credibility, perhaps even his sanity, that the envelopes which first attracted his interest were not the blank bland things we know today. Rather, five years ago a Fullerton book dealer friend got him interested in Civil War-era envelopes, which were decorated with colorful patriotic art and political cartoons.

The dealer had wanted Freeman, who was then recovering from a surgery, to spend his down time writing a monograph on the envelopes. The intent was to publish a short volume that would include--as leaf books do with pages of rare books--an old envelope in each.

"I got a little carried away and didn't write a short enough thing for him to be able to afford printing it," Freeman said. "I went beyond the Civil War to give background of how they were manufactured, then a chapter on the sorts of presses used to make them."

He drew some of his inspiration to pursue the esoteric subject from Henry Petroski's book "The Pencil, A History of Design and Circumstance." It is a tour de force on its skinny subject, ranging from the engineering aspects of the pencil to ruminations on Henry David Thoreau's day job as a pencil maker. "You'll never feel the same about the pencil after you read this terrific book!" promises Larry King on its cover.

"It's a very good book, though it hasn't changed my feelings about the pencil," said Freeman, who prefers a computer. The book did show him it's possible to write engagingly on a seemingly limited subject, though he fears there was no one as interesting as Thoreau in the envelope trade.

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Jeff. Davis boasts that 'Cotton's King,'

Upon his throne so rotten,

Soon he'll find amid his swing,

that hemp is king of cotton.

So rhymes the poem gracing one wartime envelope, accompanying an illustration of a noose of Northern hemp awaiting the Confederate president. There are many similar sleeves in Freeman's collection: Davis in the noose; Davis as a skeleton; one clever illustration of him captioned "Jeff Davis going to war," which inverted instead looks like a donkey head, captioned "Jeff Davis returning from war." Another envelope depicts Satan, titled "The First Secessionist." Propaganda is eternal.

"I don't think many of them would win prizes," says Freeman, who has a dry humor more suggestive of Texas than his Louisiana birthplace.

These envelopes were a fad during the war, so much so that the market was saturated with them by 1862 (There were Southern-leaning counterparts as well). Most people bought them not to post but to save, as trading cards are today. Envelopes and postage stamps came into common use around the same time, and many then felt it was the former that would become collectors' items over time.

When was the first envelope made? Others, says Freeman, have tried and failed to answer that question, and he's not certain he'll be able to either. There also is a question of definition. In the past, some that could afford it would simply wrap their letters in another sheet of paper, which would be called an envelope. Others would hand-fold and glue paper in a fashion that resembled the modern envelope. Freeman has traced this practice back to 1694, and cites a German king having used one in 1712.

The manufactured envelope didn't come to the fore, though, until the 1840s, when changes in postal rates in England and the United States made them practicable. Before 1840 in England and 1845 here, mail was charged by the piece, and an envelope was considered a separate piece. That would not only double the cost of sending a letter, but, over distance, would cause an exponential increase, so that an enveloped letter might cost 10 times as much to send.

Curiously, the old-fashioned method of sealing a letter had involved a wafer (a mucilage product that replaced sealing wax) that might have the heft of a clay cookie. "It's funny that they charged letters by the piece, but they would accept clunky seals like that as part of the letter. In large quantities that would clearly be a disadvantage to the guy who had to carry them," Freeman noted.

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He said bureaucrats in both England and the United States resisted changing the system, predicting dire consequences. Instead, the changes spurred an entrepreneurial rush. "The 1860 (U.S.) Census here claimed some 18 companies to be solely manufacturing envelopes, which is a pretty big jump from 1845, when it was zero. In Britain they went from nobody using them to nearly everybody in six years, and it was close to that here. That's growth about as fast as Nintendo or anyone else has managed."

He has given a lot of thought to trying to figure why there was such a ready demand for the new item. "If anything, there had been a resistance to them. I've found letters from the time saying, 'I don't want to use an envelope because I don't believe in sending people my spit.' And I have courtesy (manners) books saying you shouldn't use envelopes except for certain things, and that for social correspondence, you should fold and seal your letter like a lady.

"There was some snobbish resistance, but I think it was a snobbish demand that created the rush. Most of the early use of envelopes was by ladies with the money to use them. And when society uses things, I think the masses tend to pick them up too if they can afford it. That's speculative, but there's really no other accounting for the rapid demand for them," he said.

Along with the full-time manufacturers, a great many small job printers--the precursors of today's Sir Speedy-style shops--made envelopes. Freeman has created spread sheets listing more than 350 Civil War-era makers, and one by one, he's been tracking them down. Some don't appear in any city records, and Freeman suspects they may never have existed, instead being the recent inventions of rare-envelope forgers.

Along with such frauds, he finds what little existing history there is to be fraught with inaccuracy. The common source for their information is an envelope manufacturer's trade publication, the Red Envelope, published from 1915 to 1925. The Apollo bookstore in Costa Mesa turned up an original set of these magazines for Freeman, and he finds them well-intentioned but packed with errors.

For example, Freeman's diligence has turned up an ad for pre-gummed adhesive security envelopes "capable of being securely fastened without wax or wafers" in the New York Mercantile Registry of 1848.

"That's 10 years before this reference says they were first made," Freeman said. "So it's really not a very accurate history, but unfortunately it's the only one, and everyone has used it as a reference, making a big perpetuation of these inaccuracies."

Boy, Gene, it looks like you're really going to shatter some myths here.

"Yeah, to the seven or eight people interested in it," he replied.

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When completed he thinks the book has a fair chance of being published by the University of Virginia Press, since it has made a specialty of Civil War studies and the university has a school of printing arts. He thinks his book will be the first to have much information on the job printers in the envelope trade.

In the meanwhile, Freeman averages a day a week in his studies, poring over microfilm or old texts at the L.A. main Public Library or the Huntington Library, corresponding with the British Museum and other far-flung sources or digging into the rare books that fill the shelves of his home.

In one place he might find an anecdotal claim of an envelope being patented in Sardinia in 1823, in another an account of a U.S. postal auditor noting in 1842 that, "Pockets, which are the same as envelopes, are now coming into use."

Lately he's been spending more time poring over old census records tracking down those 350 Civil War envelope makers. "It's very tedious work, nothing pleasant about it, trying to run down all this information," he says.

He's says he hopes his own book will be more bearable.

"I try to sneak a little humor in, but it's very hard not to be excessively boring when you're writing trade histories. Most of my writing has been in the aerospace industry, and that has been as dispassionate and dull as you can get, straight technical writing."

He anticipates the book will be finished this year. Some folks go into a mood slump when they finally complete a long project, but Freeman isn't allowing any time for that.

"No, I'm going to do a book on the history of dictionaries. I've written a bunch of chapters already. And that's almost impossible to make interesting. I'm really trying to find a way to make it something that won't be massively dull."

* Are you fixated? If so, please let us know by writing to: Fixations, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Please include your phone number.

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