I will continue with my series about the collection of artifacts in ‘The Lincoln Room’ at the funeral home by focusing on several envelopes from the 1860’s that my father, George Spear, collected. I had to do some research on them and found some great information in a book, Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War, by Steven Boyd as well as a National Geographic article.
Dad always explained that the envelopes were a rudimentary form of political campaigning, much like the bumper stickers or yards signs we see today. We are all familiar with the Lincoln-Douglas debates since one was held in Washington Park in Quincy. Most people assume that they were part of the Presidential Campaign of 1860 in which both Lincoln and Douglas participated, and in which the national issues of slavery, union and states’ rights were debated. However, the debates were actually 1858 Illinois Senate debates. During the 1860 campaign, Lincoln did not leave Springfield and travel around the country campaigning as is popular today. He stayed in Springfield and his political friends were the ones that carried his messages throughout the country.
The practice of using envelopes first came about in the 1860 campaign because of new postage laws. While we hardly think of an envelope as a luxury when mailing letters, until the mid-19th century, postage in the United States was charged by the sheet, so the most efficient method was folding the letter and sealing it with a wax seal. By 1851 the country established a flat 3-cent rate for mail under a half ounce traveling less than 3000 miles. Newly developed printing and folding machines helped envelopes become common. Many decided that, since it would not cost any more to use an envelope, the extra security was worth the small expense.
It didn’t take long for all four candidates in 1860 to utilize this new form of advertising. Only small campaign buttons or pins were more widely distributed than envelopes.
One of our envelopes is a very clear and popular Lincoln piece printed by Samuel Raynor, a well-known New York City printer who specialized in envelopes and designed for all four candidates. The young looking, beardless Lincoln is depicted surrounded by garland with an Eagle above clutching a ribbon with his name. (All of the candidates’ envelopes had some form of this image.) Several flags surround a banner listing both Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin.
A variation that appears on Lincoln’s piece that set it apart was another image, that of Lincoln as ‘the rail-splitter’ with a log cabin in the background. Underneath was inscribed, “Constitution and the Union—Harmony and Prosperity to all” – Lincoln. Each candidate had some form of slogan associated with his envelope, but the image on Lincoln’s was to further influence one who saw it. The log cabin was an obvious reminder of Lincoln’s humble boyhood roots in Kentucky, while the rail-splitter showed that he was strong and energetic, traits that would appeal to voters. This envelope was mailed in November of 1860.
The second envelope, also from the 1860 campaign because of the beardless depiction of Lincoln, was not mailed until 1863. This featured the picture of Lincoln as well as a picture of Lincoln on his flatboat with the inscription underneath, “Honest Abe Lincoln on his flatboat”. This envelope was published by Louis Bianclair in Chicago.
By this time envelopes were in widespread use because of the Civil War and the 2.6 million Union Army and roughly a million Confederate Army soldiers mailing letters home. It didn’t take much for the printers to realize that making patriotic envelopes was a way for everyone to show patriotism, not unlike how we hang flags, use bumper stickers or wear flag lapel pins today. Southern folks many times had Jefferson Davis depicted while the North included Lincoln as being symbols of their respective causes. “Soldiers and civilians alike reached for a new kind of envelope, freshly printed and decorated with red and blue flags, delicate engravings of eagles, poems about the girl left behind, or the faces of generals, whom people at home might never have seen.”
Our final envelope was issued in 1865 after the death of Lincoln and was a memorial envelope. I could not find that the practice of sending a black bordered envelope with news of the passing of someone was widespread until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, so this is a precursor to what became a very common practice among wealthy families. One could not email, text or call with ‘the news’, so a letter was the most common way to spread the word to out of town relatives and friends. In this case, it was not black bordered as an announcement but was more of a tribute with the words “We Cherish His Memory” engraved above a black ringed portrait. This particular letter was mailed May 16, 1865, one month after the death. Some unique items associated with it are the address (Cheshire, England, Europe) as well as a notice on the back of the envelope that it was sent by a congressman and was ‘franked’, the practice of allowing free postage to congressmen.
I will continue my blog ‘tour’ of The Lincoln Room with examples of newspapers from the week of Lincoln’s death and funerals, items that were distributed as ‘souvenirs’ for the services, and some miscellaneous historical postcards and pictures that Dad acquired.