Empty Envelopes Provide a Wealth of Genealogical Data

A colleague of mine brought in a pile of old envelopes recently and asked me if they were important genealogically.  The reason for the question is that the addressed envelopes contained no content.  She assumed family had saved them because they were stamp collectors who hadn't gotten around to removing the stamps.
My answer to her was a resounding YES!  Those envelopes tell a story even though they are empty.  I suggested she first put them in chronological order based on the postmark date, if any.  Next she should try to match the envelopes to letters that she had found and store them together.  Any remaining envelopes should be examined closely for information regarding:

  • Addressee 
  • Sender
  • Postmark
  • Possible notations
  • Envelope condition
  • Handwriting
  • Type of writing utensil used
  • Cost of postage
Examining the addressee and sender aids in identifying relationships, although the type of relationship is still unknown.  Definitely don't assume the relationship was family!  I have some old letters addressed to a grandfather that had the contents.  He did not know the sender; the writer was inquiring about a device the grandfather was selling.  
Carefully analyze who the envelope was addressed to.  Was it to a Miss or Mrs.? Was a nickname used, such as Nelia for Cornelia?  How was the last name spelled?  That is extremely important if your family changed spelling.  How I wish I had envelopes for my Koss family from the mid 1920's. The name changed from Kos (in 1920) to Koss (in 1930) but when the change occurred I don't know. An envelope could assist in narrowing down the date.
Look at the addressee's residence - was it a rural route?  a city?  a county?  If the postmark is illegible or missing that information could help identify the time period.  Although the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) began in the late 1800's it was not widespread.  Prior to that, letters may have been addressed, for example, as Columbia County, New York.  That's a clue the resident lived outside of a town or city.  If the envelope was dated, check the census to see if that address was also used for the individual.  The 1940 census may show the person's home address but the envelope could provide a clue as to where the individual was staying temporarily if they don't match.  My colleague recognized an address as belonging to her grandmother but the envelope was addressed to an unknown person at that address 20 years before her grandmother's birth.  Perhaps the home belonged to a family member that she was not aware of or perhaps the envelope was found after the grandmother moved in.  I doubt the second explanation as that would not be a reason to keep an envelope with family records but who knows?!  She was the stamp collector so maybe she saved it for the stamp.  I recommended that a title search on the property be done to gain more information about the occupants.
I love postmarks because they often tell an interesting story.  If the sender's address was Connecticut and the addressee's was New York but the postmark was California either the U.S. Post Office really messed up (which unfortunately happens frequently) or the sender was in California for business or pleasure when the letter was mailed.  This could open up a whole new area to check for records!  
My mom, a product of the Great Depression, always reused envelopes as scratch paper.  Grocery lists, things to do, phone messages - check the envelope for any notations.  Although you won't for certain know who wrote the notes unless they're signed or had such a unique handwriting that you can identify without a signature, you can gain insight on the day to day lives of the family that received the letter.  One envelope my colleague had this notation printed in caps "BURN THIS AFTER READING."  Guess the receiver followed directions but we were dying to know what the contents had been.  
Now look at the envelope itself.  Is it stained?  Is it brittle?  Has the color aged?  This lets you know the conditions that affected it since it was written.  Perhaps the stain was from water - was it delivered in a rainstorm?  Did it survive a sea voyage?  Maybe a cup of tea was spilled on it as the contents were being read!  You might never discover what really happened but it sure is fun to try.
I love handwriting, mainly because mine was always criticized while growing up.  The style can give you much more information about the time period and the sender.  Was it printed, cursive, Palmer, D'Nealian, or calligraphy?  Is it legible or not?  Perhaps the writer was in a hurry to mail the contents! Handwriting can also help you match the envelope to an individual if the sender did not include his/her name in the return address.
Writing utensils can also help you identify a time period.  A ballpoint pen came into use in the late 1800's.  Prior to that fountain pens and dip pens were used.  The color of the ink can give you even more clues - the dye or pigment used could be a regional product.
The postage price can help you determine the time period.  Although we're not talking about post cards I always think of them as "penny postcards" even though they now cost 35 cents to send. I don't think they could be sent for a penny when I was a kid but that's what my family called them and that's how I still think of them.  The art on the stamp also "may" disclose information about what was important to the sender - or not!  A few years ago I became known as the "stamp girl" in my office as I would make several trips to the post office a week to mail packages my husband had sold on ebay because I was closer to the post office then he was.  I would purchase stamps for coworkers on those trips.  Some coworkers would request a certain type of stamp and others could care less.  Although you might not find out for sure if the stamp conveyed a message from the sender it might.  Remember the 1973 LOVE stamp?  If the sender was breaking up with addressee I doubt that stamp would have been used.  
Let me know if your envelope analysis unveils a genealogical gem!




  1. Lori,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-march-11.html

    Have a great weekend!

  2. I inherited from my mother my official Registration of Birth. It was sent to my mother when she moved out of state for use as an official record. I used it myself up until about 3 years ago, eg when renewing my SNAP application, since I couldn't afford the new prices on the Vital Records site. It came in a squarish envelope that is no longer mailable, with a 3 cent stamp & a postal zone, not QIP code.


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