Patriotic Envelopes of
the Civil War
Marketing tools in the conflict between North and South
As Joseph E. Johnston led his Confederate troops into bloody battle against Irvin McDowell’s Union soldiers in the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, hundreds of miles away, in the safety of their homes, wives and mothers penned letters of undying love, support and devotion to their brave men fighting for the North and the South.
And as they placed their correspondence inside colorfully decorated envelopes, and sealed them with a kiss or perhaps a spritz of perfume, these women could only hope that their notes would reach the intended recipients.
Those envelopes, however, were designed for more than just holding letters. They served as propaganda pieces to sway support for one side or the other, and to bolster partisan spirit among the populace.
“It’s a strictly private, non-governmental activity. It’s all done by printers saying, ‘Gee. I can make some money,’” said Steven Boyd, UTSA history professor and author of Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War: The Iconography of Union and Confederate Covers (Louisiana State University Press). A “cover,” in stamp-collecting terms, is simply the envelope or packet on which a stamp is affixed.
“There are flags on the envelopes to support the Union. On one [envelope], ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is printed on the back, and another one has the history of the American flag,” Boyd added. “It shows the 12 different flags that had flown over the American nation over time.”
“Half of the pictures of women on patriotic covers show this very beautiful female dressed in a red, white and blue dress … and if you look at the slogans and mottos, they say, ‘God Bless Our Union’ or ‘for God and Country.’”
Ornate in design, the envelopes were also created to tug at the heartstrings of soldiers, encouraging them to put up a good fight all in the name of honor, duty and nation.
“There’s a whole series of ‘the-girl-I-left-behind’ designs that show an image of the women and children left at home,” Boyd said. “It’s all designed to highlight the women’s role, which is to support their husbands, sons and fathers going off to war.”
“A famous one shows ‘Quaker Jane’ handing a rifle to ‘Quaker Jim,’ saying to him, ‘Support the Union.’ The pacifism of Quakers is being parodied there and it’s saying, ‘Look, we have an obligation.’ There’s a printer in Ohio who did poem covers. It’s very sappy, but the covers are designed to be sent to your man in uniform to tell him you’re doing fine at home, to keep his morale up, to remind him you’re thinking of him and assure him you’ll be there when he comes home.”
Boyd’s book has been 25 years in the making, he said, although his interest in collecting patriotic envelopes of the Civil War began in graduate school when he purchased his first one for $3 in an antique store.
While patriotic envelopes were used to inspire loyalty to either the Union or the Confederacy, they inadvertently served other social purposes.
“I happened to see it, and I thought ‘that’s kind of neat, how interesting,’” he said. “It was a soldier’s letter. It was hand-carried. It wasn’t mailed.”
The idea for the book came about through a university project in 1980 in which the professor was asked to mentor two graduate students. He assigned them the task of researching patriotic envelopes. After the research ended with the publication of a jointly authored article, Boyd continued to gather information about Civil War envelopes.
His interest in the subject led to the publication of a book that features more than 180 color illustrations of some of the 15,000 pro-Union and 250 pro-Confederate designs that appeared on envelopes between 1861 and 1865.
Interestingly, the envelopes were also part of popular culture of the day and were saved as souvenirs.
“They were marketed that way, and there was actually an album created as a way to save them. You could buy them and save them rather than mail them,” Boyd said, adding that saving the envelopes also led to stamp collecting. “The first mention of collecting stamps is tied to these albums that were created to save these envelopes and put them away or display them in your parlor.”
For anyone interested in purchasing a Civil War-era envelope, they are more affordable than you might think. An unused Union envelope can be purchased online for as little as $5. However, a used Confederate envelope can cost $300 to $3,000, and that’s “because there are virtually no un-mailed [envelopes] anymore,” Boyd said.
While patriotic envelopes were used to inspire loyalty to either the Union or the Confederacy, they inadvertently served other social purposes, such as acquainting Americans to different types of people whom they had never seen before.
“It is probably the first time that tens of thousands of Americans saw an image of an African American,” Boyd said. “They simply had never seen such a person before. And, therefore, it exposed white, middle-class America to the reality of black people.”
Patriotic envelopes were also used to educate the masses about the war, and, in fact, served almost a photojournalistic role.
“There’s all kinds of covers printed, for example, that show the Battle of Gettysburg or Bull Run, and that are sold to soldiers through camp sutlers to write home and tell their loved ones or their family about news of the war,” Boyd said. (A sutler is a merchant who sells provisions to soldiers in the field.) “You get news in the newspapers, but you don’t get much about the war because what you get is pictures after the battle is over that may or not make it into Harper’s Weekly. So patriotic covers in terms of battle scenes tell you about what’s happening in the war.”
Patriotic envelopes proved to be a lucrative business for printers, especially those in the North, who marketed them to both civilians and troops.
“Printers would put together a packet with very ornately drawn covers, and they would sell you 10 envelopes and 10 letter sheets with comparable designs,” Boyd said. “They would put a pencil in it and sell it all for 25 cents.”
However, while printers from the North prospered from selling these envelopes until the end of the Civil War, printers from the South did not fare as well.
“They simply ran out of supplies,” Boyd said, attributing that to the Union blockade of the South, and to the fact that the South did not have as many manufacturing facilities as the North. “They’re out of paper, they’re out of ink, they’re out of dyes.”
While Boyd had to purchase some of the Union envelopes for his book because he wanted to include a specific image that was not available online, he doesn’t plan to collect any more.
“I own a bunch of them, and I’ll eventually get rid of them because I’m 64 years old, and I’m looking at my house and thinking my bookshelves are a mess right now,” he said, laughing.