For many Civil War soldiers, mail call was the highlight of the day – as is the case in many wars and for many soldiers in those wars. Handwritten letters from home served as a tie to loved ones at home – similar to letters from gold miners who wrote back to their wives or relatives back home in the Eastern United States.
Publication of these envelopes began in the early in the 1850s, when north-south divisions began to surface, but were mostly produced from early 1860 to 1862, then ended before the closing of the war. Their printing was seen as too expensive to continue while a war was being raged. These envelopes are often seen as early versions of pictorial postcards and again similar to California Pictorial Lettersheets in the Gold Rush era. The subjects illustrated varied from the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy to caricatures of war heroes as well as illustrations referring to specific states. (Look at the second link at the end of this article for a “California” envelope – showing Calafia at the Golden Gate). The envelopes are usually 3 x 5” in size, and were produced in nearly all the major cities of the north – New York and Boston being the main producers – and to a lesser extent in the South. The two illustrated from our collection do not note a printer, but this was not uncommon. In the Confederacy, paper became scarce, and the printers in the South began reusing wallpaper and book pages, also turning envelopes inside out to reuse them.
The envelopes carried patriotic slogans, some humorous and satiric images as can be seen in the one envelope illustrated here – of men falling out of a balloon basket labelled “Secession”. The other illustrated envelope shows “Lady Liberty” with the slogan “True to the stars and stripes”, another common theme and imagery for these envelopes. The illustrations were produced in many different ways: hand-colored, printed, engraved, embossed, etc. Our envelopes have the image on the front and left of the envelope – but others you will see at the links below often had images across the front, and back and often a phrase, stanza or poem along the edge or on the back. We have fourteen of these envelopes in our collection – all unaddressed but clearly showing images on the front such as: Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, John Bull, Virginia and the devil in addition to the two illustrated here. Our collection includes only pro-Union illustrations.
These illustrations used popular 19th century imagery and are valuable ephemera as research material for the time. Please look at the links below for more examples of these interesting pieces of ephemeral Civil War history – one of the links has an image of General Winfield Scott whose name is attached to the area here in the Presidio.
Patricia L. Keats, Director of Library and Archives