The first official US postage stamps were issued in 1847, and decorative envelopes were not far behind them. By the middle of the 19th century, such covers were used to spread Union and Confederate sentiments. These political envelopes began to see use in the 1850s as divisions between Northern and Southern states were shaping up, though the earlier envelopes usually focus on images without slogans.
Union envelopes often favored a 34-starred flag, a symbol of the illegitimacy of the Southern secession. Slogans often accompanied these designs, such as “we must keep the Flag where it e’er has stood,” and “Not a Star Must Fall.” Not all sentiments were so lofty. Some envelopes had designs with messages like, “If anyone attempts to haul down the flag, shoot him on the spot!” and “Hemp is better for traitors than cotton.”
Confederate senders preferred phrases like “Liberty or Death,” “Fast Colors…Warranted not to run,” and “Southern Independence.” Poetry was popular as well, with such lines as “stand firmly by your cannon. Let ball and grape-shot fly. Trust in God and Davis, and keep your Powder dry.”
In the northern states, the Union flag took on special significance, as its 34 stars implied that the Southern states had no right to secede. Putting the flag on an envelope, then, was a clear message about the sender’s feelings regarding the legitimacy of the Confederate government.
Prominent soldiers often found themselves on these envelopes. Generals Grant and McClellan were particular favorites, but Colonel Michael Corcoran of the 69th Regiment (the “Fighting Irish”) found popularity when he was captured by the Confederates for a year. Envelopes featuring Corcoran read “Sons of Erin — Let the watchword be Corcoran! Rescued if living. Avenged if dead!”
Military images also came into vogue. Corps insignia, flags, battle scenes, and more were pictured on these envelopes. Corner designs spread until they covered the entire envelope (and were the forerunner of the postcard, which became popular a few decades later.) Some envelopes ran designs in series to depict major events of the war, like Shiloh and the Battle of Gettyburg. Even the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack found its way onto these envelopes.
By the time war began in 1861, people on both sides were collecting the envelopes as mementos, often never sending them through the mail at all. According to an article in a 1943 issue of American Collector, “Car Bell, the Hartford printer, issued a cover to promote this hobby. It showed a top-hatted gent, with carpet-bag, reading a newspaper which advised: ‘A collection of Union envelopes in a few years from now will form a most valuable and pleasing curiosity, and will be sold at double the original cost.’”
Over 15,000 unique patriotic designs are known, most of which express Union sentiments. These envelopes were created by 116 known printers, working in 39 cities. Charles Magnus (in New York) and James Magee (working in Philadelphia) were the two leading producers of collectible envelopes. Magnus worked next door to the famous Currier & Ives, and his work was similar to that of the famous duo. In fact, since it is known that Currier & Ives did artwork for other firms who put their own imprints on the design, some believe that most of the designs issued under Magnus’ imprint were actually done by Currier & Ives.
James Magee, on the other hand, had an eye for profit, and realized that collectors in Northern states would pay high prices for Confederate souvenirs. He began printing fake designs in Philadelphia and selling them as genuine rebel items.
Use of these envelopes declined as the war came to an end, though they are still highly prized as collectibles, particularly the unused envelopes.