How to Post a Letter, 19th Century Style

Letter from Professor B. Lilliman (New Haven, CT) to Joseph B. Felt, Esq. (Boston, MA). Dated March 17, 1840. ISU Library Special Collections, American Statistical Association collection.

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, here is an example of an historical letter from the early 19th century, followed by a tutorial about how to post a (love) letter in the manner of that time period.  Envelopes came into vogue in the United States around the time of the Civil War.  Before that, letters were written on a folio of paper (a double-wide piece of paper folded down the center).  The contents of the letter were written on the front side (recto) of the first leaf.

Recto of the first leaf, on which the letter was written.

The second leaf of the folio wrapped around the first leaf, forming a protective enclosure, which could then be sealed with sealing wax and addressed to the recipient.  The return address was usually written just above the wax seal, while the recipient’s address was written on the opposite side of the folded packet.  Because of the way the letter was folded, both addresses ended up being written on the back side (verso) of the second leaf of the original folio.

Verso of the second leaf of the folio.

The post office stamped its mark over the recipient’s address, and no postage stamps were used because, at that time, the standard protocol was for the recipient to pay upon delivery of the letter.  Postage stamps first appeared in the U.S. in the 1840s, and only came into popular use during the second half of the 19th century.

Archival letters from this time period often have tears and losses corresponding to where the sealing wax had held them shut; the paper tore when the recipient opened the letter.  Often, the inside of the folio was left blank.  Sometimes, longer letters were continued onto the verso of the first leaf.

Inside of the folio.

How To Create Your Own 19th-century Style Letter

  • Start with a sheet of 11″ x 17″ paper.  Fold the paper in half along the center, resulting in a folio that is 8 1/2″ x 11″.

  • Write your letter on the recto of the first leaf of the folio.

  • Folding the first leaf only, make a lengthwise crease at slightly less than one-third of the width.

  • Now, crease the folded first leaf in half lengthwise.

  • Rotate the letter one quarter turn, so that the folded letter is now across the top.  Fold in the right edge of both leaves to the center of the folio.  Repeat on the left.

  • Turn the letter one quarter turn again, so the folded-up letter is on the right.  Fold the letter in toward the center of the “envelope” and crease.

  • Fold the letter over to the left once more to crease the small flap down.  Address the letter to your Valentine.

  • Flip the letter over and write your return address on the flap.  Seal the flap shut with sealing wax or an adhesive sticker.

Happy Valentine’s Day!



  1. Thank you for this, it also explains the origin of the 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper that we use today!

    1. The resulting ‘envelope’ is about 5 1/2 x 3 3/4 inch: well within the limits of the USPS (USPS minimum envelope size is 3 1/2 x 5 inches)

  2. Thank you! I truly enjoyed your article regarding the historical letter and how it was folded.

    I have in my collection letters that were written on single sheets of paper versus the folio. The folding of my lettersheets is from top to bottom with the edges meeting in the middle. The opposite sides are folded approximately one third of the way each, and one side inserted into the other to secure the letter. The sealing wax was inserted into the flap and stamped from the outside. There is no wax seal on the outside of my letters. When opened, the wax often tore a small hole in the letter itself. Paper was quite expensive, so this was more than likely a way to conserve and still send a letter.

  3. Lady Tedone,
    My grandmother taught me letter folding as a child, 50 years back, and in my personal letters I have yet to ever make use of an envelope. It is a source of both fascination and curiosity to most of my friends, all of whom profess the same quirk, WHY?
    Why? Because it is fun! and durable (using the right paper of course).
    And yes, the joy of finding something in one’s mailbox other than bills, demands, and useless junk of current everyday advertising. With your permission, tag me and I would be more than pleased to send you a thank you for the pleasant surprise of landing on this page. Cordialement, Christian

  4. I once tried a similar fold, but only had A4 sized paper. It made for a pretty adorable mini letter.

    I haven’t tried sending one that size through the postal system. I imagine it would make it through fine most times, but might have a slightly higher chance getting lost in the mailing system than a normal sized envelope.

    1. Whoops, I guessed wrong. The resulting mini “envelope” is too small for the US postal system. Oh well!

  5. Hi Melissa, This is a great article. It was good fun and clear to follow, and has helped me to understand where bits of damage due to a seal can occur in historic letters. I have just one suggestion which is that I don’t quite agree with the third comment from the end, just above the fourth image from the end: where it says, “Fold the letter in toward the center of the “envelope” and crease” I would add, “then make a second fold in the same direction to complete the “wrap” effect.” (It’s just possible that you may have intended to imply this in the next “Flip the letter over” instruction but it is not explicit. However, I don’t see how it would work without this step.)

    Here’s the link to the Zooniverse project I’m engaged with, transcribing antislavery letters from the 19th century in collaboration with Boston Public Library, so as to help get their manuscripts into digital, text-searchable format.

    I’ve cited your website in a post I’ve just done on our talk pages. 🙂


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