On the Perry Como Show, which began back in 1955, the chorus customarily sang: “Letters, we get letters. We get stacks and stacks of letters.” However, during the Regency Period, the mail was expensive. MPs were the only ones who had a “free” ride for the mail delivery. Until 1840, MPs could “frank” their own letters, but they were supposed only to use this privilege for letters dealing with business for the Crown. That did not stop MPs from leaving pre-franked sheets with a friend for that friend’s personal use; therefore, the system was not perfect. Wax seals were used for the MPs letters.
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Edmund tells Fanny to have a friend or relative who was an MP to frank the letter for her and, hence, save the Price family from the cost of the letter. “As your uncle will frank it, it will cost William nothing.”’ Somewhere, I added the following quote to my stacks of research. (I wish I knew where to provide credit for the information. I apologize to the original blogger.) “There is a fashion in letter-paper and envelopes which is ever varying as to size and shape–sometimes small, at other times large; now oblong, now square; but one thing never alters, and that is the desirability of using good thick paper and envelopes, whatever shape may be. Nothing looks more mean and untidy than thin sheets and envelopes of the same quality, through which the writing exhibits itself.”
Prior to the introduction of uniform penny postage in 1840, very few letters were sent in envelopes, as the extra paper for the envelope counted as another sheet and cost extra. By 1855, however, it was estimated that 93% if domestic letters were sent in envelopes. One can find a large number of examples of early letters for the aristocracy, the gentry, and for merchants. Fewer are available for those of the lower classes. Lack of literacy was one reason, and let’s face it, if a person of the peasant class had a haypence available, he would use it for food, not to send a letter.
Postage was based on the number of miles the letter traveled from point A to point B and the number of sheets, as mentioned above. The paper that one folded and sealed was one item. Even one tiny slip of paper inside counted as a second item, doubling the cost. Recipients paid, rather than the sender of the letter. Naturally, the person receiving the letter could refuse it and send it back to the sender.
Remember Elvis Presley’s hit “Return to Sender”? Same idea…
Return to sender, return to sender
I gave a letter to the postman, he put it his sack
Bright in early next morning, he brought my letter back
She wrote upon it
Return to sender, address unknown
No such number, no such zone
These were the going rates for a single page: fourpence for the first fifteen miles, eightpence for eighty miles, etc., etc., up to seventeen pence for a letter covering seven hundred miles. Additional pages increased the price accordingly. Afterward, costs were standardized and based on weight instead of distance times number of enclosures.
To save on the expense of sending a letter, people developed their own form of “Tweeting.” Abbreviations saved space. Often the writer would “cross” the letter, which meant turning the letter at right angles and writing between the previously written words. Sometimes, they turned it again and again. One could spend hours figuring out what the letter said.
A “two penny post,” which was developed for mail delivery within London proper, was separate from the General Post Office, which dealt with the national mail. There were designated shops for dropping off the mail. As with the writing of the letter, abbreviations were used as part of the address/directions to speed the delivery: “W” for the West End; “N” for north of the Old City, etc.
After 1840, a person could send a letter anywhere in England for the cost of one penny. Railroads sped the delivery system and made the mail service more economical. Also, before 1840 envelopes were generally not used. In Jane Austen’s stories, her characters use a wafer to seal the letters. A wafer was small disk made of flour and gum. A person would lick the wafer and stick it to the folded sheet of writing to form the envelope. Those of the upper class used seals. It was melted and applied to the letter. Commonly, red seals were used for business and other colors for social correspondence. Black was a sign of death and mourning.
I thought you might also find these two articles helpful:
From Shannon Donnelly on Postal History:
An article posted by the British Museum notes (https://postalheritage.wordpress.com/tag/envelopes/