Hey all! My various academic, theatrical, and employment commitments are through, and now it’s summertime! Which means I should, in theory, have more time to dedicate to little blogthing here. I’m doing some housekeeping, and there will be some changes in the blog format – namely posts will be a lot shorter. This will hopefully allow me to update more frequently. Also, to be honest, I doubt any of you had the time or inclination to read those massive 10-page research assignments I’ve been posting.
Also, tidied up a few broken links and images in previous posts.
So here’s a little something I starting working on a few months ago, but only just got around to finishing.
Yale University Inter-Departmental Mail.
A paper I wrote a while back was finally returned to me in one of these reusable manila mailer envelopes (or as a 5-year-old John Yates once called them, “Vanilla Envelopes”). I’ve always liked manila envelopes for their clean, simple functionality. Sturdy enough to protect a sizable stack of documents, yet light enough to not add big bucks to your postage rate. Just the right size for standard 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper to fit snugly, without the folding necessary for conventional envelopes. And they come in that unmistakable yellowy-tan hue.
I was thinking to myself recently, why do they only come in that color? And why are they called ‘manila envelopes’? Something to do with the Phillipines? A bit of research says yes, in a sense. Manila envelopes (and manila paper in general) were once made of a fibrous South-East Asian plant known as Manila Hemp, also called Abacá. The sturdy hay-colored fibers imparted their signature color to the paper pulp.
Manila Hemp Fibers - Ew. Looks like a bunch of blond wigs.
Nowadays, the envelopes are made out of plain old bleached wood pulp like most consumer paper. The envelopes are colorless, and modern manufacturers actually add that yellow coloring as a dye. It seems the distinct color remains, even after the material change, the essential marker of a product as a “manila envelope” instead of just a “big envelope.” This incidental, non-functional feature is added to a new product whose materials and manufacture longer require this feature – simply out of convention and consumer comfort, it seems.
Reminds me of how digital cameras play a faux “shutter click” sound effect from their speakers when a picture is taken, even though the camera no longer contains any actual moving shutter mechanisms.
Manila envelopes are also great for their re-usability. Unlike conventional envelopes with their lick-and-tear system, most manila mailers have a re-sealable brad or string clasp. Plus, in either their hemp or wood pulp construction, they’re sturdy enough to last through dozens of mailings.
However their recyclable use is hampered by one simple problem: the to/from address slots can only be filled once, and it takes only a few rounds of scratching out old addresses with Sharpie and re-addressing before the front of the envelope is a scribbly overwritten mess, unusable as a mailer, although still structurally sound.
And thus most manila envelopes are thrown out or relegated to secondary uses, such as the storage of news clippings or old Christmas Cards. Few companies or individuals want to be the ones who send their materials in clearly salvaged second-hand envelopes. We like crisp new packages. When was the last time you received mail in a used envelope?
Simple grid format.
The inter-departmental mailer solves all these issues with its gridded ledger of Date/To/From slots. Once delivered, the new owner of the envelope need simply fill out the next entry line, and the envelope is on its way.
This creates an interesting six-degrees-of-separation scenario, in which one can construct a backwards “she sent to him who sent to her who sent to me” timeline, often complete with dates. A network is created between strangers, linked only by the fact that the same envelope passed through their hands. One is left to imagine what different items the envelope might have held at each step – and one may even recognize names from much earlier in the ledger, revealing previously unknown connections with mutual friends.
On my envelope, the original sender’s name has been obscured. The earliest recognizable transaction was from “Visitor Services” of the Kahn Building (aka the Yale Art Gallery), to a “John Gordon” in the American Decorative Arts department. A Yale staff search reveals a John Stuart Gordon, a curator of American design & decorative arts in the process of receiving his PhD from Boston University.
My new friend.
According to his C.V., Mr. Gordon once delivered a series of lectures on the design and history of the modern cocktail shaker, which sounds pretty neat to me. What did he receive in this envelope from Visitor Services? What did he send in it on the next leg of the journey? I’ll never know. But I do know we’re connected by one long fiber in the massive web of modern human communication.