For you young’uns who don’t know, these were internal mail envelopes used by pretty much all large organizations in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s. I’ve recently learned that some please STILL use them. (I guess their fax machines are on the blink.) You put the name of the recipient on the first available line, and the mail carrier delivered it to that person. Then that name is crossed off, and the envelope could be re-used.
They came in two types. The OG envelope had a nice little red string that you wound around a nubbin to seal the damned thing:
Later iterations had a charmless adhesive strip that lost its integrity after multiple uses. I’m tempted to refer to it as a sphincter.
I have always found these envelopes to be romantic in the literary sense of the word. By the time one reached you, it had gone on quite a journey. In a large organization, it might have travelled across the city, been privy to boring legal documents, a birthday card, or an irreverent note between coworkers. But you could visualize all the hands through which it had passed, both high and low. It had travelled.
I tweeted the image and was shocked by the response. As of now, it’s had more than 24,000 likes, about 2000 replies, been retweeted more than 1500 times, and the number of quote tweets I cannot count, as I had to stop reading them after the first couple of hundred. Some people commented that their organizations still used them. Most, though, lamented their passing, and felt as I do: that they represented something important but lost. A few offered that these envelopes were the group email of their time, and represented a kind of institutional memory and cohesion that is hard to simulate in the digital era.
Almost everyone, however, echoed my feelings in different ways. It seems we all took time to skim over the names, to appraise the handwriting and appreciate the envelope’s journey. There was also a shared sentiment that a certain good feeling was to be had when you got to start a new envelope, or be the first name on its recipient list.
It got me thinking about other things I am weirdly nostalgic about, regarding office life. I don’t think people under 40 realize just how different white collar work has become these past 25 years. I remember working in cubicles in the era before mobile phones and internet. Procrastination was soooo much harder. The water cooler culture was real, because you couldn’t retreat to social media or text your friends. You had to create a social culture right there in your work place. Not gonna lie…. it was Hell for me. I need multiple distractions in order to get something done.
I’m strangely nostalgic about fax machines (though I know some places still use them). I felt so transgressive bypassing the postal system and yet receiving and sending physical letters over the magical airwaves. And remember pneumatic tubes? My office life began during the final gasps of this technology. My physician spouse informs me, though, that it’s still in use in hospitals!
In that category I would also place the card catalogues from libraries. Now, I don’t actually miss them. A meaningful portion of my Master’s degree was wasted looking shit up in card catalogues, then spending hours looking for that one paper from 1838 deep on the 17th sub basement in the stacks, where ancient fungi had the joy of colonizing my lungs. Let’s not mention the small fortune I spent in photocopying there. The advent of computerized then web-based library archives was transformative.
Even so, despite generally hating the experience, there was something pre-postmodern and thus archaeologically romantic about skulking about those ancient stacks. Performative scholarship was its own reward. I don’t miss it. But I’m glad I experienced it.
Well, this topic sure has legs. In what is surely the peak of my internet fame, one of my boyhood idols, the one and only George Takei re-shared my post on multiple platforms: Twitter, Facebook, BlueSky, and Threads!