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Enveloping Obsession : Gene Freeman of Santa Ana Has Spent Five Years Researching and Writing the History of Envelopes

May 17, 1994|JIM WASHBURN

SANTA ANA — One of my lingering fears in this job--aside from the thought of ever having to share a bed with 25 ventriloquist dummies again--is that someone might really put me on sometime. There I'd be, nodding earnestly as a Fixations subject was going on about his collection of toast--"Now, look at all the raisins in this 1923 slice!"--or devotion to Freddie Prinze, and the whole time he'd be making it up on the spot and laughing up his sleeve.

I had to wonder for a while if this weren't the case last week when I was talking with Gene Freeman. Though the 63-year-old retired aerospace project manager already has a track record for extremes--he has a rare book collection that's heavy on Longfellow, with some 80 copies of "Hiawatha" alone--it was a mite hard to accept the idea that he's devoted a goodsome chunk of the past five years to writing a history of envelopes . He's only three-fourths of the way through, by the way, and estimates it will weigh in at around 300 pages.

Maybe I'm limiting myself, but I haven't devoted any more thought to envelopes in my life than I have to, say, gravel or pockets or any of a great number of other items that so readily lend themselves to being taken for granted.

Freeman, though, has been pushing the envelope, making scholarly searches through obscure books, trade publications, census and patent records and a maze of microfilm to fill in the not surprisingly huge gaps in mankind's existing knowledge of the humble envelope.

It helps considerably in establishing Freeman's credibility, perhaps even his sanity, that the envelopes which first attracted his interest were not the blank bland things we know today. Rather, five years ago a Fullerton book dealer friend got him interested in Civil War-era envelopes, which were decorated with colorful patriotic art and political cartoons.

The dealer had wanted Freeman, who was then recovering from a surgery, to spend his down time writing a monograph on the envelopes. The intent was to publish a short volume that would include--as leaf books do with pages of rare books--an old envelope in each.

"I got a little carried away and didn't write a short enough thing for him to be able to afford printing it," Freeman said. "I went beyond the Civil War to give background of how they were manufactured, then a chapter on the sorts of presses used to make them."

He drew some of his inspiration to pursue the esoteric subject from Henry Petroski's book "The Pencil, A History of Design and Circumstance." It is a tour de force on its skinny subject, ranging from the engineering aspects of the pencil to ruminations on Henry David Thoreau's day job as a pencil maker. "You'll never feel the same about the pencil after you read this terrific book!" promises Larry King on its cover.

"It's a very good book, though it hasn't changed my feelings about the pencil," said Freeman, who prefers a computer. The book did show him it's possible to write engagingly on a seemingly limited subject, though he fears there was no one as interesting as Thoreau in the envelope trade.

*

Jeff. Davis boasts that 'Cotton's King,'

Upon his throne so rotten,

Soon he'll find amid his swing,

that hemp is king of cotton.

So rhymes the poem gracing one wartime envelope, accompanying an illustration of a noose of Northern hemp awaiting the Confederate president. There are many similar sleeves in Freeman's collection: Davis in the noose; Davis as a skeleton; one clever illustration of him captioned "Jeff Davis going to war," which inverted instead looks like a donkey head, captioned "Jeff Davis returning from war." Another envelope depicts Satan, titled "The First Secessionist." Propaganda is eternal.

"I don't think many of them would win prizes," says Freeman, who has a dry humor more suggestive of Texas than his Louisiana birthplace.

These envelopes were a fad during the war, so much so that the market was saturated with them by 1862 (There were Southern-leaning counterparts as well). Most people bought them not to post but to save, as trading cards are today. Envelopes and postage stamps came into common use around the same time, and many then felt it was the former that would become collectors' items over time.

When was the first envelope made? Others, says Freeman, have tried and failed to answer that question, and he's not certain he'll be able to either. There also is a question of definition. In the past, some that could afford it would simply wrap their letters in another sheet of paper, which would be called an envelope. Others would hand-fold and glue paper in a fashion that resembled the modern envelope. Freeman has traced this practice back to 1694, and cites a German king having used one in 1712.

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