On September 13th, the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum launched a new virtual exhibition, "America's Mailing Industry", telling the story of the partnership between the U.S. Postal Service and private industry, which together have helped American citizens and businesses communicate and conduct business for more than 200 years.
The website is very well done and contains a great deal of historical information about mail, direct mail, the Post Office and the various businesses that support mail communication and delivery. With regard to envelope manufacturing there are many interesting tid-bits about how envelopes used to be made (by hand mostly) and the advent of the first machines which could get up to 150 envelopes per hour (!).
Aside from envelope companies, printers are well represented and there’s a neat little summary of the history of printing in the United States marked by the various technological improvements along the way. There are additional sections on letter shops, paper companies, graphic designers, non-profit fundraisers, newspaper publishers, catalog and mail order companies and many more. Each section has a succinct description of the business, its history and how it relates and the contribution it makes to the flow of mail.
I’ll admit to having some mixed feelings when reading through the site. Usually when you say something “belongs in the Smithsonian” it means it’s a historical artifact of a bygone era. For instance I’ve driven some cars that looked like they “belonged in the Smithsonian”. (and had a lot of fun driving them I might add). Those of us in the print, mail and envelope industries spend a lot of time talking about how the industries are still relevant in the digital age – and they are. Print, paper and mail are still the medium of choice by millions for selling and communicating. But there is that nagging thought that the industries are not what they were 50 or even 20 years ago and that maybe the next step is to start writing the history as if they are in the past tense.
So seeing our industry featured in a Smithsonian exhibit (in a web site no less!) can stir some of those thoughts. But the Smithsonian also features exhibits on the aerospace industry and other thriving businesses. Its purpose is to provide history and context and demonstrate what initiative and ingenuity can do through individual and cooperative effort.
I urge you to check it out at the link above. Now it’s time for us in the business to get back to making more history!