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The Story of the Stamped Envelope


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, May 15, 1932


By Howard Burba

     No matter whether you buy it in New York City or Podunk, if it’s a United States stamped envelope it came from Dayton O.

      If someone told you that every government stamped envelope used in this country was manufactured here, you’d probably doubt the assertion.  And you couldn’t be blamed for your skepticism, for while Uncle Sam has but one plant turning out stamped envelopes, and the plant is located here in Dayton and has been for more than 25 years, it is possibly among the least known of the city’s many and varied industrial institutions.

     One reason why you haven’t heard very much about it is that Uncle Sam has certain abhorrence of publicity.  He doesn’t care to have everyone know his business. Maybe that’s why he has built up the biggest business in the world.  At any rate, his stamped envelope plant, gradually spreading out until it now occupies a half dozen commodious brick structures at First and Front sts., has never been classified as one of the show-places of Dayton.  Even now there has to be a clipping of more or less red-tape before you are welcomed within its portals.

     That isn’t because there is a deep secrecy connected with the manufacture of stamped envelopes.  While it is true that most of the machines in use were designed and perfected by the men who direct their operation and are not to be found in any other printing plant in the country, they are fully protected by patent papers.  It isn’t that Uncle Sam doesn’t care to have you fingering around them and trying to solve the intricacies of their mechanism that they are so carefully shielded from public gaze. It’s simply because these almost human bits of assembled steel must turn out, rain or shine, fire or flood, a total of almost 14,000,000 stamped envelopes every working day in the year, and if they are halted for even a few minutes that schedule is interfered with.  As a good American you’ve learned by this time just how serious it really is to interfere with Uncle Sam’s schedules.

     So the envelope plant, operated under government contract by The International Envelope Corp., works right along like a well-regulated watch, turning out its 14,000,000 stamped envelopes every day, shipping them to every post-office in every state in the Union, giving employment, even in these trying times, to more than 800 men and women, some of whom have been with it since it was removed to this city more than a quarter of a century ago from Springfield, Mass.

     At the head of the organization, in charge of production, and recognized as one of the most capable production managers in America, is Thomas J. O’Connell.  He came to Dayton when the old Mercantile Corp. first secured the envelope printing contract; he succeeded to his present position as manager of the plant at the death of Howard F. Marston a few years ago.  He has devoted more than half of his life to inventing and directing the operation of envelope printing machinery, and while he undoubtedly has a good many more years coming to him before he starts living on “borrowed time,” those years will find him still actively engaged in this field of endeavor.

     If you were permitted to inspect this remarkable plant under the guidance of Thomas O’Connell, he would first lead you from his own office to a point near the entrance to the main building from which you gaze down on row after row of fast-moving individual machines.  A skillful woman operator is at each machine.  It is here that the actual work of making the envelopes, placing the familiar embossed postage stamp upon them and printing the return card in the upper left-hand corner is going on.  At the same time on other floors and around other corners from where you stand, scores of machines similar to these are adding their hundreds of thousands to the daily output.  You hear a steady hum of machinery, no louder possibly than so many fast-running sewing machines would make.  You see almost as far as eye can reach the steadily moving streams of white paper, like tiny endless belts, the finished product of each machine.  You note the absolute absence of confusion; no note of mechanical harshness reaches your ears.  Here is skill coordinated—the skill of mechanical genius blending with the skill of human hand and brain.

     When you step up to the window of any postoffice in the United States and purchase a stamped envelope it may be with the knowledge that that envelope was made, and the stamp placed on it in the city of Dayton.  But how did the postmaster get it and how will he get more when his present stock of stamped envelopes is exhausted?  The answer to those questions really gives you all you could wish to know about what goes on each day inside the government stamped envelope plant.

     Every morning from Washington there comes to the plant here an order for stamped envelopes.  It is made up of requisitions sent in by postmasters in various parts of the country. So in truth each morning’s order from Washington is in itself 5000 different orders from 5000 separate and distinct postoffices, for the average is now running about that number each day.  Some of these postoffices may require but a single box of 500 envelopes; another office may order 500,000.  Some of them may be for envelopes bearing nothing more than the postage stamp; other orders may be for the printing of return cards for firms or private individuals.  So the big order from Washington is in reality 5000 separate and distinct orders and under a time limit set by Uncle Sam, the plant has just five days in which to complete the entire bunch of orders and get them on their way to the 5000 postoffices from which they have been ordered.

     Don’t make the mistake of thinking that some of these orders can be shipped tomorrow and some the next day and so on until the entire 5000 orders are filled.  That isn’t the way it has to be done.  That order arriving this morning came as a unit and it must be shipped as a unit.  If the envelopes intended for one single postoffice out of the 5000 ordering today are not ready at the expiration of five days, then the entire order is held up, even though all the others making up the shipment are ready to go out.  They all came in as a unit—they must all go out as a unit.

     In the big paper mills of the Etna here in Dayton, the Maxwell at Franklin, and the Howard at Urbana, paper for the manufacture of these envelopes is being made.  It is shipped from these three mills directly to the envelope plant here in sheets of sufficient size to permit the cutting of six ordinary sized envelopes to a sheet.  Three months’ supply of paper is always kept on hand.

     The government specifications call for a certain weight of paper, and it also must be capable of withstanding a pressure of 30 pounds to the square inch.  While Uncle Sam doesn’t question the honesty of the paper makers, he nevertheless keeps eight inspectors at the envelope plant to see that everything is as it should be.  And these men test every case of paper that comes in, before it goes to the huge paper cutters, where dies of razor edge sharpness cut the sheets into forms which, when passing through the presses, are so folded as to form an envelope.  Each drop of each one of the paper cutters means 500 perfectly shaped sheets.

     In stacks of five and ten thousand these are carried to the tiny presses.  Each press is equipped with an automatic feeding device and a folder which, pressing the sheet gently but swiftly between thin rollers, shapes it into envelope form, at the same time gluing the edge together, and coating the flap that it may be sealed by the one who will eventually use it.  Each press contains the die from which is embossed the familiar head of Washington in carmine ink—the stamp which carries your missive of love or hate, of sorrow or gladness, of weal or woe on to its destination, even though it be to the farthest corner of the earth.

     Now and then the skillful operator halts her machine for the moment while a fresh supply of the thin, brown liquid used in gumming the envelopes together is placed in the little tank alongside.  And what does it consist of, this brown gum against which you put your moistened tongue when you seal your envelope?  We’ll have to leave the main building and cross the street to still another structure to find the answer.

     Here in huge copper kettles set above gas flames, each kettle holding as much as an ordinary barrel of molasses—and very much like molasses in appearance—the gum is being cooked.  Into each kettle is poured pure water, and a quantity of casava flour.  And casava flour is nothing on earth but tapioca.  Mixed with the water it is boiled to a thickness which will permit it to flow freely when placed in the tanks of the hundreds of tiny printing presses back in the main building. It requires 450 gallons of this gum to provide a single day’s supply.

     Look down through the long aisles formed by sack after sack of this flour—a three month’s supply is kept constantly on hand—and try to appreciate what your government stamped envelope plant means not alone to yourself, but to many thousands of workers away out beyond the city of Dayton.  Someone had to look after the growing and grinding and transporting of that chauva flour, away down in Java.  Other men sailed the boats that brought it to America, and still more men were required to run the trains that carried it to Dayton.

     Piled along other aisles your eyes behold hundreds of tons of strawboard from which are made the little boxes in which the completed envelopes are packed 500 to each box, and in the making of the larger and heavier cartons in which an entire dozen or more of the smaller boxes are shipped.  Someone had to raise the wheat for the straw of which this box material is made.  Someone had to harvest the wheat and haul the straw to a mill and others had to take it in its natural state and cook it down to pulp, then roll that pulp into the finished board.

     A good many hands have entered into the making of your stamped envelope so far, and yet you have only accounted for the paper and the gum.  Trace the gathering of the raw product that goes into the printing ink used in printing the stamp and the return card and you account for many more busy hands.  Add to all of these the girls who operate the presses, the men who handle and trim the paper, the men who assemble, box and ship the finished product, the drivers who operate the huge trucks which transport them to the trains.  Remember, too, that an average of 5000 separate shipments are sent out of Dayton to 5000 different postoffices every working day in the year and that these shipments require the attention of other hands at the other end of the line.  Can’t you see wherein the process of making and supplying stamped envelopes gives employment to a small army and provides food and clothing and the necessities and comforts of life for people as far away as distant Java?

     There’s a lot of romances in this stamped envelope business, too, if you want to search for it.  Why, one of those girls sitting at any one of the envelope presses could cry her eyes out if she would allow herself to think of all the unhappy messages that may some day go into the little white paper packets she is making and stamping.  On the other had, if she tried to vision herself as the recipient of all the soft and endearing messages these little white envelopes may be destined to carry after they leave her hands she probably would spend so much time in mooning over her machine she wouldn’t be worth a whole lot to the plant.

     So she goes right ahead and turns out envelopes; boxes of envelopes, truck loads of envelopes, carloads of envelopes, and is content to know that she is of service to the organization of which she is a vital part and an aid to the most valuable of all departments of government –the United states mail.

     As the finished product leaves the presses, packed 500 to each tiny box, they are carried on an endless belt passing high over the heads of the operators to the shipping department.  Here a force of 22 government inspectors carefully scrutinize each package to make sure that it is exactly as it should be.  There must not be an error of a single envelope in any one of the thousands of boxes that make up the total of 14,000 000 envelopes sent out each day.  Every address printed upon them had already been proof-read three times before it was placed on the press, and the machines had counted each envelope as it fell upon the gum-drying belt.  So expert are the girl operators that they can close their eyes, reach into a stack of envelopes and pick them out 100 at the time.  And you can lose money betting that they will make a mistake.

     It isn’t guesswork.  They have it down to a science, just as every employe in every department of the plant handles his particular part of the daily operation scientifically.  There’s a science, for instance in placing the big cutting dies so they will cut exactly six envelope forms to a sheet; otherwise there is tremendous waste.  There is a science in cooking the tapioca gum to a certain thickness, otherwise it will not flow on the presses if it is too thick and it will flow all over the envelope paper if it is too thin.  Somehow I couldn’t help but feel that the men who were baling the waste that is trimmed off of the paper, and the one who operates a machine built along the line of the cutting box you father used in cutting up “fodder” all had their work down to a scientific basis.  Each and every one is an important unit in a highly specialized machine, from Thomas O’Connell in the manager’s office to that chap who runs the cutting box and macerates every vestige of printed waste until it very much resembles carnival confetti.  One must see that 14,000,000 envelopes are turned out every day.  The other must see that no spoiled or wasted part of a stamped envelope leaves the plant.  Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stamped envelopes have been turned out at the plant here in the past quarter of a century.  There has never been the semblance of a suspicion that a single envelope has gone unaccounted for.

     Fire and flood are the two chief menaces of this big plant, and it has passed through both. In 1913 it was under water to a depth of eight feet.  The schedule was disrupted for only 48 hours.  At the end of that time the water had receded sufficiently to permit the employes to get back to their machines, clean them up and start them going again. The reserve supply of envelopes served to fill the most urgent needs until production was back on schedule—as it was within five days.  Several small fires have threatened the plant, but the fire-fighting equipment and modern sprinkler system installed on every floor, prevented serious conflagrations.

     Fire drills are compulsory in the plant, and so practiced are the employes that the entire force of more than 700 workers can shut off their machines and pass out of the building, through seven exits, in three minutes.  I saw a practical demonstration of it a few days ago.

     Even in the case of fire at this plant you would not be turned back at the postoffice window when you asked for a stamped envelope.  There is a reserve supply of 75,000,000 stamped envelopes locked in fireproof vaults at the plant at this very moment.  That reserve alone would keep the entire country supplied for a whole week.

     Far up on one floor of the main building is a modern cafeteria in which the employes enjoy excellent lunches at actual cost.  Nearby is a library of standard classics and all of the new and wanted fiction.  These volumes are solely for the entertainment of employes, and the shelves are kept constantly supplied with the most popular new literary offerings as they are published.

     Adjoining the library and cafeteria is the emergency hospital, a fully equipped first-aid room.  In charge is Miss Mary Barger, long experienced in relief and welfare work.  The girls boast their own vested choir, ball team, golf club.  Each month the entire personnel gathers at the plant for a social event of some nature.  Their dances have become fixed events to which all look forward with delight; their annual outing is to them the red-letter event of the entire year.

     They have their charitable work, too, and it is of the open-handed variety—the kind that counts.  At Christmas time under the direction of Miss Barger they pack scores of baskets of food and Christmas stockings and, using the big trucks owned by the company, they find happiness in distributing them among the needy.  There’s a little struggling mission up the street from the plant.  The pastor of that little flock could tell you a lot about the big-heartedness of these envelope makers if he would.  Never a Christmas goes by that he isn’t handed a generous sum for the alleviation of hunger and suffering among those who come under his watchful eye.

     It’s a plant with a heart in it, this envelope factory of ours.  Think of Thomas O’Connell, and a half dozen others, following it all the way from Springfield, Mass., to Dayton when it came here a quarter of a century ago and making it their lifework.  Think of this, too, if you want to know why it’s just like one big, happy family—some of those girls operating envelope machines are the daughters of women who worked at the plant before those girls were born!

     And that, in reality, is the only secret that they know out at the envelope plant—the secret of putting themselves in their work, of serving others, of pride in the part each worker has in perfect production, of contentment with their surroundings, their hours, their pay and their “boss.”

     Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the entire industrial world could adopt and safeguard this secret as successfully as the United States government stamped envelope plant has succeeded in doing?

 Every stamped envelope used in the United States is made in Dayton, O.
 It takes 450 gallons of gum to seal one day's output of envelopes.
 To offset a possible "envelope famine" that might be caused by fire or flood Uncle Sam keeps 75,000,000 envelopes in fireproof vaults here.
 No matter from what postoffice it may come, an order for stamped envelopes must be filled within five days.
 Paper that will not withstand a pressure of 30 pounds to the square inch is not considered strong enough for envelopes.
 No matter if an order for envelopes fills an entire railway car, it is sent to its destination by first-class mail.