The first known envelope was nothing like the paper envelope of today. It can be dated back to around 3500 to 3200 BC in the ancient Middle East. Hollow, clay spheres were molded around financial tokens and used in private transactions. The two people who discovered these first envelopes were Jacques de Morgan, in 1901, and Roland de Mecquenem, in 1907.
Paper envelopes were developed in China, where paper was invented by 2nd century BC. Paper envelopes, known as chih poh, were used to store gifts of money. In the Southern Song dynasty, the Chinese imperial court used paper envelopes to distribute monetary gifts to government officials.
Prior to 1845, hand-made envelopes were all that were available for use, both commercial and domestic. In 1845, Edwin Hill and Warren De La Rue were granted a British patent for the first envelope-making machine.
The "envelopes" produced by the Hill/De La Rue machine were not like those used today. They were flat diamond, lozenge (or rhombus)-shaped sheets or "blanks" that had been precut to shape before being fed to the machine for creasing and made ready for folding to form a rectangular enclosure. The edges of the overlapping flaps treated with a paste or adhesive and the method of securing the envelope or wrapper was a user choice. The symmetrical flap arrangement meant that it could be held together with a single wax seal at the apex of the topmost flap. (That the flaps of an envelope can be held together by applying a seal at a single point is a classic design feature of an envelope.)
Nearly 50 years passed before a commercially successful machine for producing pre-gummed envelopes, like those in use today, appeared.
The origin of the use of the diamond shape for envelopes is debated. However, as an alternative to simply wrapping a sheet of paper around a folded letter or an invitation and sealing the edges, it is a tidy and ostensibly paper-efficient way of producing a rectangular-faced envelope. Where the claim to be paper-efficient fails is a consequence of paper manufacturers normally making paper available in rectangular sheets, because the largest size of envelope that can be realised by cutting out a diamond or any other shape which yields an envelope with symmetrical flaps is smaller than the largest that can be made from that sheet simply by folding.
The folded diamond-shaped sheet (or "blank") was in use at the beginning of the 19th century as a novelty wrapper for invitations and letters among the proportion of the population that had the time to sit and cut them out and were affluent enough not to bother about the waste offcuts. Their use first became widespread in the UK when the British government took monopoly control of postal services and tasked Rowland Hill with its introduction. The new service was launched in May 1840 with a postage-paid machine-printed illustrated (or pictorial) version of the wrapper and the much-celebrated first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, for the production of which the Jacob Perkins printing process was used to deter counterfeiting and forgery. The wrappers were printed and sold as a sheet of 12, with cutting the purchaser's task. Known as Mulready stationery, because the illustration was created by the respected artist William Mulready, the envelopes were withdrawn when the illustration was ridiculed and lampooned. Nevertheless, the public apparently saw the convenience of the wrappers being available ready-shaped, and it must have been obvious that with the stamp available totally plain versions of the wrapper could be produced and postage prepaid by purchasing a stamp and affixing it to the wrapper once folded and secured. In this way although the postage-prepaid printed pictorial version died ignominiously, the diamond-shaped wrapper acquired de facto official status and became readily available to the public notwithstanding the time taken to cut them out and the waste generated. With the issuing of the stamps and the operation and control of the service (which is a communications medium) in government hands the British model spread around the world and the diamond-shaped wrapper went with it.