R A Tickner was a great correspondent. He was also handy with a pen and ink. In 1919 he was writing regularly from Hornchurch in Essex, England, to members of the Downes family living in Helmore Street, Whanganui.

Tickner later married the sister of Sydney Herbert Downes and Thomas William Downes, the well-known Whanganui author, artist and historian.

By the early 1920s, Tickner was writing to his family back in Hornchurch, so we can date his migration to New Zealand fairly accurately.

This information can be gleaned from the date stamps and addresses on the envelopes.

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Why is this at all interesting? It is because Tickner decorated, in great detail, the envelopes that contained his letters, sent between Hornchurch and Whanganui.

His drawings depicted temporary events or fashionable styles, a lot of it tongue-in-cheek.

His elaborately drawn and inked envelopes were gathered up by the extended family in both Hornchurch and Whanganui, and mounted in three frames.

They were donated to the Museum by the daughters of Mr and Mrs Sydney Downes.

Letter writing was an important part of the social structure of the day. Families were on the move to find work and houses, in both Europe and America, and many other parts of the world. Long distance telephone calls were very costly, so trunk calls and telegrams were used only in dire emergencies.

Letters kept families and friend in touch.

Decorating envelopes had become something of a folk art tradition by the 1930s and 1940s, in the United States. Its roots, however, go back to the 1840s in England when postage stamps and envelopes were first used.

A prepaid postal wrapper decorated with a coloured printed image was the forerunner of the modern envelope. And it became fashionable to hand-decorate plain envelopes with flowers or animals or woodland scenes.

In the 1860s, the American Civil War gave rise to another sort of printed decorated envelope.

Both Confederates and Unionists employed fairly unsubtle propaganda to eulogise their causes or point out the duties of fighting men or merely wave the flag, all on the front of commercially produced envelopes.

Current affairs and popular culture influenced many envelope decorations. During World War II, for example, many USA servicemen decorated their envelopes with comic training camp scenes, often targeting officers or NCOs, the food or the latrines.

The mid-1970s saw a new outbreak of decorated envelopes in the USA. The envelopes themselves might be made of silk or satin or patchwork cotton pieces, or denim or oilskin, and then were decorated with feathers, photographs, plastic cut-outs, embroidery, newspaper cuttings and occasionally, even sweets.

Whatever the era, or the fashion, decorated envelopes became part of popular culture of their day and were collected by aficionados, just as stamps or postcards were collected, and just as the Tickner envelopes were.

Libby Sharpe is the senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.