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How to Analyze an Envelope for Genealogical Clues

How to Analyze an Envelope for Genealogical Clues

I love antique stores. When I go to an antique store, there are a few items I can't resist. Yes, vintage cookbooks are a weakness, but another is one that many genealogists have. I can't resist the allure of vintage postcards and letters.

I am naturally curious about history and people who lived generations ago. Their writings can help us understand them, their lives, and their era. So I buy other people's correspondence, take them home, and then get to transcribing, researching, and analyzing. Researching those letter writers and receivers is a natural step. That requires transcribing names, dates, and places and then seeking out those names in "name lists," such as the census or city directories. But how do we analyze correspondence before we even start the research?

We must consider all parts of the correspondence as essential, not just what the letter tells us. One often overlooked item is the envelope. 

The Envelope.

Letter 3 annotated

1. Recipient's name and address. 2. Sender's name and address 3. Postmark 4. Stamp 5. Cancellation


What can an envelope tell us? Consider the following:

  1. Type of envelope. What is the size and color? Is it part of a letterhead set?
  2. The front of the envelope. Notice the envelope in general. Is the envelope hand addressed or typewritten? What language are the words in?
    • Who is the letter from? Is there a name and return address? Is it from a different person or the person receiving the letter?
    • Who is the letter addressed to? Is there a formal title (for example, Mrs./Miss/Dr) if it is addressed to a "Mrs"? Is the name that follows her husband's? Is the name a "proper" name, a nickname, or incorrect?
    • What address is the letter addressed to? Is it a street address, "general delivery," a P.O. Box, APO, or a non-residence?
    • If this letter is part of a letter collection, timeline the addresses to determine the recipient's movements.
    • Is a postage stamp used? If so, what kind? You can look online or in a stamp catalog to learn more about it. If there is no postage stamp, why?
    • What does the postmark indicate? What place, date, and time (if applicable) was the letter postmarked? Is it far from the return address? Was it postmarked several times in different places? How did the envelope travel? (by air, for example?)
    • What about the stamp's cancellation mark? Does the cancelation mark have words or just lines? Does it appear to have been done by a machine, a stamp, or a hand? Does it provide any clues?
    • Are there other marks on the envelope, such as a black line outlining the shape, that may indicate a death?
  3. The back of the envelope
    • Is there any writing on the back? Perhaps a return address or a note?

Studying the envelope might explain how a person was addressed at a particular time, whether they were married or not, and possible immigrant origins.

Philatelic + Genealogy

Haven't considered the envelopes of your ancestral letters before? It's an excellent time to take a second look. The website PhilGen has several articles that include an analysis of envelopes that you might find helpful. The website's author, James R. Miller, has written a book that further delves into the topic. "Philatelic Genealogy, Old Envelopes, Letters, and Postcards as Genealogical Sources presents 100 old envelopes and postcards to show how they serve as sources of genealogical information." Websites such as Linn's Stamp News provides information about the history of stamps worldwide. Postal museums may include online articles and exhibits that can shed light on our ancestor's use of the postal system of their country. Wikipedia has a list of postal museums by country.

As we analyze sources left behind by our ancestors, we need to consider the whole source and, in the case of correspondence, including the envelope. Taking a second look might provide you with additional clues to follow up.

Next read: How to Analyze a Letter for Genealogical Clues


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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An envelope with black edges warned the recipient that bad news, usually of a death, was contained therein.

Enjoyed this post! So many penny postal greetings sent to my husband's ancestors in early 1900s have clear postmarks, indicating where mailed, exact date, sometimes time of day, and more. Great clues in addition to the addressee, written greeting, signature, and of course the image on front of the post card.

I have been archiving my dad's WW II letters to his mom and family. The best thing I find in his envelopes is the war provided different sizes as to which post he was at. Then I also collect stamps these are special Air mail for 1944-1946. My dad was a stickler for organizes things he numbered each envelope and also stated when he wrote back and received each letter from home. I've put them in archival sheet protectors in 4 three-inch binders. Each time he traveled to a city in Europe I printed out from the computer information about that city. I will be adding his hundreds of photos also once I can sort them. Ha! Ha!

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