Thursday, January 27, 2011

Long Live the String-and-Button Envelope

The other day my daughter brought over some papers from her employer in an 8 ½ by 11 string-and-button envelope. Having not worked for a large organization for almost 14 years, I’d figured this type of envelope had gone the way of whiteout and correction tape. Since the envelope contained papers from the U.S. Government, it made sense that they were still needed. I don’t know how they’re produced but I once ran a string-and-button press, and you couldn’t find 7 hours of more tedious work. 

String-and-button envelopes

After failing to land a summer job after my freshman year, I worked at my father’s envelope company as a utility player. I cleared cutting tables, which involved stacking just-cut, unfolded, envelopes on a pallet (or “skid,” as it was called), moving the skid via hand truck into the adjacent building (being careful not to dump the load on the inclined bridge between buildings, for which the building permit was obtained from a cash payment to Ald. Tom Keane) and placing it next to the proper machine for converting. Making boxes was another task, made easier if you used the automatic tape-dispensing machine, which delivered the proper length at the push of a button. More fun was working on the loading dock, loading and unloading trucks, and driving the special-delivery station wagon, for which Mr. Signature, the head of the shipping department, was happy for me to do because I couldn’t stop off at a bar before heading back to the plant. All of this, except for the driving, was done in the un-air-conditioned heat of a Chicago summer.

The former American Envelope Company
3100 W. Grand Ave., Chicago

Mr. Rial, the plant manager, had a special assignment for me. The company had received an order for string-and-button envelopes, and he wanted me to assemble them. Assembly took several steps: first, you placed the button in the center of the top-back of the envelope, inserted a small brass grommet within the button, placed a small, square paper backing on the other side of the button and pushed down a lever that inserted a rod into the hole, fusing the metal to the button and backing.  The process was then repeated, attaching the button with string to the flap. The most precision involved placing the buttons in the proper position for an optimum crisscross tying effect. 

I don’t recall the order size or how long it took to finish the job. The end couldn’t have come too soon, and I was back to the loading dock. Mr. Rial, in fact, would achieve his ultimate goal. He knew my father, the chief financial officer, would ask me during the drive home how many envelopes I’d produced each day. With his photographic memory and accounting acumen (I once saw him balance a $500,000 bank statement in his head and know where the missing $2.50 was), my father quickly calculated the company was losing money on the job.  Rial had been after him to either invest in more automated equipment or stop taking string-and-button orders; my father chose the latter.

The loading dock
More fun than running a string-and-button press

So here’s to the string-and-button envelope, may it never become extinct. As long as there are intra-office memos, hospitals and government offices (scanning notwithstanding), these envelopes – with crossed-out names showing former routes – will remain office product staples. Some 25 years ago, one of my clients was a leading business-forms company. The CEO’s investor presentation always contained a slide or two on “The Myth of the Paperless Office,” which showed paper use had increased by moving from green-bar sheets to computer-generated forms. Hardly a dynamic speaker, he would read the presentation verbatim, except for his one ad-lib concluding that discussion: “The paperless office therefore will come about at the same time as the paperless bathroom.” Crude, of course, but true, and the same goes for the humble string-and-button envelope.


  1. These are still in regular use at the University of Chicago, go figure.

  2. I vote U of C as most likely place to maintain the routing envelope.