Mail art by George Henry Edwards, 1900
Whenever I read that mail art began “in the 1960s,” I roll my eyes. Mail art has been around as long as creative people have been mailing, and wonderful examples from the 19th and 20th century abound, as single items and as books devoted to the genre. 
Mail art, 1873
Mail art by Hugh Rose, 1910
Mail art by Frederick Charles Tolhurst, 1918
Mail art, 1926
Granted, in the 1960s artists in New York City, rebelling against the “elite” art establishment and its rules, began sharing art through the mail with “no rules.”  But to say they were the first mail artists and that only their work can be called “mail art” is an over-reach.
In the absence of the Internet, these 1960s mail artists did not have an easy way to see earlier mail art or even know it existed. They could not easily view auction catalogs of “illustrated covers” from the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries and “hand illustrated and later printed envelopes” from Grosvenor Philatelic Auctions.
In his “A Brief History of Postal Art,” Mark Bloch wrote, “Ed Plunkett, the man credited with coining the phrase New York Correspondence School, once said that postal art probably got its start the day Cleopatra had herself wrapped in a blanket and delivered to Caesar. As long as there has been mail, there have been people embellishing it in various ways, both physically and, more importantly, perhaps, theoretically. Anyway, as long as there have been artists and there has been post, there has been postal art.” 
So let us call the mid-20th century New York version “Correspondence Art.” Or spell it as “Correspondance Art,” in which Ray Johnson, often cited as “the Father of Mail Art,” alluded to the dance of artists corresponding and exchanging art. But not “mail art.” Mail art belongs to the world: art created to be mailed and experienced by everyone who sees it on its way to the addressee.
In England, the popular creation of mail art had its beginnings with the first postage stamps in 1840, and the introduction of prepaid postal stationery, i.e., the floridly patriotic Mulready envelope. While spurned by the public, the Mulready envelope inspired private companies to print illustrated envelopes promoting issues of the day, such as peace, temperance and opposition to slavery. In The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects (2010), author John Tingey writes, “Not to be outdone, individuals got in on the act, using artistic skill to produce highly decorated hand-illustrated envelopes to send to friends and loved ones.”
From France, Les Plus Belles Enveloppes Illustrees de 1750 a nos jours (2000) by Pierre-Stephane Proust has many examples of mail art dating from the 1700s and 1800s.
The worldwide postcard boom in the early years of the 20th century inspired a new wave of mail art.
In France, watercolor paper postcards like the one shown above were sold for creating mail art.
Issued in Chicago, Illinois, in 1910, the A.H. Abbott Catalogue 162A of Artists Materials sold cards with postcard information on one side and the other side left blank for the artist’s original art in watercolor or pen & ink.
In Picture Postcards in the United States: 1893-1918 (1976), George and Dorothy Miller note, “Stationery and novelty stores of the day sold stencils for the amateur artist to produce his own postcards. Stencils included flowers, animals, butterflies, and landscapes and were accompanied by plain cards and watercolor sets.”
Today, the mail art created on these cards can often be found on eBay by searching “hand drawn” or “hand painted” postcards.
During World War I, Otto Schubert of Dresden, Germany, used Feldpostkarten, standard blank “field postcards,” issued by the German army, to mail art to his family and his sweetheart.
Between November 1915 and May 1916, he painted scenes from his life on the cards – landscapes, fellow soldiers and images from combat. Many of the cards survived and are collected in Postcards from the Trenches (2018) by Irene Guenther.
During World War II, a young woman illustrated the envelopes she mailed to her sweetheart; they were later collected in World War II Envelope Art of Cecile Cowdery (1992) by Robin Berg.
Auctioned by Spink & Son in 2018, the Dr. Paul Ramsay Collection of Hand Painted Envelopes contained more than 200 examples of early mail art.
In short, mail art was widespread for a century before the “Mail Art movement” began.
Sort of Mail Art
Artist’s postcard, Henri Cassiers, 1902
Artist’s postcard, Ichijo Narumi, 1906
Artists’ postcards, i.e., works of art meant to be posted, but printed in multiple quantities, fall into a gray area.
Notable in the genre was the Collection des Cent, created by Émile Gréningaire, a Parisian watercolor painter and illustrator. In 1900, he issued an open invitation to artists to create artworks especially for postcards. His goal was to issue a series of packets holding 10 postcards each, publishing a packet every 15 days. The first cover was marketed on November 1, 1901, and the ninth and last in May of 1903. 
The postal art of Donald Evans – his tiny stamps from imaginary countries – was amazing in every way, but never meant to be actually mailed; certainly it is postal art, but not mail art. 
The postage stamp paintings of Molly Rausch, so fabulous. But, not posted, not quite mail art.
Letter from Edward Ardizzone
Illustrated letters, sent inside the envelope, also lurk in the gray area. 
Not Mail Art
Pictorial envelopes, printed for business use and advertising, can be artistic, but are not mail art.
Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems, written on scraps of envelopes from letters she received, are certainly art, but not mail art. 
The art of Amy Rice on vintage envelopes, lovely art, but not mail art.
In his Urgent: 2nd Class (2004), Nick Bantock writes, “My interest is a bit more specific: faux mail. Faux mail, according to me, is an envelope that has artwork added to it after it has already been through the mail and earned its maturity.”
So, there are all kinds of mail art and postal art, and mail art has been flourishing for almost two centuries. Another corner of mail art is faux postage, but that is a topic for another day.
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- British Pictorial Envelopes of the 19th Century (1984) by Ritchie Bodily, Christ Jarvis & Charles Hahn
- Hand Illustrated Postal Envelopes (1996) by David Swales
- Les Plus Belles Enveloppes Illustrees de 1750 a nos jours (2000) by Pierre-Stephane Proust
- Mail Art : Art Postal – Art Poste (2002) by Renaud Siegmann, especially pp. 24-29
- The Louis Grunin Collection: A Philatelic Art Gallery (2010), auction catalog from the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries, Inc.
- Je vous Aime Devinez Qui? : L’Art de la Carte Postal (2013) by Francine Stalport, especially the chapter “Cartes entierement realisees par l’expediteur” beginning on p. 125
- The Dr. Paul Ramsay Collection of Hand Painted Envelopes Offered on Behalf of the Royal Philatelic Society London (2018), auction catalog published by Spink in London.
On the Web:
 No rules, except their own. They decried the rules of gallery exhibitions but listed “considerations.” They mocked bureaucracy but were dependent upon the post office. They protested the closed nature of the art world, yet insisted that mail art was mail art only if it was exchanged within the International Mail Art Network (IMAN). See Anna Banana interview by Zora von Burden in Women of the Underground: Art (2012). See also Small Scale Subversion: Mail Art & Artistamps (2015) by John Held Jr., the Boswell of this aspect of the Mail Art world.
 “A Brief History of Postal Art” by Mark Bloch,
- Album de Cartes Postales (1960), afterword by C. Lauterbach & A. Jacovsky
- Art Nouveau Postcards: The Posterists’ Postcards (1977) by Alain Weill
- Art of the Japanese Postcard (2004) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
 The World of Donald Evans (1980) with text by Willy Eisenhart
 Les Plus Belles Lettres Illustrees (1998) by Roselyne de Ayala & Jean-Pierre Gueno
More Than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (2005) by Liza Kirwin
 Emily Dickinson: Envelope Poems (2016) edited by Christine Burgin
[…] are in fact hundreds of examples of mail art and mail artists before Ray Johnson. You can find a longer discussion at “What Is Mail Art?” and a few quick samples […]