What is a Manila Envelope?

When Magellan was sailing around the world, he stopped by the Philippines in 1521. There he discovered a vibrant local culture in the islands and a civilisation rich in resources. One of the locals’ favourite crops to cultivate was a strange banana plant which produced completely inedible fruit. Instead, fibres from the leaf stalks were harvested to create some of the richest, prized fabrics, and a sign of high standing among the people of the islands. Along with sugar and tobacco, Magellan introduced this exotic fibre to the rest of the world, one that came from a plant that produced very terrible bananas and was called Abaca (Musa textilis).

Musa textilis, Image courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

As Abaca fibre spread over the globe, its unique abilities began to win it many fans. By 16th century, the fibre, which the Spanish named Medriñaque cloth, was used to make the stiff collars of men’s shirts in Peru, and sail fabric. Its use on ships led to the discovery that Abaca fibre was very resistant to salt water and so the long strong fibres of the plant began to be used in the production of miles and miles of maritime rope. The older plant fibre in wide use was Hemp, and though Abaca had no relationship to Hemp, it went by the name of Manila Hemp.

Abaca fibers, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

From Manila Hemp to Manila Envelope

The age of sailing galleons brought the world together and the tens of thousands of ships travelling the oceans meant an unending supply of old and fraying maritime rope made of Manila Hemp. It seemed like a waste to dispose of such a valuable resource so someone started pulping the old rope to make paper and thus Manila Paper was born. The paper, like the rope, was extremely strong and so it was folded in half to protect important documents and the Manila Folder came into being.

512px ManilaPaper
Manila Paper, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

As personal postal services became a more affordable prospect, people wanted to put their precious messages in a safe package, which resulted in the invention of the now ubiquitous Manila Envelope. By the late 1800’s the Philippines was exporting 100,000 tons of Manila Hemp and was almost the only source of this crucial resource for shipping. The World Wars of the 20th century cut off this supply for countries in the west, so the US began to cultivate the Abaca plant in Central America to make up.

Envelope postage AM 2016.35.5 1
Manila Envelope from 1920, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

Manila Hemp remains to this day a very valuable natural fibre. Too valuable to be used in folders and envelopes any more, so our modern Manilla paper (two ‘l’s) is a cheaper product made of recycled paper and wood pulp. The name and the colour remain to tell a long story of an unobtrusive plant that changed history and still continues to change it.

Abaca fibre is now used in very specialty papers, from the kind used in currency notes, to filter paper and the strong paper in tea bags. During the pandemic, Abaca was in short supply because it was also being used to make medical-grade masks. That plant with the terrible bananas is changing and saving the world all over again. 

  1. Making Recycled Paper At Home – A Simple Guide – https://inkymemo.com/making-recycled-paper-at-home/
  2. Is this the oldest pen in the world? – https://inkymemo.com/how-to-use-a-reed-pen-test/
Share your stationery love