In the 18th century in England, handwritten social invitations were first used by the aristocracy. Only kings and queens and other members of high society received invitations to social events. Usually the invitations were written by a butler or secretary. Having them handwritten was a sign of education. Even after the modern printing press was discovered, many aristocrats continued to have their invitations handwritten for this purpose. The handwriting itself was a work of art. Much time and planning was given for this process. Calligraphy pens were used, which gave letters dimension; there were thick and thin lines in each word.
Mass production was considered uncouth, at first. The printing press appeared in the 15th century in England, but it was not used for invitations until the 20th century. At this time, the practice of sending formal invitations carried over to the United States. Once the elite started to use the printing press, they took measures to make sure their invitations still stood out among those of the common folk. The ordinary press simply rolled ink onto the paper. The result was messy and of poor quality. The elite, then, discovered that they could have their invitations engraved, which not only made their classic wedding invitations of higher quality, it also allowed for the printing to emulate handwritten lettering. This is because with engraving, the copper plates are carved by hand. The process produces a raised form of lettering, by cutting or pressing into the paper. Even to this day, engraving is considered the highest form of printing for invitations. The process has been improved with technology, of course.
During the last century, a less expensive version of engraving has come along, known as thermography, which is another form of raised-ink lettering. It produces this effect without actually cutting the surface of the paper the way engraving does. Instead, wet ink is applied to the paper and then a plastic powder is applied on top, giving the lettering the raised effect. This allows for the look of engraving without paying the expense.
The wording of the earliest classic invitations was similar to today's traditional wording, with one exception: Usually the name of each guest was printed on the invitation. We have gotten away from this practice today, but if you are having a small wedding and making your own invitations, you might consider it. Once written or printed, each classic wedding invitation was placed in a protective envelope, and sealed with wax. The wax seal often represented the crest of the family. Wax seals are often still used today to convey a touch of tradition and elegance.
If you'd like to incorporate some of the classic practices into your invitations, it's easy to do so. By using tissue paper, calligraphy, wax seals, engraving or lithography or by hand-writing the addresses on your classic wedding invitations, you're bringing a touch of the past to your modern invites.