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envelopes(5) File Formats Manual envelopes(5)


envelopes - sender/recipient lists attached to messages


Electronic mail messages are delivered in envelopes.

An envelope lists a sender and one or more recipients. Usually these envelope addresses are the same as the addresses listed in the message header:

(envelope) from djb to root
From: djb
To: root

In more complicated situations, though, the envelope addresses may differ from the header addresses.


When a message is delivered to several people at different locations, it is first photocopied and placed into several envelopes:

(envelope) from djb to root
From: djb Copy #1 of message
To: root,

(envelope) from djb to
From: djb Copy #2 of message
To: root,

When a message is delivered to several people at the same location, the sender doesn't have to photocopy it. He can instead stuff it into one envelope with several addresses; the recipients will make the photocopy:

(envelope) from djb to,
From: djb
To:,, joe, frde

Bounced mail is sent back to the envelope sender address. The bounced mail doesn't list an envelope sender, so bounce loops are impossible:

(envelope) from <> to djb
To: djb
Subject: unknown user frde

The recipient of a message may make another copy and forward it in a new envelope:

(envelope) from djb to joe
From: djb Original message
To: joe

(envelope) from joe to fred
From: djb Forwarded message
To: joe

A mailing list works almost the same way:

(envelope) from djb to sos-list
From: djb Original message
To: sos-list

(envelope) from sos-owner to
From: djb Forwarded message
To: sos-list to recipient #1

(envelope) from sos-owner to frde
From: djb Forwarded message
To: sos-list to recipient #2

Notice that the mailing list is set up to replace the envelope sender with something new, sos-owner. So bounces will come back to sos-owner:

(envelope) from <> to sos-owner
To: sos-owner
Subject: unknown user frde

It's a good idea to set up an extra address, sos-owner, like this: the original envelope sender (djb) has no way to fix bad sos-list addresses, and of course bounces must not be sent to sos-list itself.


Envelope sender and envelope recipient addresses are transmitted and recorded in several ways.

When a user injects mail through qmail-inject, he can supply a Return-Path line or a -f option for the envelope sender; by default the envelope sender is his login name. The envelope recipient addresses can be taken from the command line or from various header fields, depending on the options to qmail-inject. Similar comments apply to sendmail.

When a message is transferred from one machine to another through SMTP, the envelope sender is given in a MAIL FROM command, the envelope recipients are given in RCPT TO commands, and the message is supplied separately by a DATA command.

When a message is delivered by qmail to a single local recipient, qmail-local records the recipient in Delivered-To and the envelope sender in Return-Path. It uses Delivered-To to detect mail forwarding loops.

sendmail normally records the envelope sender in Return-Path. It does not record envelope recipient addresses, on the theory that they are redundant: you received the mail, so you must have been one of the envelope recipients.

Note that, if the header doesn't have any recipient addresses, sendmail will move envelope recipient addresses back into the header. This situation occurs if all addresses were originally listed as Bcc, since Bcc is automatically removed. When sendmail sees this, it creates a new Apparently-To header field with the envelope recipient addresses. This has the strange effect that each blind-carbon-copy recipient will see a list of all recipients on the same machine.

When a message is stored in mbox format, the envelope sender is recorded at the top of the message as a UUCP-style From (no colon) line. Note that this line is less reliable than the Return-Path line added by qmail-local or sendmail.


qmail-header(5), qmail-local(8), qmail-inject(8)