Wax seals and sealing wax are intertwined with the history of handwritten communication and formal documents. Wax seals have been used throughout history. When it comes to written correspondence, they have had an integral part.
Seals have been used by societies across the world since the beginning of recorded history. A seal is a device for making an impression in wax, clay, paper, or some other medium. The seal making device is known as the seal matrix or die and the imprint it creates is known as the seal impression. A seal impression or a sealing is made by the impact of a hard engraved surface on a softer material. Seals have multiple uses. The first to come to mind is probably their most obvious use, to seal something shut. Over the course of history, seals have also been used as a means of communication, identification, and authentication too.
People began using sealing wax in the Middle Ages. The earliest forms of sealing wax were typically made of beeswax and resin. This wax was uncolored. Colored sealing wax would be introduced later. Like with many new inventions, in the very beginning when sealing wax was first invented it was only basically used by the most wealthy and influential members of society. During this time sealing wax was primarily used for the purpose of stamping or signing legal documents. All of the most distinguished members of society had their own personalized seal. It was of practical importance for seals to be individually unique to their owner.
During the Middle Ages, a great many people were illiterate. Wax seals were used in the place of a signature. Since each seal was uniquely specific to its owner, it was possible to denote whether a document was authentic just from looking at its wax seal. You could say that the seal imprints in the wax served not only as a signature but also as a sort of verification as to the legitimacy of the document itself. People recognized and were familiar with the coats of arms or crests of the various authorities. Seals were extremely hard to duplicate and the wax once it hardens is practically impossible to remove without damaging the document. During this time period seals were not really used to secure the contents of a document or letter. Since very few people could actually read, the risk of someone reading a confidential document wasn't all that high. Written communication was also hand delivered by trusted messengers since there wasn't a postal service yet, so there really were no worries about having to secure the contents of a document.
Over time the use of sealing wax became more widespread. The use of wax seals was no longer just reserved for the wealthy or elite. People also began using wax seals in their private correspondence with others. During the colonial period communication was done almost solely through letter writing. People began using wax seals with great regularity to seal the private letters they sent to others. The wax provided a somewhat secure closure. It ensured that the contents of the letter were sealed and kept confidential.
From the 16th century onward, sealing wax was made out of a variety of combined substances. The recipes varied. Mixtures of various proportions of shellac, turpentine, resin, chalk or plaster, and coloring matter such as vermilion we're used to create sealing wax. Sealing wax historically has also been perfumed by ambergris, musk, and other scents.
People sometimes would hide a coin in the sealing wax for the recipient. They did so in order to cover the postage costs of the letter they were sending. Postage worked a little differently during the colonial period than it does today. Before the introduction of stamps, it was generally the recipient of mail, not the sender, who paid the cost of postage. The recipient would pay the fee directly to the postman upon delivery. It was also actually a pretty safe way to send somebody money. The hard colored wax hid the coin from view and secured it safely into place. In order to retrieve the coin the seal would have to be broken. It would have been pretty obvious to the receiver if the letters seal was tampered with.
Seals come in many different forms. For example there are seal rings or signet rings, hand-held desk seals, pendant seals, and seals that attach to a watch fob. All seals are reversed engineered to ensure that their designs come out properly when stamped.
Signet rings have a long and interesting history. They date back to 1400 BC when they were mostly just devotional. Signet Rings soon evolved into symbols of power. With the invention of sealing wax, signet rings underwent an important change. The designs on the rings changed from being mostly raised engravings to sunken designs. This change was necessary in order for the rings to create a raised effect on the wax. By the Middle Ages, any person of influence had their own unique signet ring. Each signet ring had its own significant mark that identified the ring holder. Some had simple monograms or icons. Others had more complex designs with family crests or coats of arms. Some signet rings were engraved with portrait heads. These portrait head signet rings were decorative rather than functional. They all generally were made of gold. These early signet rings looked magnificent but were designed with a very practical purpose in mind. Some very important historical documents were stamped by signet rings. It was normal practice for people to use their signet rings to authenticate documents. Not very many signet rings from the middle ages have survived. Many signet rings from this time period were intentionally destroyed after their owner’s death to prevent forgeries.
Colonial Signet Ring
As time went on more and more men began wearing and using signet rings. There usage in private correspondence increased as well. They were no longer used just for official purposes. Popular demand for signet rings became so high that goldsmiths actually began stocking standard designs that were ready to be engraved upon order. During the colonial period men continued to wear signet rings which they used to stamp documents and seal letters. Flat bands with heavy seals usually bearing a matrix, crest, or merchants mark were used throughout the colonial period. Merchants used signet rings to stamp seals on shipments. Signet rings from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were generally made of gold or sometimes silver. Brass and copper signet rings are not unheard of but they also were not really popular or common either.
Signet rings that were used for the practical purpose of stamping sealing wax decreased in popularity during the 18th century. People were still using sealing wax with great regularity. Their choice of seal making device began to change though. Signet rings were slowly replaced by pendant seals and watch fob seals.
All metal pendant seals were primarily used for business correspondence. They were frequently made from silver and had either plain, flat handles or lavishly embellished scroll handles. Pendant wax seals usually came in swivel form, that way the matrix could be seen when the pendant was being worn. The user then could just simply turn the pendant when they wanted to use it. The swivel function allowed the user to easily use the pendant seal for its practical purpose while also having a piece of jewelry that made quite the fashion statement.
During the 18th century both men and women developed a keen interest in watches. Watches and watch fobs became an important element of one’s appearance and their watch chains displayed watch keys, trinkets, and of course wax seals. Watch fob wax seals decorated the waists of fashionable men during the late 18th and early 19th century. These seals engraved in gold or silver attached to watch fobs and we're used for marking a person's signature impression in wax or for sealing a letter shut.
Hand and desk seals were popular as well throughout the colonial period and after. It makes sense too. It certainly seems practical to store your seal close by to where you would have sat to compose your letters. Desk seals were a work of art in their own right with fancy handles often made of silver or ivory. Wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries was usually displayed where all could see it. Seals became a decorative item for desks. The prettier looking the better.
The 19th century brought more ornate signet rings. People began adding precious and semi-precious jewels to signet rings. Signet rings with large bezels became popular in the latter part of the 19th century. These signet rings are not the same as the original signet rings we discussed earlier. They were not used to sign and seal documents. They were never, probably ever stamped in sealing wax. The imprint of a signet ring was once an important form of authentication. It once was more authentic than a signature. That changed with time however. The purpose of signet rings changed from sealing to becoming a fashionable jewelry statement. These 19th century signet rings were still used to the denote status of the wearer and they spoke about the identity of the person wearing them. By the Victorian era, signet rings were a staple of a well dress gentleman. There's something about a signet ring that makes a man look important. Signet rings added to a man's appearance and made them look statelier.
Sealing wax was the most common way to seal letters during the 17th and 18th centuries. Wafer seals, a different type of seal for letters, were first introduced around the end of the 18th century. Wafer seals provided a secure closure for personal correspondence. Glue wafers were made from a mixture of wheat, flour, water, egg white, and coloring. The mixture was made into a paste, dried on sheets, and punched out into small flat disks. Wafers were then used like sticky labels. When you wet the bottom of the wafer and placed it between two pieces of paper it sealed them closed. Wafer seals are often misidentified as wax seals or sometimes even as pipe tampers. Wafer seals have a simple cross hatched design on their bases.
Watch Fob Wafer Seal
There was etiquette to using wax seals and wafer seals. The choice of wafers or wax reflected the social customs of the day. The etiquette changed of course throughout the years. Sometimes what was socially acceptable one year wasn't the very next year and vice versa. There are some basic elements of etiquette though that never really changed. For example it showed a lack of respect to use a wafer seal when you were formally addressing someone in written correspondence. Wafer seals were reserved for more casual correspondence. Red sealing wax was the most popular color. Men almost always used red seals while ladies would use red, gilt, rose, or other colors. When someone was in mourning they used black colored sealing wax and it was considered rude to write to someone in mourning and use red sealing wax on your letters to them. Using large sized seals was considered to be bad taste as well.
Wax seals speak of authority and legitimacy. They were originally used to sign documents and evolved into being used to seal letters. By the 18th century their chief use was for closure. There was a plethora of correspondence that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a supremely literate age distinguished by the widespread use of seals. Wax seals were an essential part of private correspondence. The invention of unpleasant tasting gummed envelopes ultimately put an end to the use of wax and wafer seals. I hope you enjoyed reading this article and viewing all the wonderful photos. If you have a picture of a wax seal or signet ring that you have found I would love to see it. You can post photos or comments in the section below. Thanks and happy hunting!