The use of wax seals largely disappeared along with the popularity of handwritten correspondence. But judging by the surprising number of sealed envelopes I receive from AoM readers, the practice has certainly not died out completely among those who still practice the art of letter writing. The appeal? They add an element of distinction to your correspondence, and, perhaps just as importantly, give you a chance to play with fire! If you’ve ever been curious about wax seals, today we’ll cover everything on the subject from their history to how to make them yourself.
The History of Wax Seals
The use of seals can be traced all the way back to the world’s first civilizations, and have been found from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley. These first seals were made with clay that was impressed with engraved cylinders or rings.
The use of wax seals, however, did not begin until the Middle Ages. At first they were the exclusive purview of monarchs, bishops, and royal courts for use in issuing official decrees and authenticating documents. The use of wax seals then gradually became more democratized, spreading from aristocrats, to monasteries and guilds (for example, butchers would sign agreements with a seal bearing the image of a hog or cow), and eventually to ordinary freemen by the 13th century. Each individual had their own seal, and in a time when many were illiterate, they were used in place of a signature to authenticate agreements, contracts, wills, letters which conferred rights or privileges – any act executed in someone’s name.
Utilized in this official capacity, seals were sometimes placed directly on the document but were most often attached in the “pendent style.” The seal was applied to a cord, ribbon, or strip of parchment and hung loose after being threaded through a hole or slot at the lower edge of the document.
Seals hung in the pendent style from a charter of privileges for the town of Wrocław (Silesia), granted by Duke Henry III in 1261.
The wax itself was made with 2/3 beeswax and 1/3 resin, a ratio that shifted almost entirely to the latter in the post-medieval period. The Pope would seal his documents with a bulla – a lump of lead, which eventually gave these documents their name – papal bulls.
Red (colored with the mineral cinnabar) and black (made with the soot from burning pure resin) were the most common colors, but a variety of hues existed from gold (yellow mica) to blue (powdered cobalt glass). Some royal courts used different colors to distinguish various administrative functions.
The wax was pressed with a handheld seal or with a signet ring. The latter, which can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, was a symbol of authority and power and used by the higher ups both in the aristocracy and the Church. Thus the signet ring of a dignitary was frequently kissed by a diplomat or visitor as a sign of allegiance or submission.
Seals of either kind bore a graphic emblem in the center, and featured a heraldic motif, an image of the bearer himself, or in the case of ecclesiastical uses, a saint. Circling the emblem was the seal’s “legend” – often simply “The seal of [the name of the owner]” in Latin or vernacular — or sometimes the owner’s motto.
Because seals were symbols of power and were used to authenticate a person’s wishes, they were typically destroyed after the owner died to prevent posthumous forgeries. For example, when a Pope dies (and after writing this last week, I should now add “or abdicates!”), the Camerlengo’s first duty is to ceremonially destroy his “Ring of the Fisherman” in front of his fellow cardinals. This signet ring was used by the Holy Father from at least the 13th century until 1842 to first seal private correspondence and then papal briefs. Post-1842 the seal was replaced by a red ink stamp, but a new Fisherman ring is still cast in gold for each incoming Pope.
The fate of the Pope’s Fisherman’s seal would be shared by most other seals used in an official capacity. Except for occasional ceremonial use, modern governments have almost entirely replaced wax seals with the rubber stamp and ink variety.
Wax Seals in Private Correspondence
Using a wax seal in the way we often think of today — to keep a letter closed, ensure it hasn’t been tampered with, and confirm it was indeed written by the supposed sender – was practiced in the Middle Ages, but did not really take off until the post-medieval period. As travel, emigration, and colonization increased, wax seals were not simply applied to keep communication confidential, but as a practical necessity. Before the British and American postal reforms of the mid-19th century, sending a letter was quite expensive; it cost 25 cents in the US to send a letter over 450 miles – quite a sum in those days. Furthermore, postage was based on distance and number of sheets. An envelope would have counted as an additional sheet – doubling the cost – so letter writers used as much of a single piece of paper as possible and then sealed it shut with wax or paste to avoid the extra expense. Envelopes were considered a frivolous luxury.
You can still skip the envelope today by folding and then sealing a piece of paper. Here’s one folding method.
After postal reforms significantly reduced the cost of postage and changed their basis from the number of sheets to overall weight, letter writing became much more accessible to the masses. The volume of letters mailed increased fivefold, and along with this boom, a burgeoning envelope industry emerged. At first they were handmade by stationary clerks, 25 at a time, but these painstakingly assembled envelopes did not include adhesive…the stationery stores also sold sealing wax! The death knell for wax seals did not come until the latter half of the 19th century, as automatic envelope folding machines, and more importantly, pre-gummed envelopes, were developed. With a couple of licks, a letter could be sealed inside an envelope and sent on its way.
Today, using wax seals is as unnecessary as handwritten correspondence, and yet like many old traditions, it is pleasurable to practice, and adds a bit of personal distinction and panache to your communication.
If you’re interested in creating wax seals like the knights of yore, read on, good sir!