Sealing … Wax?

During the Regency, the substance used to seal letters and other documents was seldom made with any wax at all. However, there had been a time in Europe when wax was all that was used to seal documents. It was for that reason that this special substance came by its name. For centuries before the advent of the pre-gummed paper envelope in the mid-nineteenth century, people around the world had used various materials to seal their written communications. Some of those elements were still part of the formula for sealing "wax" as late as the early nineteenth century.

How written communications were kept private during the Regency …

Written communications were oftentimes sealed from the time people first began to write them. The Sumerians, who had one of the earliest writing systems, used clay impressed with symbols to "seal" their "documents," which were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. The Egyptians used a form of malleable clay to seal their papyrus documents, as did the Greeks. The Romans first used bitumen, a naturally occuring black, sticky fluid which would harden with exposure to air. Later, the Romans began using beeswax to seal their documents. The use of beeswax spread north into the rest of Europe and continued in use in some regions through much of the Middle Ages.

It must be understood that for most of the Middle Ages seals were used to verify the authenticity of documents, not to secure their contents. Very few people could read, so the risk to the infrequent number letters and other correspondence in circulation was quite low. Even more so since all of these written communications would have been hand-delivered by trusted messengers since there was as yet no postal service. It was actually more important to make it clear that official documents were authentic when they were issued. Even people who could not read recognized the coats of arms or crests of the various authorities who issued such documents, and wax seals bearing those images were attached to these documents, verifying their authenticity. The majority of these seals were made of beeswax, partly because beeswax took and held a very crisp impression of whatever was pressed into it while it was warm and soft. But the other reason that beeswax was commonly used for seals in the Middle Ages was that bees were believed to be blessed by God and therefore, both their honey and their wax were understood to be pure and untainted. In fact, the Vatican had ordered that only beeswax candles could be burned during any Catholic religious services for that very reason. The Church also issued a number of official documents during this time, all of which had wax seals attached. This same practice was followed by most of the temporal authorities across Europe, including those in England and Scotland.

There are a few scholars who believe that the formula for what came to be known as "sealing wax" originated in the East, probably in India, possibly before the Middle Ages. They are of the opinion that this formula was imported into Spain sometime in the thirteenth century, from where it slowly spread north and westward across Europe over the next several decades. However, the majority of scholars believe that the formula for sealing way is more likely to have originated in France or Italy in the sixteenth century. This is supported by the fact that the earliest known authenticated seal was used on a letter dated 3 August 1554, sent to Rheingrave Von Dhaun from his agent in London. Because all documents which had been sealed in the majority of the countries of Europe prior to this time had been sealed with wax, often beeswax, this new compound was identified as "wax," despite the fact that it contained no wax of any kind. Regardless of its true origins, in France this new sealing compound was known as cire d’Espagne, while in Italy is was called cera di Spagna, thus "Spanish wax," in both countries. However, it should be pointed out that it was customary at this time to label anything new or curious as "Spanish," therefore suggesting the name had less to do with its country of origin than its novelty. In the various German states, it was known as Siegelwachs, which translates as "sealing wax," and it was by this name that it became known in Britain.

As the Middle Ages came to a close, relations between various powers was less often settled on the battlefield and more often negotiated by diplomacy. But such negotiations typically required confidential communication among the governmental representatives who were party to the negotiations. To safeguard these communications, they were folded with the contents to the inside and sealed to ensure no one could read them but those to whom they were addressed. These confidential communications were initially sealed with beeswax. Though in these cases, the beeswax was not attached to the lower edge of the document by a string or ribbon. Instead, the string or ribbon was wrapped around the letter, and the wax was melted and dropped in a puddle over it, on the opening of the missive. The seal of the official or agency sending the message was then pressed into the warm wax, leaving an impression. However, it did not take long for it to become clear that beeswax had a significant drawback when used to prevent someone from reading a letter not intended for them. Beeswax was very flexible and had a relatively high melting point. Which meant that it could be easily separated from the paper to which it was attached with a thin heated blade, without spoiling the image which had been impressed into it. That same seal could then be readily replaced with an additional drop or two of melted wax once the letter had been read, with no one the wiser, due to the flexibility of the wax and its high melting point, which kept the image intact and crisp.

Government officials, particularly those engaged in clandestine operations and delicate and confidential negotiations, immediately recognized the need for a sealing material which would betray any effort made to tamper with the seal and gain access to the contents of the document it was intended to secure. It was then that the superior qualities of the new "Spanish" wax came to be highly valued. The basic formula of this new sealing compound was a blend of shellac, mastic, turpentine, chalk or gypsum, and a coloring agent, to which essential oils and/or fragrant balsams might be added to facilitate melting and impart a pleasant fragrance. This "sealing wax" could be melted to a thick viscous fluid which would readily and firmly adhere to the parchment or paper on which it was placed. While warm, it would take a clear impression of any seal that was pressed in to it. It would remain solid, even in the heat of summer, and was flexible enough to remain intact while affixed to the document on which it had been placed. However, it was extremely difficult to remove a seal made of this material and replace it after the contents of the sealed document had been read. This compound was more brittle than beeswax so it could be easily broken, thus providing clear evidence of tampering. Even if the seal could be removed unbroken, any attempt to re-affix a seal was nearly impossible, since, with such a low melting point, the image which had been impressed into it would loose its crispness, if not melt completely, if additional hot wax was used to re-attach it, yet another sign of tampering.

The Royal Mail was established by Henry VIII, in 1516, but for the first century of its existence, it served only the monarchy and the government. It was not until 1635 that Charles I made the service available to the public, though it was significantly improved during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. By the mid-seventeenth century, literacy was growing steadily in England, and with a more reliable postal service, many people were keeping in touch with letters. But these letters were carried by strangers and the majority of these letter writers did not care to have other people know their personal business. Therefore, it became necessary to secure the contents of those private letters. Initially, some people still used wax, even melted candle wax, to "seal" these missives, since it was readily available in most households. But, again, it soon became clear that wax was not a secure sealing agent, particularly at a time when it was known that many in the postal service opened and read mail to or from those in whom the government had an interest. For this reason, the demand for a tamper-resistant compound which could be used to seal even private letters was increasing.

Though true sealing wax had been in use as early as the sixteenth century, at that time, it was used almost exclusively by government officials, when the Royal Mail carried only messages for the Crown. That had changed by the end of the seventeenth century, when sealing wax was being made and sold to the general public for use in sealing their private correspondence. Sealing wax was usually made by varnish-makers, since most of the components of the formula were part of their stock-in-trade, the same ingredients which they used in the making of varnishes, lacquers and other surface coatings such as French polish. It should also be noted that some of these same varnish-makers also made water-proof hats using many of these same ingredients. There was as much art as science required in the production of a high-quality sealing wax. Each maker of sealing wax tended to have their own special formula, and some included wax, while others did not. A formula for sealing wax published in 1722 called for bayberry wax, which was more brittle than beeswax, but quite aromatic, thus producing a pleasantly fragrant sealing wax. Another formula, published in the 1773 edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica, included beeswax, finely powdered rosin, olive-oil and Venice turpentine, which was considered to be the finest grade of turpentine. Other formulas from later in that century included shellac, sandarac, colophony, pitch or mastic.

The most popular color for sealing wax was red. In the formulas for the highest quality sealing waxes, the red color was derived from vermilion, also known as cinnabar. But cinnabar was extremely heavy, making it necessary to add powdered chalk or gypsum to the formula. This additive reduced the density of the red sealing wax, but because it was white, it did not affect the resulting color. Black sealing wax was most often used by those in mourning, and the color was typically derived from lampblack. In lower quality sealing waxes, common soot was used to color the mixture black, but soot gave the sealing wax an unpleasant odor when it was melted. The only other color of sealing wax available during the Regency was green. But this color, as it had been for centuries, was used only by the office of the Exchequer and the courts, of both the government and the Church. There is no indication green sealing wax was made available to the general public, at least not during the Regency. The green color was achieved by the use of verditer (copper hydroxide). Shellac was an ingredient in the highest quality sealing waxes. In order to produce sealing wax with clean, pure red or green color, it was necessary to use bleached shellac to make the wax. In its natural state, shellac was a reddish brown color which would have muddied the colors of the finished product. However, there was no need to bleach shellac for use in making black sealing wax, since natural-colored shellac would have had no effect on that color. In the second half of the nineteenth century, sealing wax was made in a much wider array of colors, but in the Regency sealing wax was available in red and black for the general public. Though green sealing wax was in use by both the sacred and secular courts, it does not appear to have been used by the Exchequer by this time.

Other ingredients also found in sealing wax were essential oils and fragrant balsams, which were used in part to control the melting point of the finished product. But more frequently, they were used to give the sealing wax a pleasant scent when it was being melted. Both balsam of Tolu and balsam of Peru were sometimes used, while the most frequently used essential oils were oil of lavender, oil of mace, oil of cloves, oil of rhodium, oil of benjamin and ambergris. Sealing wax sticks made with these ingredients would have only a faint scent until the stick was exposed to heat to melt it, at which time the scent would become much stronger, perfuming the area in proximity to the melting wax. Poor quality sealing waxes were scented as often as were high quality sealing waxes, since the scent would help to cover the unpleasant odor given off by poor quality resins when they were heated.

Regardless of their quality, the process for making all sealing waxes was essentially the same. The base ingredients were combined, then heated slowly over the lowest possible heat, since high heat would turn the mixture black. The coloring agent would be added once the mixture was fully melted. If vermilion was used, it would have to be stirred in rapidly and continuously, to keep it from sinking to the bottom. The last ingredients to be added, if wanted, were the balsams or essential oils. The melted sealing wax mixture might then be poured out onto a marble slab, if the sticks were to be hand-made. But more often, the melted mixture was poured into molds which might be made of a number of materials from brass to wood. Some makers poured their heated sealing wax mixture into chilled molds, to speed the hardening of the wax in order to be able to reuse the molds more quickly. But this practice had the effect of making the finished sticks very brittle. The better grades of wax were poured into molds at room temperature, which were allowed to stand for a time, after which they might be periodically bathed with cool water to hasten the hardening process without making the finished sticks too brittle. Once the sticks were firm and had been turned out of the molds, the final step was polishing. The best quality sealing waxes, which were usually made in brass molds, needed very little polishing, and were typically just rubbed down to ensure a smooth surface. But poor quality sticks, especially those made in wooden molds, would require a more involved polishing process. These sticks would be held inside a specialized stove until they began to bend with the heat. They were then quickly removed and pressed between a pair of very smooth boards, then turned so the other two sides could be polished. The final step was to stamp the sealing wax sticks with any decorative designs and the maker’s mark. They were then ready for bulk sale to stationers, who would sell the individual sticks to their customers.

A good quality stick of sealing wax was expected to be smooth and glossy, of a deep clear color. It should not be too brittle and it should retain its shape even in the highest summer temperatures without becoming soft. When it was heated, it should melt easily, without emitting either smoke or an unpleasant odor, nor should it become such a thin fluid that it dripped from the stick. Unlike sticks of sealing wax today, the sealing wax sticks made from the seventeenth through the later nineteenth century were longer, thicker and had no wicks. To seal a letter or other document with such sticks, the end of the stick of sealing wax would be held at a little distance above a flame or other heat source, until enough wax needed to make the desired seal was softened. If the stick was held too close to the flame the wax would burn and blacken. The softened blob of wax would then pressed to the document to be sealed and the stick twisted to release the softened wax from the unmelted portion of the stick. As soon as the blob of sealing wax was placed on the paper, the seal should be pressed into it. To achieve the clearest seal, it was recommended that the seal pressed into the wax not be cold, but rather, be warmed, to avoid the creation of bubbles or making the finished seal too brittle to survive the journey of the document to its recipient. A signet ring, which was regularly worn, would be warm enough for the purpose, but those Regency gentlemen who used a fob seal would typically pass it through the same flame which was used to melt the sealing wax a time or two before pressing it into the melted wax to achieve the optimal seal. A seal made from a good quality of sealing wax was expected to have the same appearance as the stick of sealing wax from which it was made. It should not change color, nor should it loose its lustre.

The making of sealing wax sticks for the use of sealing letters and other documents was only a small part of the sealing wax industry from the end of the eighteenth century into the first decades of the twentieth century. Though of much lesser quality than the sealing wax made to seal documents, this sealing wax, which was used to seal corked wine bottles, was made in large quantities. Shellac, bleached or unbleached was seldom used, replaced with common pine resins. Brick dust was used as both a coloring agent and a filler, and low-grade turpentines were substituted for the top-quality Venice turpentine used for the best sealing waxes. This sealing wax was never made into sticks, it was sold in large chunks which would be melted in a pot for use. The neck of a corked bottle of wine would be dipped into the melted wax, which hardened quickly on the cold glass of the bottle. This rapid hardening could make the sealing wax so brittle that it would break up even when lightly touched. The addition of more turpentine to the mixture would make the sealing wax less brittle, but it could have the undesirable effect of making the sealing wax sticky, even in very cool temperatures. The best bottle sealing wax had some shellac added to the mix. Though this raised the cost slightly, it also resulted in a wax which did not become too brittle in cold weather or too sticky in warm weather. Though it was illegal to sell wine in bottles during the Regency, many vintners and wine sellers who bottled wine for their customers did seal those bottles with this bottle sealing wax.

Curiously, in Germany, beginning in the early nineteenth century, sealing wax had acquired a "medical" use. As explained by the noted historian, Roy Porter, in his book, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind:   A Medical History of Humanity, " … hot drops of sealing wax were dropped onto the palms of mental patients, as so-called ‘salutary doses of therapeutic terror’ …" There is no evidence sealing wax was used in this way to "treat" mental patients in England during the Regency. However, it is known that hot sealing wax had been used from time to time, from at least the late seventeenth century, as an easily obtainable instrument of torture by various cruel and heartless persons seeking to force their victims to do their bidding or provide some desired piece of information. It may well have been used in this way during the Regency.

And so, now you know that Regency sealing wax may, or may not, have contained any wax. That most private citizens used red sealing wax, unless they were in mourning, when they used black. Green sealing wax was made during the Regency, but its use was confined to government and Church courts. Scented sealing wax was no guarantee of quality, since many of the lesser grades were scented to cover to unpleasant odors given off when they were melted. Sealing wax came in various grades, from the very finest, made with bleached shellac and Venice turpentine, having a high lustre; to the poorest quality, of a dull, matte finish, made only to seal wine bottles. Sticks of Regency sealing wax were typically about seven to eight inches long, and about an inch thick. They had no wicks, as do sticks of sealing wax today. One end would be held above a flame, high enough to avoid burning, while enough wax softened to make a secure seal. The softened end of the sealing wax would be pressed onto the closed letter where the seal was wanted and the stick twisted away. A signet ring or fob seal, which should be warm to create the best seal, was then pressed firmly into the soft blob of wax. Though we use sealing wax today mostly to add embellishment to a letter, in the Regency, it was the best assurance a letter writer had that their missive would reach its intended recipient unread by prying eyes. Sealing wax was also used to seal wine bottles, and protect the cork from the air until the wine was opened. It was used in Germany to "treat" mental patients by inflicting pain. It was even, occassionally, used by cruel and sadistic villains to inflict torture on someone to gain information or enforce the performance of some task. Dear Regency Authors, might sealing wax have more of a role in one of your upcoming novels, beyond that of sealing a letter or two?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Sealing … Wax?

  1. Fascinating as always – I had never questioned [foolish me] the makeup of the sticks of sealing ‘wax’ my great grandfather had in his writing box – which I inherited – though they are harder and shinier than wax. I always thought it was wax with some additive! his were red, mustard coloured, green and black, this would be late 19th early 20th century

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Neither did I, until a few months ago, when I ran across an old manual for the making of various varnishes and finishes, which included sealing wax. It was then that I saw that there was little, if any, actual wax in sealing “wax.” So I did some research to see if the same formulas were used during the Regency.

      It is unlikely that your grandfather’s sealing wax had any wax in it, since most formulas for sealing wax by the later nineteenth century had no wax at all. The mustard-colored stick may very well have been intended to be gold, which apparently was very popular in the late nineteenth century.

      Do your grandfather’s sealing wax sticks have wicks, or are they the really old-fashioned kind that were wick-free?

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Gold eh? it’s a horrid colour and hasn’t actually been used more than about once… no wicks, they are about 3″ long and as wide as a finger, slightly less deep with the words ‘sealing wax’ moulded into them. I don’t know if there was any packaging associated with them but possibly not as my great aunt remembered buying them in the ironmongers [where you also bought candles, varnishes, pitch, fittings and the many useful things old fashioned ironmongers used to sell before the big out of town DIY stores killed them]. There was a heap of stuff in his box, like the bone folding letter opener, a pen knife, and the bill for the piano, dated 1906. I’ve put it all carefully away until I can make sense of it, as I like to use his writing box as a writing box [mahogany, mother of pearl inlay]. I was just thinking of Lewis Carol’s Walrus and Carpenter who ‘talked of many things – of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings…’

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    That is too funny. I nearly used the Lewis Carroll quote for the title of this article. Either than or some of the lyrics from the song Puff the Magic Dragon, where Jackie Paper brings Puff ” … strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff.”

    I often research past the Regency era when I am working on an article, and I discovered that in the later Victoria period, gold sealing wax was considered very fashionable. In some cases, gold-colored sealing wax sticks were also gilded. A bit over the top, but apparently they sold quite well.

    It is interesting that your grandfather’s sticks of sealing wax were much smaller than the majority of those sold in the Regency. It would seem to reflect the fact that sealing wax was no longer necessary in an era of pre-gummed envelopes and was only used occasionally, for special correspondence.

    His writing case sounds quite lovely, you must enjoy using such a beautiful piece. It must make writing letters so much more civilized. Certainly more so than email! 😉

    Regards,

    Kat

    • Alas there are all too few people who communicate now by snail mail; my last frequent correspondent died last year. I also keep my dip pens in there and Chinese brushes, the ink wells are virtually unspillable which for a messy critter like me is a distinct advantage! I’ve never had any other sealing waxes to compare them to, and I can’t help wondering if they were the product of some local enterprise…

  3. I had forgotten the Puff quote, how appropriate!

  4. Pingback: Of Wax-Jacks and Bougie-Boxes | The Regency Redingote

  5. Dee says:

    I have no idea if it is too late to post a comment on a 2012 entry, but I’m going to try. I want to thank you so much for your copious and detailed research on so many topics! I was searching online to see if my heroine could open the seal on her Cousin Minerva’s letter (Do we say “folded letter” if no envelope is used?) with her fingers and my query brought me to your site. I have often visited here, so have finally shaken off my usual lurking self to tell you how much I appreciate all the research you do and share. Having done a fair bit of it myself, I know how long and painstaking it can be. When you have covered a topic I am researching, I am always relieved because I know I can trust you to be as accurate as it is possible to be, within the bounds of reason. Thanks!

    Dee

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It is never too late to post a comment here, but I do apologize for my long-delayed response (caused by a computer meltdown), not lack of interest or appreciation for your kind words. I am very glad to know that you have found the articles posted here useful to you, since that is my intent in posting them. I am also very flattered to know that you trust the information which is provided here. I fully admit to almost terminal curiosity, so I always want to know all the details about a topic I can find, and I include them for all the other curious folks who might stop by. 🙂

      “Folded letter” would be perfectly correct and accurate, since it is the written page which constitutes a letter, not its covering, if any. “Missive” is another lovely word one can use, or simply “message,” since a message can be of any length. I have also occasionally seen the term “lines” used when referring to written communication during the Regency.

      I wish you much luck with your story! In case you are not aware, I have a standing offer for any Regency author who has used any historical snippet from the Redingote to post a comment to the article they used with a link to their book, once it is published. You are welcome to do the same.

      Regards,

      Kat

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