Of Wax-Jacks and Bougie-Boxes

Recently, I posted an article here about sealing wax. During the Regency, sealing wax was an essential part of correspondence, as this was several decades before the introduction of the adhesive paper envelopes which we take so for granted today. From at least the seventeenth century through most of the nineteenth, a dollop of sealing wax was the best means by which to ensure your correspondence remained private. But sealing wax during the Regency was not sold in the form-factor with which we are familiar today. Regency sealing wax was sold in large sticks which had no wicks down the center. So how did one heat a stick of sealing wax during the Regency in order to melt it for use? Many people kept a wax-jack or a bougie-box on their desk for the purpose.

And so, on wax-jacks and bougie-boxes …

In the Regency, as had been the case for several centuries prior and remains so even today, sealing wax could not be used without heat. That heat was most efficiently delivered by an open flame. But fire at that time was not readily or conveniently available. Friction matches had not yet been invented and, most definitely, there were no lighters to be had. The usual source for fire was a tinderbox, the use of which required equal amounts of patience and skill, in large measure. Some people used a candle, but they could be problematic. The flame was often too large and thus too hot, which presented the risk of scorching the sealing wax and depositing a darkened or mottled blob of wax on the letter. Worse, if the heat was too intense, the cohesiveness of the sealing wax could be compromised and the seal might not hold. If tallow candles were used, they tended to smoke, again risking the discoloration of the melted sealing wax. There was also the basic economic fact that candles were very expensive.

From at least the mid-seventeenth century, the solution to the problem of melting sealing wax for use was solved by the development of the wax-jack. These devices acquired the second part of their name from the term used for any apparatus which consisted primarily of a roller or spindle, known as a "jack," usually mounted or attached to some sort of frame. The earliest wax-jacks were very plain and simple, comprising a shallow container with a vertical or horizontal spindle or roller around which was wrapped a long length of taper. This taper was most often a length of fiber wick which was usually coated with wax. It was for this reason that this device was also called a taper-jack. However, sometimes a thicker fiber wick which had been soaked in turpentine was used in place of a wax-coated taper. Regardless of the composition of the wick, it was usually held upright by some form of clip or scissor at the top of the support. In most cases, the clip held the wick so tightly that it would prevent the wick from burning down below that level, which served as a primitive but effective safety feature. These wicks tended to burn with a small, but steady clean flame which was ideal for melting the end of a stick of sealing wax.

By the turn of the eighteenth century, the wax-jack had proved its worth, and by mid-century it had become a regular part of many desk sets. They were made en suite with ink-stands, pounce boxes and pen-trays or holders. The wax-jack had also moved beyond its original, simple utilitarian design. As the century progressed, wax-jacks were made in an ever-increasing range of styles. They were also made with various metals, depending on their intended use. Upscale wax-jacks for affluent consumers were usually made of silver, and in some cases, even silver-gilt. Wax-jacks made of these metals were typically also executed in elegant and fashionable designs, by talented and skilled silversmiths. Accessories were often added to these more costly and ornate wax-jacks, including a handle for carrying and an array of different types of levers or cranks by which to feed the taper though the clip as it burned down. Most also had a small conical snuffer attached by a chain for use in extinguishing the flame of the taper when it was no longer needed. But there were many more wax-jacks made of brass, pewter or even iron with few, if any, accessories or decorative features. These less stylish, more utilitarian versions of the device were sometimes to be found on the desks of those of the middle classes. But they were even more often found on the desks of clerks in government offices, law firms or merchant’s counting houses.

After the middle of the eighteenth century, the taper used in the majority of wax-jacks was seldom soaked in turpentine. Instead, most wax-jack tapers were coated with wax, but not just any wax. The only wax practical for use with wax-jacks was beeswax. The other "wax" typically used for the making of candles, tallow, was completely inappropriate. Tallow was fairly soft, even at room temperature, so it could easily become fused to the spindle or the other coils of the taper, making it difficult to reel off as needed. In addition, tallow was very smoky when it burned, it had an unpleasant odor, and as a meat by-product, it attracted rodents and other vermin. Beeswax, on the other hand, would remain firm, even in all but the very warmest summer temperatures, so that the taper coil could be easily reeled off as it burned down. Beeswax burned with a clean, nearly smokeless flame, it had a subtle, pleasant odor and it did not attract vermin. The ideal material to have at hand on one’s desk when it was time to heat a stick of sealing wax to seal one’s letters.

The bougie-box was developed several decades after the introduction of the wax-jack. Bougie is French for candle, specifically a candle made of wax. The origins of the word are to be found in North Africa, in the Algerian city of Bijiyah, which for centuries had carried on a thriving trade in wax. The French called the town Bougie, and that same name was soon also applied to wax candles in France. The earliest known bougie-boxes date from the first decades of the eighteenth century. They appear to have been initially introduced on the Continent, primarily in Italy and France. Bougie-boxes had migrated to England by the middle of the eighteenth century and remained in use there well into the middle of the nineteenth century.

Essentially, a bougie-box is a roller or spindle around which a long taper has been coiled and is then placed inside a closed container, usually cylindrical and often made of metal. The taper is fed up through a small hole in the lid of the box for burning. The original intent of the bougie-box design was as a means by which to enclose and therefore protect, a long coil of beeswax which was to be used as light. The burning time of this taper could be controled by how much of the taper was pulled up through the hole in the top of the box. Of course, as with so many things made over the centuries, people often employed useful gadgets for purposes other than those for which they were originally intended. So it was with the bougie-box, particularly in England, where many were used as a kind of enclosed wax-jack, for the purpose of melting sealing wax. By the turn of the nineteenth century, there were many desk sets available with either wax-jacks or bougie-boxes, depending upon the buyer’s preference. Some people chose to use a wax-jack on their desk, but preferred to use a bougie-box when travelling.

Unlike wax-jacks, bougie-boxes were an object which apparently found favor only with the affluent. The majority of the bougie-boxes which survive are made of silver or silver-gilt. There are also a number of very attractive and richly colored enameled bougie-boxes still extant, which would have been nearly as costly as silver when they were made, in the early nineteenth century. As noted above, bougie-boxes were nearly always cylindrical, but they ranged widely in general shape. At one end of the range, some are rather short and squat, while at the other end of the range are to be seen bougie-boxes which are quite tall and slender. Some have handles and attached cone snuffers, while others are simple, elegant cylinders with clean and harmonious lines, but with no accessories or attachments of any kind.

Regardless of whether a writer included a wax-jack or a bougie-box among their desk accessories, they would have been used in much the same way. All of the letters to be sealed during a writing session would be written, sanded and allowed to dry. This would ensure they would not smudge when they were folded for sealing. When all the letters were ready, the wick of the taper in the wax-jack or bougie-box would be lit, from a candle, the fire burning in the room, or from a tinderbox. The thick stick of sealing wax would be held near the flame until enough had been melted to produce an effective seal. The blob of melted sealing wax would be dropped onto the paper and the writer’s seal would be warmed and pressed into the hot sealing wax. A warm seal would result in a more precise image in the sealing wax than would a cold seal, which could begin setting the sealing wax before the seal had been fully pressed in to it. Very often, the flame of the wax-jack taper would also be used to warm the seal before it was pressed into the melted sealing wax. Where a high volume of letters and other documents would need to be sealed throughout the course of a day, such as in government or business offices, a large, utilitarian wax-jack might remain lit all day on the desks of the clerks responsible for preparing and sealing those documents. More frugal businesses might only light their wax-jack at the end of the day, to seal all their correspondence as efficiently and economically as possible in the shortest space of time.

Some sources state that the wax of the taper in the wax-jack was used to seal letters. But that is inaccurate, since, as I explained in my article on sealing wax, pure beeswax was an inferior material for sealing letters, since it remained flexible after it cooled. Though some sealing wax formulas did include a small amount of beeswax, it was the other ingredients which resulted in a material which would be brittle enough when it cooled to reveal any efforts which might have been made to tamper with the seal. These same sources also overlook the simple fact that the beeswax of the taper in the wax-jack would be completely consumed as the wick burned, leaving no wax to drip onto a folded letter to make a seal.

Though wax-jacks were not intended to be used as a source of light, they could be pressed into service for that purpose in a pinch. They would not provide quite as much light a full-size candle, but they would still throw enough light, particularly in a room which was completely dark, to enable its occupant to make out their surroundings until a candle or lamp could be lit. They would throw more light if placed in front of a looking glass. Bougie-boxes could also be used in the same way, appropriately, since they had originally been intended as a light source. Some travellers carried a bougie-box in their luggage, both for heating sealing wax when writing letters while on their journey, and as a source of light, should that provided at an inn or other lodging not be sufficient, or if only smoky and smelly tallow candles were available.

A Google Image search on "wax jacks" will provide a wide selection of photos of wax-jacks and a few bougie-boxes.

A Google Image search on "bougie boxes" will provide a wide selection of bougie-boxes and a few wax-jacks.

A perusal of these images will give you an idea of the broad range of both wax-jacks and bougie-boxes which have survived into the modern day. You can also see that a number of these wax-jacks look very like bougie-boxes and vice-versa. By the turn of the nineteenth century the designs of wax-jacks and bougie-boxes were beginning to merge. So much so that today, bougie-boxes are more often identified as wax-jacks, since it is generally assumed they are simply a version of a wax-jack and not a unique form of their own. But now, you know better.

Though few of us use wax-jacks and bougie-boxes today, they were common objects during the Regency. Wax-jacks came in a wide array of styles and metals and could be found on the desks of many people, from aristocrats to tradesmen. Bougie-boxes were less egalitarian and were most often owned and used by more affluent people, since they were made only in more costly materials such as silver and enamel. Wax-jacks usually remained on the desk of their owners and were used almost solely for the melting of sealing wax, though they could substitute for a candle when necessary. Bougie-boxes also served the purpose of melting sealing wax and they were particularly convenient for travel, not only for melting sealing wax, but as a portable and fragrant light source when needed. Should one of these useful objects appear in a Regency novel you are reading, now you will have a better idea of how they looked and how they were used.

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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.
This entry was posted in Penmanship and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Of Wax-Jacks and Bougie-Boxes

  1. Kathryn Kane says:

    There is as much myth as truth out in the world about wax-jacks, which can certainly muddle one’s understanding of them. Bougie-boxs get even less attention, so many people are completely unaware of them. Because they are intriguing objects, there are dozens of replicas are made by people who have no real clue about how these items were used in the past. They write marketing copy with little or no reference to the object’s actual history, which only adds to the confusion surrounding them.

    The worst problem with the replicas is that, though many of them are similar, if not identical to those made in the past, the wax tapers they use are much too thick. Based on some of the collector comments I have seen, finding a replacement taper for an historic wax-jack or bougie-box is pretty much impossible. There are a few specialty sites which sell replacement tapers, but all of them are too thick and many are colored. Some collectors have had to resort to making their own, in order to refill their wax-jacks and bougie-boxes with a period-appropriate taper.

    Regards,

    Kat

  2. Ldnono78@aol.com says:

    Thank you for the wonderful information, do you have any idea where to buy replacement wicks for a wax jack?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      There are only a couple of places that I discovered where one can buy replacement tapers for wax jacks. The problem is, they are all too thick to be historically accurate when used with an antique wax jack. However, a taper that is too thick may be better than nothing.

      There is a site which sells replacement tapers made of beeswax. Though they are too thick, they are uncolored natural beeswax. The site is called Candlestock and you can find the page for the replacement taper at: http://www.candlestock.com/Beeswax-Replacement-Coil-Candle_p_228.html.

      Another option is a fellow who apparently purchased a very large lot of them a few years ago. He has been selling the extras on eBay. But the tapers he is selling are not only thick, they are colored, which is also not historically accurate. You can search on eBay using terms like “wax jack tapers” or “coiled tapers.” If he has any for sale, one of those search terms should pull them up.

      Good Luck!

      Kat

  3. Mark Whyler says:

    Hi, can you tell me the diameter of the taper? I am a beekeeper (in the UK) and would be happy to make tapers. My problem is knowing the dimensions. Mark.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The typical diameter of a taper for a wax jack from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would be between 1/4 to 3/8 inches. (Not quite sure what that would be in centimeters.) Tapers could be as much as 24 inches long, coiled around the spindle of the wax jack. The length needed would be dependent on the design of the individual wax jack.

      Another consideration is the wick used in such tapers. Wicks were not plaited until the 1820s, which means that the wicks used in these original tapers would have been twisted threads of cotton, or perhaps linen. But today, all wicks are plaited, because plaited wicks burn cleaner and more evenly. Wax jack collectors who are sticklers for accuracy may want tapers with twisted thread wicks, while those who just want to enjoy the use of their wax jacks may prefer plaited wicks.

      Another site you may want to visit is the Forum for The Fountain Pen Network. There are a couple of threads there on the subject of wax jacks and acquiring tapers for them. It might be worth your while to register there so you can advise wax jack collectors of your willingness to make tapers.

      The two threads on this subject at The Fountain Pen Network forum can be found at:

      http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php/topic/203759-is-this-a-wax-jack/

      http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php/topic/134660-wax-jacks/

      There are some photos of wax jacks posted in the first thread, which will give you an idea of how the tapers are coiled. But do keep in mind that some of the pictured wax jacks have modern reproduction tapers in them that are much too thick. Some of them are also colored, which is not historically correct for wax jack tapers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Those original tapers would have been either natural or bleached beeswax.

      I hope this information helps. If you can figure out how to make historically correct wax jack tapers, you will be doing a service for a number of serious collectors, and possibly even some museums. I wish you much luck!

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Mark Whyler says:

    Some time ago I was kindly provided details on the make up of wax jack tapers.
    Well, after a lot of experimenting I can now make beeswax tapers in lengths of 1.3 m and approximately 9 mm in diameter. The diameter can be easily varied (within reason!). I have used a natural cotton wick, so these are not standard beeswax wicks.

    I live in the UK and would be happy to sell these to other countries, once the quantity required is known I can then work out the postage. I have put a page on my website, and people can buy and contact me. If you are interested, please have a look, and then email with your requirements.

    The direct link is http://www.productsfromthebeehive.co.uk/buy.html#Wax_jack_taper

    I have also added a page briefly describing what wax tapers are just in case other people don’t know! I hope the information is correct. (!)
    http://www.productsfromthebeehive.co.uk/tapers.html

    Please feel free to forward these links to your fellow wax jack contacts.

    Regards,
    Mark

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am very impressed by your initiative in taking the time, not only to learn about wax-jacks, but more importantly, to learn how to make accurate reproduction tapers. And you have done it in the correct material, real beeswax. Now, museums and those who collect wax-jacks have a source for period-correct wax-jack tapers.

      Thank you for your efforts in preserving this old technology for the modern day. I wish you much success with your wax-jack tapers.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. This was just fascinating. I saw bougie-boxes on the British Antique Road Show and was curious about them. How wonderful to find a writer who could explain their use so succinctly and informatively. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Regency material culture, part 2 » Risky Regencies

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