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Wax Seals

The Art of Wax Seals

Wax seals have been used for centuries. Long before adhesive envelopes were invented, wax seals were used to prevent a letter from being tampered with or opened by unwelcome, prying individuals. They were also used to convey authority and identity, as seals were often stamped with initials, symbols from a family crest, or other unique identifying marks. (Think Scarlet Pimpernel...) Today, wax seals convey an inexplicable sense of romance, mystery and elegance. In certain states and commonwealths, there are still legal requirements on the books that obligate certain official documents to be sealed, rather than embossed. Documents are wrapped with flat red binding tape and sealed before witnesses, some of whom then apply 'seals' or signature rings to the warm wax so any tampering will be immediately evident. And while the United States Postal Service doesn't always like to deliver sealed mail, the federal law requires that they do so.

Today, there are many different colors available for sealing wax. In the Middle Ages, the sealing material was initially pure beeswax, ranging in color from almost white to yellow to brown. During the 11th century, pigments were added, e.g., red, green, yellow, black. In addition, manufacturers began to experiment with adding various resins in order to make the wax harder and the images to appear sharper. Unfortunately, this resulted also in rendering the seal impressions more brittle. The composition of the sealing wax changed over the centuries and from country to country. For example, in 19th century England the material for royal seals was almost pure shellac. The color used denoted the substance of the letter's contents or the relationship between the sender and recipient. For instance, letters of mourning were sealed with black wax, while letters of business used red wax. In addition, the sizes of seals varied throughout the years. The general tendency for seals of royalty or nobility was a steady growth through the centuries. Sigebert III, a monarch had a seal designed for him in the year 638 that was barely 1 centimeter (3/8 inch) in diameter. Russian czar Alexander II had an enormous seal designed in 1856 that measured 26 centimeters (over 10 inches). City seals in many European countries were often very large. Most seals of the 13th and 14th centuries were approximately 9 centimeters (3 1/2 inches) in diameter, but these official seals became smaller throughout the centuries.

Learning to use wax seals is very easy. First, clear a workspace for yourself where you can lay out paper, a candle, your wax sticks, seal, and any ribbons you would like to use. Then, holding the pointed end of your wax stick to candlelight, warm your wax stick until it is softened and begins to drip. Drip a generous portion of the wax over your envelope or letter, where you want to seal. If you are using ribbon, place two short strips of cut ribbon on envelope before dripping wax. Drip on ribbon and envelope. Using your seal, press firmly on soft wax. Clean seal properly when finished.