I’ll wager most of you have heard of the phrase: ‘Signed, sealed and delivered’, yes? Meaning that something is finished, over and done with and out of your hair? Completed and a load off your chest? The ‘signed’ and ‘delivered’ parts are obvious. A signed document which was delivered safely to its intended location. But what of ‘sealed’?
I wasn’t able to track down the history of this phrase, but I’d guess that it goes back centuries, back to when seals and sealing-wax and sealing-stamps were still mandatory desktop accessories, much like the inkwell, blotting paper or ponce-pot. Seals were common fixtures to documents or parcels from their creation, centuries ago, right up into the 19th century, when they slowly died out.
What is a Seal and why were they used?
A seal is either a mark of authority or, more commonly, a mark of identification and an anti-tampering device. Usually, a seal is your coat of arms or, if you did not have a coat of arms, then your seal was your monogram (initials). The reason seals were created was to protect important documents or packages from being tampered with and to provide evidence to the recipient of said document, if it had. To understand why seals existed, you have to understand that until fairly recently, the modern postal system as we know it, simply did not exist. Back in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, if you had to send a letter or an important document to a friend who lived several miles away, the only way to do it was to entrust your important letter or document to a messenger, who would be paid to deliver the message on horseback.
If the document was very important or private in nature, there might be people out there who would not want the document to reach its intended recipient, or, they might want to find out the contents of the document before the recipient had a chance to open it himself. Another possibility is that the messenger himself might want to know the contents of your document and might ride off with it or deliver it to an anauthorised third party.
Given all these security risks, letter-writers who needed or wanted to keep the contents of their letters and documents secret, and between themselves and their correpondents, would put wax seals on their documents before sending them off to be delivered. The seals were always placed on the document in such a manner that it would be impossible to read the document, without first breaking the seal. Usually, the seal was done on a fold in the paper, on the flap of an envelope or over a bow or ribbon tied around a package. Traditional sealing-wax is very dry and brittle. Once the seal is made and set hard, it cannot be removed without breaking it to pieces. Recieving a letter or other document with the seal broken would mean that someone had read the contents before you had.
Simply gluing or licking an envelope-flap shut was not considered security enough back in the 16 and 1700s. Envelope-flaps can be eased open with a bit of hot steam from a boiling kettle and the document can be opened and then just as easily, reglued shut again, and the recipient would be none the wiser. And you can steam an envelope open – I’ve done it myself – and when you see how easy it is to do, you’ll understand why people used seals instead.
How a Seal is Made
Seals are pretty things, aren’t they? Well…they are, if you know how to make one properly. It can be a bit tricky, as it involves molten wax, an open flame and a sealing-device. The last thing you want is your precious will, house-deed or letter containing your secret plans, to go up in flames! So, how is it done?
Well first, with great care.
1. Having finished writing and signing your document, you folded it up in such a way that once folded, a central flap was created in the middle of the folded piece of paper, for example, by folding the bottom of the letter up 1/3 of the way and folding the top of the letter down 1/3 of the way, so that they met neatly in the middle of the sheet.
2. Once the paper is folded and you’re satisfied it’s not going to move, you got out a stick of sealing-wax, of a colour of your choice. Stereotypically, sealing-wax is always red, but any number of colours can be used. You hold the stick of wax over the centre of your document, where the two edges of the paper meet and then you start to melt the wax.
3. Melting the wax is a tricky process that requires some practice. Using either a candle, a cigarette lighter or matches (at least six), you apply an open flame to the tip of the wax-stick so that the wax heats up until it’s in a liquid state. The wax will now drip onto the paper. Since sealing-wax is rather dry, this can take a while to happen…be patient. Some sticks of wax come with a wick inside them, like a candle. If that’s the case, you can just light the stick like an ordinary candle and tip it upside down to let the wax drip onto the paper.
Sticks of sealing-wax with a pair of stamps and seals.
4. Once a suitable amount of wax has dripped onto the paper, roll the stick of wax around in your fingers (to prevent any stray drippings of wax from falling onto the paper), blow out, or put away your flame and pick up your sealing-device. Do not apply the device directly to the wax after melting it! In its current state, it’s still far too liquid in consistency, and all you’ll get is a big, fat nasty waxy smudge.
5. When the wax starts solidifying, press your sealing-device firmly and evenly into the middle of your pool of wax. Then, slowly lift it up, off the wax. If you’ve done it correctly, you should now have a nice, neat, wax seal.
6. If you’re doing more than one seal, be sure to clean the base of your sealing-device before using it again. This can be done by wiping it down with water to clear away any wax or oil that might have stuck to the underside of your sealing-device.
What can you use to make a seal?
These days, people use coins or other, highly-decorative items to be pressed into sealig-wax to create seals. Coins are popular because they have the heads of monarchs, or national coats of arms or emblems on them. But what did people use traditionally?
Back in the days when you had to have a seal on your letter for security reasons, you most likely had your own sealing-stamp. A sealing-stamp is a stamp with your coat of arms or your monogram engraved in reverse, on the bottom of the stamp so that when it was pressed into the wax, it left a clear impression of your coat of arms or your initials.
A sealing-stamp with the letter ‘A’ engraved in its base.
The other common sealing-device was your signet-ring. ‘Signet’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘sign’, from which we also get the word ‘signature’. So it was literally your ‘signature-ring’, the device you used to sign all your important documents. Not many people wear signet-rings anymore, but they used to be very common. A signet-ring is basically a portable sealing-stamp. Such rings were large, and had your coat of arms or your monogram engraved on the top. To use your ring, you removed it from your finger and pressed it into the wax, much like the sealing-stamp. Some rings were specially made so that you could press the ring into the wax without having to remove it from your hand, and without fear of getting hot wax on your fingers.
A gold signet-ring with the family crest and motto engraved in it in reverse, so that it comes out, right-way-around when pressed into a pool of wax.
Once the seal was made and imprinted, it dried hard and brittle and it would keep the letter or document closed and would provide clear evidence to the recipient if the document had been opened prior to reaching him, due to the fact that once a seal is broken, it is impossible to put it back together. A new one has to be made, with the same sealing-device. Since the unintended recipient probably didn’t have this device with him, tampering of a document was immediately obvious.