of Wax Seals

- The History -

The history of seals can be traced back to some of the earliest known civilisations, its origins date back to before the invention of pen or paper. Actual examples have been found from the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia civilisations, which were active from 3300BCE and 150BCE respectively. The first seals were made from clay and impressed using rings or cylinders used to authenticate written tablets.

The usage of wax in seals did not take place until the Middle Ages. Wax seals became essential to the signing of official documents and the sending and receiving of letters. Each seal would bear its owner's unique design, such as a symbol or coat of arms. It carried the same authority as a written signature has today.

Originally used only by eminent individuals such as bishops, monarchs and royal spokespeople to authenticate documents, by the 13th century wax seals became more widespread and were being used by monasteries, guilds, aristocrats and eventually common folk. Even relatively insignificant documents were stamped with a seal as a way of indicating the sender.

Towards the end of the medieval period, wax seals became more popular in private correpondence, particularly as emigration, colonisation and other necessities forced travel to become more widespread. Their practicality was even greater when information had to remain confidential: an unbroken wax seal enclosing a letter meant that it had been delivered successfully, whereas a broken one indicated the message had been tampered with along the way.

During this period the wax formulas varied, but there was a major shift after European trade with the Indies opened. Generally in the Middle Ages sealing wax was typically made of beeswax and "Venice turpentine", a greenish-yellow resinous extract of the European Larch tree, though in later years beeswax was completely excluded.

The earliest such wax was uncoloured; later the wax was coloured red with vermilion. From the 16th century it was made up of numerous portions of shellac, turpentine, resin, chalk or plaster, and colouring matter (vermilion or red lead). On occasion, sealing wax was historically perfumed by ambergris, musk and other scents.

By 1866 many colours were available: gold (using mica), blue (using smalt or verditer), black (using lamp black), white (using lead white), yellow (using the mercuric mineral turpeth), green (using verdigris) and so on. Some users, such as the British Crown, assigned different colours to different types of documents. Today a rainbows range of synthetic colours are available.

The wax was pressed with a handheld seal or a specially made signet ring. Wax rings were used as a symbol of status and power, even dating as far back as ancient Egypt. When the owner of a signet died, the ring would generally be destroyed so as to prevent forgeries.

Despite the world being more accessible than ever, in the mid-19th Century, the cost of postage began to charge the number paper sheets being sent, as opposed to the overall weight;, sending letters became less affordable. Suddenly, this meant that it was a cheaper option to fold a parchment and seal it closed, rather than use an envelope, and the 'old-fashioned' wax-sealed letters we still imitate today were born!

Unfortunately, during the 20th Century new postal reforms and envelope manufacturing took a more modern twist. Specially designed machines streamlined the production process, leading not only to more affordable envelopes, but to pre-gummed envelopes, this led wax sealing into a decline.

The modern day has brought sealing wax to a new level of use and application. The use of sealing wax has become more for decor than security. Modern times have required new styles of wax, allowing for mailing of the seal without damage or removal with their new flexiblity.

Even though, business correspondence takes place electronically more and more nowadays, the hand-written letter is surprisingly reviving its place as a more personal way of communication. We are all aware that they are a historical manner of sealing letters, yet it is that old-fashioned, famous mark from a distant past that makes them so enchanting. To this day, wax seals have become “a post-modern form of correspondence” as one could call it. There is simply no more beautiful way to seal a personal letter to someone than with your own wax seal. And anyone who has received wax-sealed letter will certainly admit to the added excitement that comes from opening it.

These words and information were put together thanks to the help of many websites.


  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Google+ Icon