Yore Write!

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

I suspect that few of us that are currently alive in the 21st century have received a letter or document in the mail that has been sealed by anything other than the gum on the envelope flap. The first machine made envelopes only appeared in 1845, when a patent for the mass-production of envelopes was filed by Victorian postal official Edwin Hill, and astronomer/inventor Warren De La Rue. Pre-gummed envelopes didn’t make their first appearance until almost 50 years later.

Envelope Making Machine of Hill & De La Rue
Hill & De La Rue Display at 1851 Great Exposition

Prior to pre-gummed envelopes, starting in medieval times, the wax seal was commonly used. Early on, the “wax” was a mixture of about 2/3 beeswax and 1/3 resin but the mixture gradually became mostly resin, allowing, among other things, a variety of colours to be produced. The use of wax seals significantly increased in the mid-Victorian era as the reading and writing skills of the general population also increased. An additional factor during this period was that the cost of postage was determined by both the number of pieces of paper used, and the weight, so wax seals became a common way to reduce the weight. The seals used varied from larger handheld seals, to signet rings, and even … attached to pencils.

Here are a few examples of pencil seals…

S. Mordan Makers & Patentees – This gold pencil dates between 1837 & 1844. The intaglio seal represents a British Fox Hound carved into a white quartz capstone. The actual seal is a mere 8mm (5/16″) across which shows how finely detailed some of these hand-carved seals are.

English Fox Hound
English Fox Hound Wax Seal
Mordan Makers & Patentees – 1837-1844

S. Mordan Makers & Patentees – This silver pencil dates between 1837 & 1844. The intaglio seal represents two hands supporting the world, carved into a quartz capstone. The seal is 8mm (5/16″) across.

Globe & Hands
Globe & Hands Wax Seal
Mordan Makers & Patentees – 1837-1844

S. Mordan & G. Riddle – This silver pencil is stamped “S. Mordan & Co’s. Patent”, and hallmarked “SMGR”, London, 1826. The intaglio seal represents an image of a fly under the word “VITE” (Quick) carved into a bloodstone capstone. The seal is 8mm (5/16″) across.

Fly “VITE”
Fly “VITE” Wax Seal
S. Mordan & Co’s. Patent – 1826

Once pre-gummed envelopes appeared, the use of seals quickly declined and during the 20th century they were mostly relegated to use on legal and ceremonial documents. As we continue into the 21st century there is a small resurgence in handwritten correspondence and the use of personal seals is likewise enjoying a bit of a comeback. So there is still hope that one day I’ll actually receive a letter sealed with wax.


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