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The History of Wax Seals

July 17, 2023

Have you ever received a letter sealed with an elegant wax seal and wondered about its origins? Wax seals have a long and fascinating history, dating back centuries. Seals have not only served as practical ways to secure letters and documents but have also left an indelible mark on our collective imagination.

Ancient Beginnings

The use of seals to authenticate documents, can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt. In these early civilizations, seals made of stone or metal were used to impress a unique mark into soft clay tablets or papyrus. These impressions served as both a signature and a symbol of authority.

An ancient chinese seal and red stamp on parchment

The earliest known examples of seals in ancient China date to the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1046 BC) In ancient China, wax seals, known as "yìn," were used to authenticate official documents and important letters in lieu of signatures. Chinese seals were also typically made of stone or metal, but used red ink or cinnabar paste to make the stamp.

Medieval Europe: The Rise of Wax Seals

a baroque painting of letters sealed with red wax

Wax seals as we know them today first gained prominence during the Middle Ages in Europe. As literacy increased and written correspondence flourished, wax seals became essential for securing letters and ensuring their privacy. Initially, simple knots or ribbons were used, but soon they were replaced by wax impressions bearing distinctive designs.

At this time, sealing wax was commonly crafted by combining beeswax with "Venice turpentine," an extract from the European Larch tree. Initially, the wax used for seals was in its natural, uncolored state, and would be stamped with a signet ring. However, as time went on, a vibrant red hue was achieved by incorporating vermilion pigment into the wax mixture. This addition of color added a visually striking element to the seals, making them even more captivating and distinctive.

The Victorian Era: Elegance & Ornate Designs

an antique red wax seal on an old envelope

In the Victorian era, wax seals reached new heights of sophistication and symbolism. The color of the wax used in seals became significant, as different hues conveyed different meanings and messages. Red wax, for example, was commonly associated with love, passion, and matters of the heart. Black wax symbolized mourning or a sense of formality. Gold and silver wax were often reserved for special occasions or important documents, signifying prestige and wealth.

The Regency Era: Romanticism & Sentimentality

The Letter by Charles Baugniet

Looking at you, Bridgerton stans!! During the Regency era, wax seals took on much more of a sentimental and romantic tone. In addition to the symbolic meanings associated with certain colors, various colors were chosen to enhance the overall aesthetic of the correspondence. Soft pastel shades, such as pink or pale blue, were often used to convey tenderness and affection. White wax represented purity and innocence, while green symbolized hope and new beginnings.

The Resurgence of Wax Seals

white wax seals with dried florals on french blue envelopes

In the digital age, where emails and text messages dominate communication, wax seals have experienced a delightful resurgence. People are embracing the art of hand-written letters and personalized correspondence, seeking to add a touch of nostalgia, beauty, and authenticity to their messages. Wax seals have become a cherished form of self-expression and a way to create a lasting impression. And there are so many new wax seal trends!

With the introduction of postal systems, the purpose of sealing wax has shifted from primarily ensuring security to embracing ceremonial significance. In modern times, practical considerations have led to the development of new types of wax that allow seals to be sent through the mail without damage or removal. These innovative waxes possess a flexible nature that enables them to withstand the rigors of the mailing process, ensuring that the seal remains intact upon reaching its destination.

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