Sealing wax

Writers on diplomatics mention, besides metals, five other substances on which impressions were made, or with which letters and public acts were sealed, viz. terra sigillaris, cement, paste, common wax, and sealing-wax 344. The terra sigillaris  was used by the Egyptians, and appears to have been the first substance employed for sealing 345. The Egyptian priests bound to the horns of the cattle fit for sacrifice a piece of paper; stuck upon it some sealing-earth, on which they made an impression with their seal; and such cattle only could be offered up as victims 346.

Lucian speaks of a fortune-teller who ordered those who came to consult him to write down on a bit of paper the questions they wished to ask, to fold it up, and to seal it with clay, or any other substance of the like kind 347. Such earth seems to have been employed in sealing by the Byzantine emperors: for we are told that at the second council of Nice, a certain person defended the worship of images by saying, no one believed that those who received written orders from the emperor and venerated the seal, worshiped on that account the sealing-earth, the paper, or the lead 348.

Cicero relates that Verres having seen in the hands of one of his servants a letter written to him from Agrigentum, and having observed on it an impression in sealing-earth (cretula ), he was so pleased with it that he caused the seal-ring with which it was made to be taken from the possessor 349. The same orator, in his defence of Flaccus, produced an attestation sent from Asia, and proved its authenticity by its being sealed with Asiatic sealing-earth; with which, said he to the auditors, as you daily see, all public and private letters in Asia are sealed: and he showed on the other hand that the testimony brought by the accuser was false, because it was sealed with wax, and for that reason could not have come from Asia 350. The scholiast Servius relates, that a sibyl received a promise from Apollo, that she should live as long as she did not see the earth of the island Erythræa where she resided; that she therefore quitted the place, and retired to Cumæ, where she became old and decrepid; but that having received a letter sealed with Erythræan earth (creta ), when she saw the seal she instantly expired 351.

No one however will suppose that this earth was the same as that to which we at present give the name of creta, chalk; for if it was a natural earth it must have been of that kind called potters' clay, as that clay is capable of receiving an impression and of retaining it after it is hardened by drying. That the Romans, under the indefinite name of creta, often understood a kind of potters' earth, can be proved by many passages of their writers. Columella speaks of a kind of chalk of which wine-jars and dishes were made 352. Virgil calls it tough 353 ; and the ancient writers on agriculture give the same name to marl which was employed to manure land 354. Notwithstanding all these authorities, I do not clearly comprehend how letters could be sealed with potters' clay, as it does not adhere with sufficient force either to linen, of which in ancient times the covers of letters were made, or to parchment; as it must be laid on very thick to have a distinct impression; as it is long in drying, and is again easily softened by moisture; and, at any rate, if conveyed by post at present, it would be crumbled into dust in going only from Hamburg to Altona. I can readily believe that the Roman messengers employed more skill and attention to preserve the letters committed to their care than are employed by our postmen; but the distance from Asia to Rome is much greater than that from Hamburg to Altona.

But may there not be as little foundation for the ancient expression creta Asiatica, Asiatic earth, as for the modern expression, cera Hispanica, Spanish wax? May not the former have signified a kind of coarse artificial cement? These questions might be answered by those who have had an opportunity of examining or only seeing the sigilla cretacea  in collections of antiquities. We are assured that such are still preserved; at least we find in Ficoroni 355  the representation of six impressions which, as he tells us, consisted of that earth. In that author however I find nothing to clear up my doubts; he says only that some of these seals were white; others of a gray colour, like ashes; others red, and others brown. They seem all to have been enclosed in leaden cases. Could it be proved that each letter was wrapped round with a thread, and that the thread, as in the seals affixed to diplomas, was drawn through the covering of the seal, the difficulty which I think occurs in the use of these earths, as mentioned by the ancients, would entirely disappear 356. It seems to me remarkable that neither Theophrastus nor Pliny says anything of the Asiatic creta, or speaks at all of sealing-earth; though they have carefully enumerated all those kinds of earth which were worth notice on account of any use.

In Europe, as far as I know, wax has been everywhere used for sealing since the earliest ages. Writers on diplomatics, however, are not agreed whether yellow or white wax was first employed; but it appears that the former, on account of its low price, must have been first and principally used, at least by private persons. It is probable also, that the seals of diplomas were more durable when they consisted of yellow wax; for it is certain that white wax is rendered more brittle and much less durable by the process of bleaching. Many seals also may at present be considered white which were at first yellow; for not only does wax highly bleached resume in time a dirty yellow colour, but yellow wax also in the course of years loses so much of its colour as to become almost like white wax. This perhaps may account for the oldest seals appearing to be of white, and the more modern of yellow wax. These however are conjectures which I submit with deference to the determination of those versed in diplomatics.

In the course of time wax was coloured red; and a good deal later, at least in Germany, but not before the fourteenth century, it was coloured green, and sometimes black. I find it remarked that blue wax never appears on diplomas; and I may indeed say it is impossible it should appear, for the art of giving a blue colour to wax has never yet been discovered; and in old books, such as that of Wecker, we find no receipt for that purpose. Later authors have pretended to give directions how to communicate that colour to wax, but they are altogether false; for vegetable dyes when united with wax become greenish, so that the wax almost resembles the hip-stone; and earthy colours do not combine with it, but in melting fall again to the bottom. A seal of blue wax, not coloured blue merely on the outer surface, would be as great a rarity in the arts as in diplomatics, and would afford matter of speculation for our chemists; but I can give them no hopes that such a thing can ever be produced 357. The emperor Charles V. in the year 1524 granted to Dr. Stockamar of Nuremberg, the privilege of using blue wax in seals;—a favour like that conferred in 1704 on the manufactories in the principality of Halberstadt and the county of Reinstein, to make indigo from minerals. It was certainly as difficult for the doctor to find blue wax for seals as for the proprietors of these manufactories to discover indigo in the earth 358.

Much later are impressions made on paste or dough, which perhaps could not be employed on the ancient parchment or the linen covers of letters, though in Pliny's time the paper then in use was joined together with flour paste 359. Proper diplomas were never sealed with wafers; and in the matchless diplomatic collection of H. Gatterer there are no wafer-seals much above two hundred years old. From that collection I have now in my possession one of these seals, around the impression of which is the following inscription, Secretum civium in Ulma, 1474 ; but it is only a new copy of a very old impression. Kings, however, before the invention of sealing-wax, were accustomed to seal their letters with this paste 360.

Heineccius and others relate that maltha  also was employed for seals. This word signifies a kind of cement, formed chiefly of inflammable substances, and used to make reservoirs, pipes, &c. water-tight. Directions how to prepare it may be found in the writers on agriculture, Pliny, Festus and others. The latter tells how to make it of a composition of pitch and wax 361 : but neither in that author nor in any other have I found proofs that letters were sealed with it, or that seals of it were affixed to diplomas: for the words of Pollux, “cera qua tabella judicum obliniebatur 362 ,” will admit of a different explanation. If maltha has been in reality used for seals, that mixture may be considered as the first or oldest sealing-wax, as what of it is still preserved has been composed of resinous substances.

Some writers assert 363 , upon the authority of Lebeuf 364 , that sealing-wax was invented about the year 1640 by a Frenchman named Rousseau; but that author refers his readers to Papillon 365 , who refers again to Pomet 366 , so that the last appears to be the first person who broached that opinion. According to his account, Francis Rousseau, born not far from Auxerre, and who travelled a long time in Persia, Pegu and other parts of the East Indies, and in 1692 resided in St. Domingo, was the inventor of sealing-wax. Having, while he lived at Paris as a merchant, during the latter years of the reign of Louis XIII., who died in 1643, lost all his property by a fire, he bethought himself of preparing sealing-wax from shell-lac, as he had seen it prepared in India, in order to maintain his wife and five children. A lady of the name of Longueville made this wax known at court, and caused Louis XIII. to use it, after which it was purchased and used throughout all Paris. By this article, Rousseau, before the expiration of a year, gained 50,000 livres. It acquired the name of cire d'Espagne, Spanish wax, because at that time a kind of lac, which was only once melted and coloured a little red, was called Portugal wax, cire de Portugal 367 .

That sealing-wax was either very little or not at all known in Germany in the beginning of the sixteenth century, may be concluded from its not being mentioned either by Porta or Wecker; though in the works of both these authors there are various receipts respecting common wax, and little known methods of writing and sealing 368. The former says, that to open letters in such a manner as not to be perceived, the wax seal must be heated a little, and must be then carefully separated from the letter by a horse's hair; and when the letter has been read and folded up, the seal must be again dexterously fastened to it. This manœuvre, as the writers on diplomatics remark, has been often made use of to forge public acts; and they have therefore given directions how to discover such frauds 369. The above method of opening letters, however, can be applied only to common wax, and not to sealing-wax: had the latter been used in Wecker's time he would have mentioned this limitation 370.

Whether sealing-wax was used earlier in the East Indies than in Europe, as the French think, I cannot with certainty determine. Tavernier 371 , however, seems to say that the lac produced in the kingdom of Assam is employed there not only for lackering, but also for making Spanish sealing-wax. I must confess also that I do not know whether the Turks and other eastern nations use it in general. In the collection of natural curiosities belonging to our university there are two sticks of sealing-wax which Professor Butner procured from Constantinople, under the name of Turkish wax. They are angular, bent like a bow, are neither stamped nor glazed, and are of a dark but pure red colour. Two other sticks which came from the East Indies are straight, glazed, made somewhat thin at both ends, have no stamp, and are of a darker and dirtier red colour. All these four sticks seem to be lighter than ours, and I perceive that by rubbing they do not acquire so soon nor so strong an electrical quality as our German wax of moderate fineness. But whether the first were made in Turkey and the latter in the East Indies, or whether the whole four were made in Europe, is not known. That sealing-wax however was made and used in Germany a hundred years before Rousseau's time, and that the merit of that Frenchman consisted probably only in this, that he first made it in France, or made the first good wax, will appear in the course of what follows.

The oldest known seal of our common sealing-wax is that found by M. Roos, on a letter written from London, Aug. 3rd, 1554, to the rheingrave Philip Francis von Daun, by his agent in England, Gerrard Hermann 372. The colour of the wax is a dark-red; it is very shining, and the impression bears the initials of the writer's name G. H. The next seal, in the order of time, is one of the year 1561, on a letter written to the council of Gorlitz at Breslau. This letter was found among the ancient records of Gorlitz by Dr. Anton, and is three times sealed with beautiful red wax 373. Among the archives of the before-mentioned family M. Roos found two other letters of the year 1566, both addressed to the rheingrave Frederick von Daun, from Orchamp in Picardy, by his steward Charles de Pousol; the one dated September the 2nd, and the other September the 7th. Another letter, written by the same person to the same rheingrave, but dated Paris January 22nd, 1567, is likewise sealed with red wax, which is of a higher colour, and appears to be of a coarser quality. As the oldest seals of this kind came from France and England, M. Roos conjectures that the invention, as the name seems to indicate, belongs to the Spaniards. This conjecture appears to me however improbable, especially as sealing-wax was used at Breslau so early as 1561; but this matter can be best determined perhaps by the Spanish literati. It is much to be lamented that John Fenn, in his Original letters of the last half of the fifteenth century 374 , when he gives an account of the size and shape of the seals, does not inform us of what substances they are composed. Respecting a letter of the year 1455, he says only, “The seal is of red wax;” by which is to be understood, undoubtedly, common wax.

Among the records of the landgraviate of Cassel, M. Ledderhose found two letters of Count Louis of Nassau to the landgrave William IV., one of which, dated March the 3rd, 1563, is sealed with red wax, and the other, dated November 7th, the same year, is sealed with black wax 375. M. Neuberger, private keeper of the archives at Weimar, found among the records of that duchy a letter sealed with red wax, and written at Paris, May the 15th, 1571, by a French nobleman named Vulcob, who the year before had been ambassador from the king of France to the court of Weimar. It is worthy of remark, that the same person had sealed nine letters of a prior date with common wax, and that the tenth is sealed with Spanish wax. P. L. Spiess, principal keeper of the records at Plessenburg, who gave rise to this research by his queries, saw a letter of the year 1574 sealed with red sealing-wax, and another of the year 1620 sealed with black sealing-wax. He found also in an old expense-book of 1616, that Spanish wax, expressly, and other materials for writing were ordered from a manufacturer of sealing-wax at Nuremberg, for the personal use of Christian margrave of Brandenburg 376.

The oldest mention of sealing-wax which I have hitherto observed in printed books is in the work of Garcia ab Orto 377 , where the author remarks, speaking of lac, that those sticks used for sealing letters were made of it. This book was first printed in 1563, about which time it appears that the use of sealing-wax was very common among the Portuguese.

The oldest printed receipt for making sealing-wax was found by Von Murr, in a work by Samuel Zimmerman, citizen of Augsburg, printed in 1579 378. The copy which I have from the library of our university is signed at the end by the author himself. His receipts for making red and green sealing-wax I shall here transcribe.

“To make hard sealing-wax, called Spanish wax, with which if letters be sealed they cannot be opened without breaking the seal:—Take beautiful clear resin, the whitest you can procure, and melt it over a slow coal fire. When it is properly melted, take it from the fire, and for every pound of resin add two ounces of vermilion pounded very fine, stirring it about. Then let the whole cool, or pour it into cold water. Thus you will have beautiful red sealing-wax.

“If you are desirous of having black wax, add lamp-black to it. With smalt or azure you may make it blue; with white-lead white, and with orpiment yellow.

“If instead of resin you melt purified turpentine in a glass vessel, and give it any colour you choose, you will have a harder kind of sealing-wax, and not so brittle as the former.”

What appears to me worthy of remark in these receipts for sealing-wax is, that there is no mention in them of shell-lac, which at present is the principal ingredient, at least in that of the best quality; and that Zimmerman's sealing-wax approaches very near to that which in diplomatics is called maltha. One may also conclude therefore that this invention was not brought from the East Indies.

The expression Spanish wax is of little more import than the words Spanish-green, Spanish-flies, Spanish-grass, Spanish-reed, and several others, as it was formerly customary to give to all new things, particularly those which excited wonder, the appellation of Spanish; and in the like manner many foreign or new articles have been called Turkish; such as Turkish wheat, Turkish paper, &c.

Respecting the antiquity of wafers, M. Spiess has made an observation 379  which may lead to further researches, that the oldest seal with a red wafer he has ever yet found, is on a letter written by D. Krapf at Spires in the year 1624, to the government at Bayreuth. M. Spiess has found also that some years after, Forstenhäusser, the Brandenburg factor at Nuremberg, sent such wafers to a bailiff at Osternohe. It appears however that wafers were not used during the whole of the seventeenth century in the chancery of Brandenburg, but only by private persons, and by these even seldom; because, as Spiess says, people were fonder of Spanish wax. The first wafers with which the chancery of Bayreuth began to make seals were, according to an expense account of the year 1705, sent from Nuremberg. The use of wax however was still continued; and among the Plassenburg archives there is a rescript of 1722, sealed with proper wax. The use of wax must have been continued longer in the duchy of Weimar; for in the Electa Juris Publici there is an order of the year 1716, by which the introduction of wafers in law matters is forbidden, and the use of wax commanded. This order however was abolished by duke Ernest Augustus in 1742, and wafers again introduced.


344  Gattereri Elem. Artis Diplom. 1765, 4to, p. 285.

345  It is singular that Pliny denies that the Egyptians used seals, lib. xxiii. c. 1. Herodotus however, and others, prove the contrary; and Moses speaks of the seal-rings of the Egyptians. See Goguet.

346  Herodot. lib. ii. c. 38.

347  Lucian. in Pseudomant.

348  Act. iv. ap. Bin. tom. iii. Concil. part. i. p. 356. Whether the γῆ σημαντρὶς, however, of Herodotus and the πηλὸς of Lucian and of the Byzantine be the same kind of earth, can be determined with as little certainty as whether the creta, called by some Roman authors a sealing-earth, be different from both.

349  Orat. in Verrem, iv. c. 9. In the passage referred to, some instead of cretula  read cerula. I shall here take occasion to remark also, that in the Acts of the Council of Nice before-mentioned, instead of πηλὸν some read κηρόν: but I do not see a sufficient reason for this alteration, as in the before-quoted passage of Lucian it is expressly said, that people sealed κηρῷ ἣ πηλῷ. Reiske himself, who proposes that amendment, says that πηλὸνmay be retained. Stephanus, however, does not give that meaning to this word in his Lexicon. Pollux and Hesychius tell us, that the Athenians called sealing-earth also ῥύπον.

350  Orat. pro Flacco, c. 16.

351  Serv. ad lib. vi. Æneid. p. 1037.

352  Lib. xii. c. 43.

353  Georg. i. v. 179.

354  Creta fossica, qua stercorantur agri.—Varro, i. 7. 8. It appears also that the πηλὸς of the Greeks signified a kind of potters' earth. Those who do not choose to rely upon our dictionaries, need only to read the ancient Greek writers on husbandry, who speak of ἀῤῥαγεῖ πηλῷ ἀργιλλώδει. See Geopon. x. c. 75. 12, and ix. c. 10. 4.

355  I piombi antichi. Roma 1740, 4to, p. 16.

356  Heineccius and others think that the amphoræ vitreæ diligenter gypsatæ, in Petronius, were sealed; but it is much more probable that they were only daubed over or closed with gypsum, for the same reason that we pitch our casks.

357  [Blue wax may now be seen in every wax-chandler's shop; it is coloured blue by means of indigo.]

358  Heineccii Syntagma de Vet. Sigillis, 1719, p. 55.

359  Plin. lib. xxii. c. 25.

360  Trotz, Not. in Prim. Scribendi Origine, p. 73, 74.

361  P. Festi de Verb. Sig. lib. xx. Hesychius calls this cement μεμαλάγμενον κηρόν.—Plin. lib. xxxvi. c. 24.

362  Lib. viii. c. 4.

363  Nouveau Traité de Diplomatique. Paris, 1759, 4to, iv. p. 33.

364  Mémoires conc. l'Histoire d'Auxerre. Par. 1743, ii. p. 517.

365  Bibliothèque des Auteurs de Bourgogne, 2 vols. fol. ii. p. 217.

366  Histoire Générale des Drogues. Paris, 1735.

367  This Rousseau appears also in the History of Cochineal, as he sent to Pomet a paper on that subject, which was contradicted by the well-known Plumier in the Journal des Sçavans for 1694. He is mentioned also by Labat, who says he saw him at Rochelle; but at that time he must have been nearly a hundred years of age.

368  Von Murr, in his learned Beschreibung der Merkwürdigkeiten in Nürnberg, Nurnb. 1778, 8vo, p. 702, says that Spanish wax was not invented, or at least not known, before the year 1559. This appears also from a manuscript of the same year, which contains various receipts in the arts and medicine. There are some in it for making the common white sealing-wax green or red.

369  See Chronicon Godvicense, p. 102.

370  Wecker gives directions also to make an impression with calcined gypsum, and a solution of gum or isinglass. Porta knew that this could be done to greater perfection with amalgam of quicksilver; an art employed even at present.

371  Tavernier, in his Travels, says that in Surat lac is melted and formed into sticks like sealing-wax. Compare with this Dapper's Asia, Nuremberg, 1681, fol. p. 237.

372  Bruchstücke betreffend die Pflichten eines Staatsdieners; aus den Handlungen des Raths Dreitz, nebst Bemerkungen vom ältesten Gebrauche des Spanischen Siegelwachses, Frankf. 1785, 4to, p. 86; where the use of these antiquarian researches is illustrated by examples worthy of notice.

373  Historische Untersuchungen gesammelt von J. G. Meusel, i. 3, p. 240.

374  Original Letters of the Paston Family, temp. Henry VI. i. p. 21, and p. 87 and 92.

375  Meusel's Geschichtforscher. Halle, 8vo, vi. p. 270.

376  Ibid. iv. p. 251.

377  Aromatum et Simplicium aliquot Historia, Garcia ab Horto auctore. Antverpiæ 1574, 8vo, p. 33.

378  Neu Titularbuch,—sambt etlichen hinzugethanen Gehaimnüssen und Künsten, das Lesen und die Schreiberey betreffendt. 4to, 1579, p. 112.

379  Archivische Nebenarbeiten und Nachrichten. Halle, 1785, 4to, ii. p. 3.