Wax Seals in Private Correspondence

 Apr. 09, 2021 
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Using a wax seal in the way we often think of today — to keep a letter closed, ensure it hasn’t been tampered with, and confirm it was indeed written by the supposed sender – was practiced in the Middle Ages, but did not really take off until the post-medieval period. As travel, emigration, and colonization increased, wax seals were not simply applied to keep communication confidential, but as a practical necessity. Before the British and American postal reforms of the mid-19th century, sending a letter was quite expensive; it cost 25 cents in the US to send a letter over 450 miles – quite a sum in those days. Furthermore, postage was based on distance and number of sheets. An envelope would have counted as an additional sheet – doubling the cost – so letter writers used as much of a single piece of paper as possible and then sealed it shut with wax or paste to avoid the extra expense. Envelopes were considered a frivolous luxury.
After postal reforms significantly reduced the cost of postage and changed their basis from the number of sheets to overall weight, letter writing became much more accessible to the masses. The volume of letters mailed increased fivefold, and along with this boom, a burgeoning envelope industry emerged. At first they were handmade by stationary clerks, 25 at a time, but these painstakingly assembled envelopes did not include adhesive…the stationery stores also sold sealing wax! The death knell for wax seals did not come until the latter half of the 19th century, as automatic envelope folding machines, and more importantly, pre-gummed envelopes, were developed. With a couple of licks, a letter could be sealed inside an envelope and sent on its way.
Today, using wax seals is as unnecessary as handwritten correspondence, and yet like many old traditions, it is pleasurable to practice, and adds a bit of personal distinction and panache to your communication.

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