August 3, 2007

First Known Use of a Letter Closed With Sealing Wax

On this date in 1554, Gerrard Herman, in England, wrote a letter to Philip Francis von Daun of Germany. What is unusual about this letter is that it contains the earliest known use of sealing wax to close a letter.

Sealing wax had been around for a long time. Prior to the 16th century, however, it had been used as a means to prove the authenticity of a document -- a signature, in a manner of speaking. The inclusion of a government seal on a document, for example, was proof that the document was sanctioned by the reigning monarch, for who else would have access to the Great Seal? On a more personal level, a personal seal or signet ring could prove that a letter did indeed come from the person who was purported to have written it. Privacy was not the issue.

Sealing wax goes back at least as far as the Old Testament, where Jezabel is said to have stolen Ahab's seal in order to counterfeit documents. Edward the Confessor of England ordered the creation of the first Great Seal of England. State seals were often handed down from monarch to monarch, to emphasize the legitimacy of the reign, but individual's seals were commonly destroyed when the owner died (which is why so few of the truly old ones exist today.)

What was sealing wax made of? Well, only the very earliest medieval sealing waxes actually contained wax -- bee's wax, to be specific, along with "Venice turpentine", a resin extracted from the European larch tree. The very earliest were uncolored, although later they were sometimes colored with vermilion, a reddish-orange pigment otherwise known as cinnabar or mercuric sulfide. By the 16th century, trade with the Indies had led to a better class of ingredients -- normally shellac, turpentine, resin, chalk or plaster, and a coloring agent. The color was usually red (vermilion or red lead), but later black was used also (usually lamp black).

By at least 1554, when Herr von Daun received his letter from England, sealing wax was also being used to protect the confidentiality of the letter. Was this the earliest such use? Almost certainly not, although we can never be certain just when it was first use. The opening of the letter normally destroys the seal; after all, that was the whole point.

Photo Credit: Friman, Wikimedia Commons, released by creator into the Public Domain

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