BEFORE ENVELOPES: DESIGNS ON WAX LETTER SEALS

Donald Lovell, Member, on 9 October 2003

 

In 2000 BC the Babylonians wrapped their clay letter tablets in another piece of clay that they then fired; this had to be broken to be able to read the letter. When papyri were used we think they were rolled but were they sealed? Envelopes as we know them were introduced in the 16th century for official letters to be sent "under cover"; they were home-made. The inventor of the ‘standard size’ envelope is not known. (1)

 

But from the 16th to the late-19th centuries most people did not use envelopes because the hand-made paper of the time was so expensive. They wrote on every inch of a sheet, sometimes even writing across the page as well as down it; folded it, and left a small area for the address. This sheet of paper was sealed with a wax seal sometimes impressed with a personal picture or design – an initial, a coat of arms or an appropriate message or picture. The wax was usually red in colour, sometimes black.

The BRLSI have a collection of 700 of these wax seals; many of them are unrecognised coats of arms, others amusing punning pictures or words, such as a bird bath for the Bird family of Bath. The seals have all been photographed and saved in digital form on a computer and on a CD-ROM disc. Roland Symons, a member of the City of Bath Heraldic Society, has blazoned (described in words) these coats of arms, and identified many of the families bearing them, but there are those he could not at present attribute to a family. Other people may be able to identify those he cannot; a CD-ROM can be lent to anyone having a computer interested in doing so. The identification is very dependant on the colours of the coat of arms but a uniformly red (or worse, black) seal does not show them; often a system of hatching with dots and lines is used to denote the colours. But as the impressions are only 2 cm (¾ inch) across it is not easy to see the hatching even on a good impression – and many are poor, broken or worn.

 

A coat of arms consists of a shield surmounted by a crest and sometimes has on each side supporters. The crest may be on a helm (helmet) that is itself on a mantling (cloth). The whole may stand on a compartment (a piece of ground) that carries the motto. Confusingly, the coat of arms is described in the blazon from the point of view of the person carrying the shield, i.e. the left as one looks at it is called the right (dexter). The terms used to describe the parts and the devices on the shield use Norman-French terms from the 13th century, e.g. dexter for right.

One of the first coats of arms identified was that of Sir Francis Drake.

This has a complicated crest celebrating his voyage around the world and two mottoes; it was granted to him in 1581. Otherwise it is a fairly simple coat of arms. Others are more complicated. Viscount Palmerston, a Prime Minister during Victoria’s reign, was a Knight of the Garter so includes the Garter and its motto around the shield.

A marriage between two armigerous families produces a coat of arms including those of both families – either by ‘impaling’ them (dividing the shield vertically in half), as for Strathallan, or with an ‘escutcheon of pretence’ (a small second shield with the wife’s arms on top of the husband’s shield), for Latham.

The sons of a Knight or Peer bear their father’s arms ‘differenced’ by the addition of a small ‘cadency mark’. Nine of these are provided. The daughters place their father’s arms on a lozenge (a diamond-shape), when they are widowed, as women do not ‘bear arms’.

Peers have coronets as crests with more elaborate designs as they increase in rank from Baron to Duke. Only the monarch uses the royal crown as a crest. Only peers and corporations have supporters.

Corporations can have coats of arms granted to them and many are very elaborate. Before their abolition in 1537 abbeys had oval seals of impressive designs. BRLSI have a few of these, including the original metal dies for the designs, which are some of the oldest in our collection. Continental nobles have similar coats of arms but a more elaborate tradition.

Besides the heraldic designs our collection includes many that are either just the crests from coats of arms or non-heraldic – and some of those are amazing or amusing. There are lots of classical subjects and figures, many of which we have not yet recognised. There are portraits, some of whom we know or can guess; many bearded men from Babylonian to Victorian; flowers, animals, insects, birds, architecture, initials, quotations in various languages, and a few surprises: a Bath chair, a sedan chair, a bird bath, a steam engine and a pair of scissors, for example. Quite a number encourage a reply to the letter with ‘Forget me Not’ and flowers; ‘Haste Ye’

with a bird carrying a letter and similar messages.

There is still a lot of work to be done for anyone who would like to take part.

Donald Lovell

Royal Envelope Ltd.,Concord, Ontario, Canada
See web site: www.royalenvelope.com/history