The Story of Old Wax Seals

By: Peter von Pazatka Lipinsky (First published in 2001)

Before the invention of gummed envelopes important documents for delivery from one person to another would often be sealed with hot wax using a wax seal which usually bore the individual's version of the family coat of arms, or part of the coat of arms. Seals were also used on important documents in addition to a signature. When the document contained several pages they would be tied together with ribbons and additional seals were placed over the knots in the ribbon.

The sender would use either his or her signet ring or a specially made metal sealing stamp and press the engraved emblem from the ring into the hot wax. The wax would cool off showing the emblem from the ring or from the stamp. The sealing wax was a combination of beeswax and resin to which vermilion was added to achieve the red color. Later shellac was added to the mixture. Although seals were traditionally red, those announcing a death were of black wax. Few stamps exist today since it was the custom of the time to break the stamp upon the death of the owner.

If the seal were broken, the receiver of the letter or the document would immediately know an unauthorized person had access to the contents of the letter. This system of sealing letters and authenticating a person's signature with wax was used in the 1700 and 1800s. The wax seals as shown here were used by the different Lipinski's and other families in the area which was known as West Prussia in the late 1700 and the 1800s. We thank the Polish archives for making these pictures available to us.