Holding It Together: A Seal—Or Not?

Long before Scotch tape and lamination impeded the efforts of archivists and researchers to access unique information in a document, a whole world of fasteners existed to help hold documents together. In celebration of American Archives Month, we’re hosting a series of posts on the history of the various fasteners and seals found in records at the National Archives. Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

A small, raised dot of red on a document—is it sealing wax? Not always. In some cases what looks like sealing wax is actually a wafer seal, sealing wax’s cheaper cousin. Wafers are thin, flat, baked adhesive discs made from starch, binders, and pigment that were used for joining and sealing documents during the 17th through 19th centuries in Great Britain and other European countries and their colonies. Although they were usually red in color, they were produced in a variety of colors and sizes according to their intended purpose. 

Examples of wafer seals appear on this land bounty application from 1851, where the wafers from the now-separated papers are clearly visible at the bottom, and the wafers at the top are visible through the paper. Bounty Land File for Colonel Richard E. Parker, 1851. (National Archives Identifier 27494175)

Wafers were applied by soaking the wafer in water, transferring it to the document, and pressing the two surfaces together and allowing them to dry. As anyone who has ever had to scrape dried dough off something can attest, flour and water make a strong adhesive.

Wafers were made by combining flour, gum arabic, water, and a pigment; cooking the thin cakes; and stamping out the individual seals. Sealing wax required more expensive materials such as shellac (a resin secreted by an insect found in India and Thailand) and beeswax, and an expensive metal mold to make the long batons of wax. Hence the difference in price: in Philadelphia in 1775, several hundred “common wafers” cost one shilling, less than half the cost of the equivalent of sealing wax.

Wafers had an enormous number of uses and served roles filled in modern times by paper clips, Scotch tape, and even blue sticky tack. 

The invention of seals and stamps made from embossed paper allowed for a more affordable option than a traditional official seal made by pressing a metal seal into melted wax. An example of this use can be seen in the papers of a court case from 1822, where the signatures are accompanied by embossed paper seals attached by wafers: 

A prominent example of wafer seals can be found on the Dunlap Broadside, the copy of the Declaration of Independence printed on the night of July 4, 1776. The wafer seals on the upper left corner of the document are a legacy of how the Dunlap Broadside was stored for the first part of its life. After the Continental Congress orally ratified the Declaration of Independence, the clerk responsible for keeping the minutes of the Continental Congress left blank space on a page of the minutes book known as a Rough Journal. Once the Declaration was printed and delivered to the clerk, the broadside was attached to the blank space using several wafer seals and stored folded within the volume.

The invention of pre-gummed coated papers meant that embossed official seals came with their own adhesive instead of needing a separate wafer for attachment, and the invention of the gummed envelope in the 1850s meant that wafers were no longer needed to seal letters

However, wafers were still used in the Civil War, with Confederate Army requisition forms even having a place for clerks to request wafers alongside paper, envelopes, sealing wax, and tape. 

Based on research by Elissa O’Loughlin at the National Archives: WAFERS AND WAFER SEALS: HISTORY, MANUFACTURE, AND CONSERVATION, published in The Paper Conservator, Volume 20, 1996, Issue 1. 

Stayed tuned for the next installment of this series, where we look at ribbons in our holdings.

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