Holding It Together: Before Passwords—Ribbons and Seals for Document Security

In celebration of American Archives Month we’re looking at some of the many 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.

In the centuries before the self-inking notary public’s stamp, U.S. government clerks and secretaries used brightly-colored silk ribbons, wax seals, and embossed paper seals attached with wafers to verify the security of important documents.

Ribbons were used to attach important documents together, but they also served a security function as proof against tampering. The clerk would cut slits in the paper or parchment, weave the ribbon through it, and then the signatories or government official would attach their wax seal, attach an embossed paper seal to the paper with sealing wax or a wafer, or emboss the paper itself.

Sealing wax was used for a number of reasons: to verify a document hadn’t been opened, to verify someone’s identity, and for decorative purposes. As the name suggests, sealing wax is primarily composed of beeswax. To help the wax harden, manufacturers in the 16th century began adding shellac, a resin secreted by an insect found in India and Thailand. To this mixture was added rosin, chalk, and a pigment, often vermillion (made from mercury) or lead. The mixture was heated and poured into a metal mold, where it hardened into batons similar to the plastic sticks sold today. 

Seals were hard to duplicate, and trying to remove the adhered sandwich of ribbon, adhesive, and paper from the document for nefarious purposes would damage it, creating a certain amount of proof against tampering. This 1804 Treaty with the Delawares used both ribbon and wax seals to keep it secure.

Parchment has a slicker, tougher surface than paper, and it’s difficult to keep sealing wax adhered to its surface or emboss it clearly. In the case of Delaware Treaty, which was on parchment, the broad ribbon woven through the paper help keep the seals affixed to the document. 

This 1842 Treaty with the Wyandots, which is on paper, used two different types of ribbon. The pink is a linen tape that is holding a sheet of the document together, while the green is a silk ribbon under an embossed paper seal, attached to the paper with a big red sealing wafer.

The seals on the 1815 Treaty with the Tetons, which is on paper as well, show the sandwich created by the ribbon, wafer, and paper next to the X made by each Native American signatory.

Treaties made between the U.S. Government and Indian tribes also show a blend of both cultural traditions by including strings of wampum with the ribbons attached to the documents. 

While 18th- and early 19th-century treaties made heavy use of traditional materials like parchment and large wax seals, these materials began to be phased out in the mid 19th century for reasons of convenience and cost. This wax seal used at the Second Hague Conference in 1907 is a later surviving example.

Sealing wax was also used for closing letters. Before the early 19th century, postal rates were calculated in part by the number of sheets of paper a letter contained, and paper itself was costly, making envelopes or cover sheets an expensive commitment for a sender. Writers folded the letter up and sealed it, either with wax or a wafer seal.

After postal rates changed and machine-made paper was invented, the envelope became widespread in the 1840s. Gummed envelopes were invented by the 1850s. People could close the envelope with adhesive, glue, or a wafer, but just as today, some people continued to use wax, particularly those in official positions. 

This 1860 envelope from the Episcopal Bishop of California to Rose Greenhow (who became a Confederate spy during the American Civil War) shows a beautiful wax seal securing the letter. 

By the mid-to-late 19th century, with the proliferation of pre-gummed envelopes, wax seals fell out of common use. Today, seals and ribbons are not often used for document security, but they are used for decorative purposes for special occasions such as wedding invitations.

Next time we’re taking a look staples, grommets, and red tape.

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