When we think of the romance of Regency letters, we think of sealing wax. Using it seems like a ritual that brings past times before our senses: the flickering candle, the smell of melting wax, the richly colored puddle impressed with a coat of arms or initials. But so many of the resources I’ve been looking at refer to two alternative ways of sealing letters in one breath: “wax or wafer.” I had to learn more about the wafer. I was astonished to learn how ubiquitous sealing wafers once were, and how nearly forgotten they are now!
What is a Wafer?
Wafers are difficult to research for a number of reasons. The word “wafer” can mean many different things in different contexts: a biscuit like a thin waffle, a communion host, or a silicon base for making computer chips, to name just a few. In addition, different methods for sealing letters proliferated over the course of the later 19th century, including embossed and decorated gummed labels or stickers- also often called “wafers”. Even now, “wafer ‘ is a term for the translucent stickers used to close brochures and sales flyers for mailing! Entick’s dictionary of 1791 gives three basic definitions that illustrate this problem:
What I want to focus on is the last wafer in Entick’s entry: “paste made to close letters.” This was sometimes called the “common wafer” to distinguish it from fancier variants. The common wafer was very simple: a thin disk of dry paste that becomes sticky when wet.
How wafers were made gives us a sense of their properties. Recipes for making wafers at home are readily available in the many “receipt-books” that borrowed (or pirated?) from each other. Here’s one from the New Family Receipt Book of 1811:.
To make Wafers Take very fine flour, mix it with the glair (or whites of eggs) isinglass, and a little yeast; mingle the materials, beat them well together, spread the batter, being made thin with gum water, on even tin plates, and dry them in a stove; then cut them for use. You may make them of what colour you please, by tinging the paste with Brazil or vermillion for red ; indigo or verditer, &c. for blue ; saffron, turmeric, or gamboge, &c. for yellow.
In other words, a starchy flour paste is combined with other sticky ingredients and colorants to form a thin batter, which is baked as a thin sheet and then cut into small pieces. While I haven’t found detailed descriptions from my period of how the commercial product was made, the encyclopedias of the later Victorian era (a great age for encyclopedias!) fill in the picture. Charles Tomlinson’s Cyclopedia of Useful Arts of 1866 describes a process that sounds like a scaled-up version of the home recipe, using the same ingredients with more specialized tools and techniques:
(If you’re interested in the fancy wafers of various kinds, Tomlinson describes some of those too). The toxic “mineral colours” mentioned probably include vermilion, now known as mercury sulfide. It gave sticks of sealing wax (and apparently some wafers) their typical vivid orangey scarlet red color. I can imagine that if you’re making a product out of flour with some grease on your tools (some recipes recommend butter!), it would be convenient to include a toxic ingredient as a kind of preservative to keep vermin away. But, really, if the scraps from industrial wafer production were sold as rat poison, who would want to lick a wafer to stick it on their letter? Apparently, no one was worried!
Once I started looking for wafers, I found mentions of them all over publications from this period. In a tutorial for copying drawings in that same 1811 New Family Receipt Book, wafers are used to stick paper to boards and to other papers. An 1847 book of craft projects for girls describes making rosettes out of bits of wafer to decorate baskets. A 1799 book of home remedies advises using “The common wafer made use of for sealing letters” to remove corns from the feet. The treatment sticks on the problem area by itself! All these different uses suggest that wafers were ubiquitous- the reading public was expected to have them on hand.
Sealing letters with wafers
To use a wafer, a letter writer folded up the paper as usual (see my post on the Anatomy of a Regency Letter for one letter-folding technique). Then the writer took a wafer from his or her writing desk or the “wafer box” that sometimes stood beside the ink-pot in a desk stand or standish. After licking it well, the writer stuck the wafer to the letter and folded the flap closed.
Once I knew what to look for, I found wafers on many letters from Jane Austen’s era- on letters Jane wrote, no less! Even if you’re looking at images online that don’t show the whole letter in detail, the perfectly round shadow of a sealing wafer is often very distinctive- even expert sealing-wax users rarely make a perfect circle of wax. Another thing to look for is the tell-tale mark of the “wafer seal”. While the wafer was still moist, a cross-hatched tool was often pressed into the paper to help it bite into the softened paste. The waffled seal impressed a distinctive pattern of little points or diamonds in the paper.
Many antique desk seals and seal fobs have this “hob-nail” pattern instead of an elaborate (and expensive) engraved insignia, and sometimes etuis or travelling inkwells were marked with the pattern, like this elegant silver penner. A wafer seal could easily be used on sealing wax as well. Occasionally I’ve seen letters where a more elaborate seal was used to press down the wafer, leaving a faint trace of the initials or arms- this may have inspired the fancy embossed stickers of later years. In any case, even when the letter’s seal has been ripped or worn away, sealing wax and wafers can sometimes be distinguished because of their placement on the page: sealing wax was daubed across the flap of the letter, while the common wafer was slipped under the flap.
When was it socially appropriate to use a wafer on your letter? How can YOU make (or fake!) wafers to use in your own period letters? I’ll cover those topics in upcoming posts!
- My Pinterest Board on Sealing Wafers: Since wafers are so ephemeral, this board includes examples of wafers from later periods. Also tools used with wafers and some letters sealed with them.
- The Crowley Project Conservation Report (PDF) on sealing wax and wafers used on documents of the Office of Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1818 to 1852.
- Edward Law’s page on the fancy embossed, gummed-label-like wafers of the 1840s, if you want to see how wafers evolved.