Wafer Etiquette

Earlier this week, I described the humble wafer– a dry paste disk that provided a quick and easy alternative to sealing wax. With two different methods for sealing letters available, how would a letter writer choose between them in Jane Austen’s era? What did the choice of sealing wax or wafer mean to the recipient of a letter? That’s what I’ll be looking at today!

Deference and Disrespect

Letter-writing manuals, like the Complete Letter-Writer of 1778, suggest that sealing wax, along with other fancy stationery, shows deference when writing to someone of higher class status:

Letters should be wrote on Quarto fine gilt post paper to superiors ; if to your equals or inferiors, you are at your own option to use what sort or size you please, but take care never to seal your letter with a wafer unless to the latter.

(See my post on the Anatomy of a Regency Letter for info on paper terms like ‘post’ and ‘quarto’)  So, when Jane Austen was writing to her beloved sister Cassandra- an equal in status as well as a beloved family member- she sometimes chose a wafer, sometimes sealing wax. In Maria Edgeworth’s 1814 novel Patronage, this point of wafer etiquette is at the center of a political contretemps!

Maria Edgeworth, by John Downman, 1807. (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the central characters of the novel is the politician Lord Oldborough, who is excellent at administration but “sometimes guilty” of “trifling failures in etiquette” that might offend influential people who take pride in their high rank. On one occasion, Lord Oldborough accidentally offended the conceited Duke of Greenwich, his social superior (chapter 8):

Lord Oldborough had sent his grace [the Duke] a note, written in his own hand, sealed with a wafer. The clerk, who was present when the note was received, said that the Duke’s face flushed violently, and that he flung the note immediately to his secretary, exclaiming, ‘Open that, if you please, sir—I wonder how any man can have the impertinence to send me his spittle!

Ew! The spittle that moistened the wafer, it turns out, is not the real cause of offense, but the lack of respect that Lord Oldborough’s informal note implies. Commissioner Falconer, a wily man who is trying to curry favor with Lord Oldborough, comes up with a sneaky way to soothe the displeased Duke (chapter 8):

When Commissioner Falconer had thus sagaciously discovered the cause of the noble duke’s displeasure, he with great address applied a remedy. Without ever hinting that he knew of the offensive circumstance, having some business to transact with the Duke, he contrived, as if undesignedly, to turn the conversation upon his friend Lord Oldborough’s strange and unaccountable negligence of common forms and etiquette; as a proof of which he told the Duke in confidence, and in a very low voice, an anecdote, which he heard from his son Cunningham, from Lord Oldborough’s own secretary, or the commissioner protested that he would not, he could not have believed it—his lordship had been once actually upon the point of sealing a note with a wafer to one of the royal Dukes!—had the wafer absolutely on his lips, when Cunningham felt it his duty to take the liberty of remonstrating. Upon which, Lord Oldborough, as Commissioner Falconer said, looked with the utmost surprise, and replied, ‘I have sealed with a wafer to the Duke of Greenwich, and he was not offended.’

Falconer calms the Duke’s wounded pride by explaining that Lord Oldborough did not single him out for disrespect with his wafer-sealed note, but is unaware of standard conventions. He also subtly implies that Lord Oldborough has more respect for the Duke of Greenwich than for the Royal Dukes, the King’s younger sons. Strictly speaking a Royal Duke has a higher rank than the Duke of Greenwich, but in Falconer’s story Lord Oldborough seems to say that if a wafer is good enough for the Duke of Greenwich, it’s more than good enough for a Royal Duke! Falconer’s well-crafted anecdote does help reconcile the two politicians, and Lord Oldborough takes greater care with his correspondence to the Duke in future. In fact, he seals his next letter in wax with a special private seal: “—a seal that is always locked up—a seal never used to any common letter, never to any but those written by his own hand to some private friend, and on some very particular occasion” (chapter 38). I don’t want to spoil the novel for you, so I’ll just say that these choices about sealing letters have far-reaching consequences!

Speed and Slovenliness

A quite different story shows a related aspect of wafer usage: since they are so easy and quick to use, a letter sealed with a wafer looks hurried and messy compared with an elegant wax seal.

Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson. Painted 1797 by Lemuel Francis Abbott. (Wikimedia Commons)

In James Stanier Clarke and John M’Arthur’s 1809 biography of Horatio Nelson, the great hero of the Royal Navy, they describe letters that brought an end to the Battle of Copenhagen in April 1801. After the British had decisively gained the upper hand, Nelson wrote a note to the Crown Prince of Denmark offering a truce to prevent further bloodshed and destruction. In this version, all that is said about the seal is this:

and in order to shew that no hurry had ensued upon the occasion, he sent for a candle to the Cockpit, and affixed a larger seal than usual.

Nelson did not have any candles in the stern gallery where he was writing since open flames were carefully controlled in a ship of war, especially during a battle when gunpowder was in use. No mention of wafers here, but like all stories about Lord Nelson there are many variations in contemporary sources! A more elaborate version of the story is found in Robert Ker Porter’s book Travelling Sketches in Russia and Sweden, excerpted in the Edinburgh Review in April of 1809. There may well be earlier sources for this version, but this is the first I could find.

Whilst his Lordship was writing with all the calmness of a man in his study, he desired Colonel Stewart to send some one below for a light, that he might seal his dispatch. Colonel Stewart obeyed ; but none appearing with a candle ; when Lord Nelson had nearly completed his letter, he inquired the reason of such neglect, and found that the boy who had been sent for it was killed in his way by a cannon shot. The order was repeated : upon which Colonel Stewart observed ‘Why should your Lordship be so particular to use wax? why not a wafer? The hurry of battle will be a sufficient apology for the violation of etiquette.’ ‘It is to prove, my friend,’ replied Lord Nelson, ‘that we are in no hurry ; that this request is not dictated by fear, or a wish on our part to stop the carnage, from the least apprehension of the fate of this day to us, that I am thus particular. Were I to seal my letter with a wafer, it would still be wet when it reached the shore ; it would speak of haste. Wax is not the act of an instant ; and it impresses the receiver accordingly.’ The reasoning of the admiral was duly honoured by the result. The Danes acceded to his proposal ; and a cessation of hostilities was the consequence.

Colonel Stewart speaks of a “violation of etiquette”, since the Crown Prince of Denmark is definitely Nelson’s social superior. But Nelson isn’t thinking of etiquette. Even though he is actually in a bit of a hurry – cannon shot is killing people on his ship while he’s writing! – he takes extra time to make an especially large and impressive seal to show that he’s in control of the situation.

Silver desk seal with an ivory handle showing the arms of Nelson in use between 1798-1801. It is said that Nelson used the seal at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich).

Although wafers, plain and fancy, continued to be available as the 19th century wore on, it appears that etiquette began to frown on them more sternly. An 1844 book for children charmingly titled The Writing-desk and its contents; taken as a text for the illustration of facts in natural history and philosophy has this to say about them:

Amongst the other contents of the writing-desk I must notice the white wafers, which are very useful for fastening loose sheets of paper together, though some people employ them for closing the envelopes of letters; but this, except in the ‘hurry of business’ is a slovenly practice.

It seems that wafers have moved down the social scale and are no longer appropriate to use even when writing to “equals and inferiors,” unless the writer is in haste. “Hurry of business” sounds a touch disdainful of tradesmen and other businesspeople, doesn’t it? The author, Thomas Griffiths, goes on to tell another version of the Nelson story (naming no names) and gives a clear account of how wafers are made and coloured, so they are definitely still an essential part of the writer’s tool-kit however down-market they may be!

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the humble wafer. Next week I’ll write about how I have made some wafers and wafer substitutes for sealing letters.

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