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.

Filigree and Folly: Jane Austen’s Lucy Steele and Maria Edgeworth’s Rosamond

18th/early 19th quillwork tea box. Are those sprigs of myrtle and medallions? (Brunk Auctions, click for source)

It’s an unforgettable scene in Sense and Sensibility: Lucy Steele and Elinor Dashwood, both eager in their different ways to continue their confidential conversation about Edward Ferrars, find an unexpected opportunity to escape the usual evening game of cards with the Middletons.  The pretence that allows the two young women to sit apart and talk privately is Lucy’s “fillagree” work: she’s making a basket for Lady Middleton’s spoiled child and both women fear disappointing the girl’s hopes that the basket will be finished the next day.  I’ve often wondered why Jane Austen chose that particular craft for one of her least appealing, most manipulative characters.  Perhaps out of loyalty to the Dashwood sisters, I have always felt that it must be an inferior accomplishment to Marianne’s piano playing and Elinor’s drawing!  As an aspiring Accomplished Lady, I wanted to learn more about this decorative art.

Paper filigree, spelt various ways in Jane Austen’s era, is closely related to the modern craft called Paper Quilling or Quillwork. Here’s a definition  from 1810:

A General Dictionary of Commerce, Trade, and Manufactures; Exhibiting Their Present State in Every Part of the World; and Carefully Comp. from the Latest and Best Authorities, by Thomas Mortimer, 1810.

Styles change- the descriptions and extant examples I’ve seen from Jane Austen’s era tend to be a bit different from modern work.  Today’s quillwork artists tend to favor delicate, lacy openwork that sometimes stands free as three-dimensional sculptures or dangles as decorations and jewelry. It appears that 18th century filigree enthusiasts almost always attached their rolled paper to a support, and often filled each panel with as many densely packed rolls as possible. Where the backing surface can be seen, it is often colored silk or even sparkly mica.  I’m amazed at the scale of some paper filigree-covered articles, which included tables and cabinets! I’ve included links at the bottom of this post to articles and blog posts where you can see more pictures and learn more about extant examples, because right now I want to talk about a literary connection to Lucy Steele’s filigree basket.

A Paper Filigree workbasket, 1789 (Antiques Journal)

Maria Edgeworth (1767- 1849) is most famous for her novels: Jane Austen names Belinda with approval in Northanger Abbey (Chapter 5).  Edgeworth was also a prolific author of children’s stories. They are tales with moral messages, but they are better-written and more subtle than many such stories for children.  Her best known story is “The Purple Jar“, in which a little girl named Rosamond is so captivated by a beautiful purple jar she sees in a shop window that she begs to have it rather than the new shoes her mother planned to buy for her. After her mother reluctantly agrees, Rosamond empties the jar and discovers that all its color came from the foul liquid within, and she’s left with a plain glass jar and worn-out shoes.  “The Purple Jar” and other Rosamond stories first appeared in The Parent’s Assistant in 1796, but the character proved popular enough that Edgeworth published a collection of the stories as a book titled Rosamond in 1801.

Maria Edgeworth, 1808 engraving after William Marshall Craig. (via Wikimedia Commons)

A companion to Lucy Steele’s filigree basket appears in the Rosamond story “The Birth Day Present” from The Parent’s Assistant (I’ve been reading an 1826 collected edition of Edgeworth’s works on Google Books).  Rosamond plans to give her cousin Bell a special gift for her birthday, and settles on making an elegant filigree workbasket. It takes all week to make, and all of Rosamond’s money to buy the supplies! Among her motivations is the hope of continued approval from her godmother:

But did not you hear her say that I was very generous? and she’ll see that she was not mistaken.  I hope she’ll be by when I give my basket to Bell – won’t it be beautiful? – there is to be a wreath of myrtle, you know, round the handle, and a frost ground, and then the medallions. . .

– “The Birth Day Present” in The Parent’s Assistant, Maria Edgeworth

 I wonder if the “frost ground” is a reference to the mica used in some surviving filigree objects?  Rosamond’s preoccupation with her project contrasts with her sister Laura’s attentive compassion: she gives her money to a poor young lace-maker whose bobbins and lace Laura sees being destroyed by a callous footman in the street.  While the family are on their way to the birthday party, Rosamond’s father mocks Rosamond’s filigree basket:

‘Let us look at this basket,’ said he, taking it out of her unwilling hands; for she knew of what frail materials it was made, and she dreaded its coming to pieces under her father’s examination.
He took hold of the handle rather roughly, and starting off the coach seat she cried-
‘Oh sir! father! sir! you will spoil it indeed!’ said she with increased vehemence, when, after drawing aside the veil of silver paper, she saw him grasp the myrtle-wreathed handle.
‘Indeed sir you will spoil the poor handle.’
‘But what is the use of the poor handle,’ said her father, ‘if we are not to take hold of it? And pray,’ continued he, turning the basket round with his finger and thumb rather in a disrespectful manner-  ‘pray is this the thing you have been about all this week? I have seen you all this week dabbling with paste and rags; I could not conceive what you you were about-  is this the thing?
‘Yes sir-  you think then that I have wasted my time, because the basket is of no use : but then it is for a present for my cousin Bell.’
‘Your cousin Bell will be very much obliged to you for a present that is of no use ; you had better have given her the purple jar .’

– “The Birth Day Present” in The Parent’s Assistant, Maria Edgeworth

Indeed, it turns out that Bell doesn’t appreciate the present very much, since she manages to ruin it while taking a peek at her presents before it’s time to open them! Bell is a spoiled, fretful liar: she has at least seven tantrums on her birthday (Edgeworth numbers them) and she blames the damage to the basket on the lace-maker, who just happened to deliver the lace for Bell’s birthday dress. Rosamond learns her lesson, and learns to praise her sister’s true generosity when the lace-girl returns to expose both Bell’s lies and Laura’s charity.

There are a lot of moral messages woven into the story- Edgeworth implies that Bell’s character has been affected by too much indulgence with birthday parties and also by too much time spent with servants! However, the central moral has to do with Rosamond’s lesson about generosity: truly generous acts are not done for selfish ends and are bestowed on deserving objects.  The filigree basket is depicted as a waste of time and money because of its useless fragility, its intended recipient’s bad manners, and its maker’s focus on the praise she will gain by giving it away. Rosamond’s basket contrasts both with Laura’s better use of her half-guinea and with the honest labour of the poor lace-maker.

Jane Austen doesn’t make Lucy Steele’s filigree basket carry quite so much moral weight, but there are interesting parallels. Lucy’s motives for making and giving the basket are as self-interested as Rosamond’s- she’s busy ingratiating herself with her wealthy, titled hosts, and indulging the children is the only thing that seems to please the insipid Lady Middleton. Lucy’s basket is destined for a child at least as spoiled as Bell. When Annamaria Middleton is accidentally scratched by a pin, Lady Middleton and both Miss Steeles focus all their attention on her:

With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise to cease crying. She still screamed and sobbed lustily, kicked her two brothers for offering to touch her, and all their united soothings were ineffectual till Lady Middleton luckily remembering that in a scene of similar distress, last week, some apricot marmalade had been successfully applied for a bruised temple, the same remedy was eagerly proposed for this unfortunate scratch, and a slight intermission of screams in the young lady on hearing it, gave them reason to hope that it would not be rejected.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, chapter 21

I can’t be certain that Jane Austen was thinking of Rosamond and Bell when she chose to have Lucy Steele make a filigree basket for Annamaria. But Austen could have read The Parent’s Assistant any time after it was published in 1796, perhaps even before she started work in 1797 on the drafts that would eventually become Sense and Sensibility (finally published 1811).  Even without that certainty, it’s clear that Austen and Edgeworth both associate paper filigree with self-interested characters who value show over substance. I found an echo of this attitude in a very different piece of writing from about the same time. In The European Magazine and London Review, September 1801, the author of a series of “Essays After the Manner of Goldsmith” describes his visits to two different ladies’ seminaries:

The mistress of the first taught in her school, as she herself told me, every thing fashionable, filagree and straw work, the tambourine, and the new reel steps; and with great exultation produced her pupils as specimen of her ability : but it unfortunately happened, that every thing took a wrong turn ; I fancied in every infant face the outlines of pride, ill temper, vanity, and affectation ; and pictured to my imagination her misled children growing up in error, and sinking into vice and wretchedness.

– “Essays after the Manner of Goldsmith”, The European Magazine and London Review, Vol. 40, September 1801.

The curriculum of the second seminary is not described, but its “virtuous education” is a garden that produces “the dutiful daughter, the faithful wife, and the affectionate mother.”  There may be some satirical intention in this essay- Austen herself found Goldsmith an irresistable  target for satire in her “History of England”- but the concerns over moral education and fashionable accomplishments mirror other distinctly serious writings about female education. So while it may be an exaggeration to class filagree and straw-work with “vanities and follies suitable to the depravities of the age,”  it’s not a stretch for Jane Austen to link filagree and female folly.

Even though it may reflect badly on my character, I’d like to try some filigree as a change of pace from my more serious Accomplishments- I just need to get a hold of some instructions from Jane Austen’s era!

Paper filigree Links: