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.

Sealing with Wafers

Wafers in the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum, Mount Holyoke College. (Wikimedia Commons)

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:

Entick'sWaferWhat 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:

CyclopediaUAWaferQuote(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.

BettingerTeaser2
My letters, sealed with sealing wax (top) and a wafer (bottom).

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.

Detail of a letter written by Jane Austen, dated Godmersham, 20–22 June 1808, to Cassandra Austen (Morgan Library). This letter was sealed with a wafer. Note the distinctive pattern left by the wafer seal.

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!

Wafer Links:

Excellent at Little Things: a conversation in letters about letters

screenshot-books.google.com 2015-05-29 00-09-59Now that I’ve been thinking about letters in Jane Austen’s era, I’m seeing them everywhere! It seems that for writers of both fiction and non-fiction, letters were a natural choice for formatting their work. Magazines and other periodicals were no different: a huge portion of their content takes the form of letters. Even long essays might be presented as letters, beginning with a salutation like “Dear Sir” and ending with “Yours, etc.”.  Many more pieces are similar to the “letters to the editor” you might see in modern magazines and newspapers- they are from ordinary readers and often comment on the content of the magazine or offer suggestions. Such letters from readers sometimes create little conversations over several numbers. When I was looking for information about letter-writing, I came across just such a conversation in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1795.

The first part of the conversation appears in the issue for November 1795. A reader signing himself J. Feltham had some pet peeves to share with”Mr. Urban”, the pen-name of the editors of the magazine. One of them was about sealing letters:

SealingLettersA copy
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, p. 904. (Google Books)

Mr. Feltham is pointing out one of the annoying quirks of the way letters were folded and sealed. If you’re puzzled by letters from this period, check out my post on the basics, Anatomy of a Regency Letter.  Since the paper a letter was written on was usually folded up to form a neat packet without an additional envelope, part of the writing might end up under the seal.  Many modern sealing waxes pop off the paper without too much trouble, but it seems that things were different in Jane Austen’s era- most letter-readers ripped or cut the paper flap rather than trying to break the seal or remove it from the paper.  This meant that a small part of the 3rd page of a long letter could be lost.  Mr. Feltham recommends leaving a space in your writing on that part of the paper to avoid confusion.

OpeningRegencyLetters

In the December issue of the Gentleman’s magazine, a reader who signs himself “Z.” concurs with Mr. Feltham’s recommendation (which had appeared on p. 904) and adds a note on the topic from the book he’s been reading:

SealingLettersB
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, p. 998 (Google Books)

It took me a little pondering to figure out exactly what Mr. Job Orton was recommending when he says “turn to the next. . . and not to go on obliquely”. I think he is suggesting that the letter-writer use both sides of the first leaf of his letter, rather than skipping page 2 and going straight on to page 3 (as I have numbered them in my diagram). Mr. Orton then goes on to echo Mr. Feltham’s advice about reserving space on the page where the seal will go.  I had to laugh when I read about the unintelligible letter he got- can you imagine getting a message with a page and a half of preliminary fluff, only to have the single most important words blotted out by a seal or wafer?

Z. left out from his quotation the best part of Mr. Job Orton’s letter, which I found in an 1805 edition on Google Books:

JobOrtonLittleThings
Letter 23, “Letters to a Young Clergyman” by Job Orton, 3d. ed., 1805. (Google Books)

What a great excuse for being particular about details! There’s my aspiration for this blog; that a great lady might give me the character of being “excellent at little things.”  I agree with Mr. Orton, that “there is more in this than most people are aware of.”