Details, Disagreements, and Decisions

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By jsingles

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While finishing up work on a set of Blake’s letters from the Westminster Archives, I ran across a question that has made me a minor expert on a very minor piece of history: the difference between wafers and wax seals in nineteenth century England. My curiosity about the difference in these two methods of sealing letters came about when I encountered the following seal on Blake’s Letter to Mr. Butts, 10 January 1802:

Without glancing at Bentley’s Annotated Catalogues of William Blake’s Writings, I noted in the letter’s provenance information that a wax seal was used for this letter. I then turned to check my description with Bentley’s who, you guessed it, disagreed. He claims that the seal pictured above is actually a wafer. This was the first time I have been forced to pause and ask myself what the difference between these two types of seals is, as I’ve always either agreed with Bentley’s observation or somehow felt that I could discern the kind of seal on a letter with a quick glance.

Since asking this question to myself last week, I have visited a few historical and antiquarian websites and have learned some interesting details about letter seals.

Wax …read more