Wax Seals & Stamps

Steph GallawayPublished on 21 January, 2022 · Last updated on  26 Feb, 2024
 Cover photo: Marlene OliveiraImage courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale (SH:7/ML/774)

Anne Lister was a dedicated letter writer as were many of her friends.

Since the Middle Ages, sealing wax has been used as a closure with parchment and paper, applied directly to documents or attached as a pendant. This wax, applied directly to documents or affixed as a pendant, isn't reasily removed without visibly displaying evidence of tampering. As a consequence, it served as a dependable means to fasten correspondence and safeguard important papers from prying eyes between the time of having been sealed by the author until their eventual delivery to the intended recipient. 

Frequently, the stamps used to make an impression in the wax seal bore an engraved motif connecting the seal with its rightful owner. Therefore these seals not only fulfilled the function of validating documents but also acted as a deterrent against forgery attempts. It was customary for people to use stamps bearing their initials, coat of arms, or other significant emblems as their personal mark on the sealing wax. 

Photo by Marlene Oliveira, source: West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale (SH:7/ML/286)
Letter from Anne Lister and Ann Walker to Aunt Anne, 11 June 1834. Sealed with the Lister coat of arms. 
Photo by Marlene Oliveira, source: West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale (SH:7/ML/624)
Letter from Ann Walker (Lightcliffe) to Anne Lister (Shibden Hall), 8 Nov 1832. Seal contains Ann Walker's initials, "aw".

Throughout her lifetime, Anne acquired and gifted many stamps that were used in diverse items of correspondence, each finding purpose in diverse forms of correspondence, ranging from official business matters to intimate letters exchanged among her extensive network of friends. She meticulously chronicled the intricate processes involved in handpicking suitable mottos and selecting materials for the carving of these stamps within the pages of her journal.

Among the repertoire of stamps owned by Anne, several notable examples stand out. One such stamp boasted the esteemed Lister coat of arms, while another portrayed a new moon rising over the sea with the words "Si je te perds, je suis perdu", (If I lose you, I am lost), among otheres. Additionally, Anne treasured one of the oldest stamps among her personal collection, a cherished gift bestowed upon her by her mother, Rebecca Lister. This particular stamp portrayed a scene of a devoted pelican, diligently nourishing its fledglings.

Examples of custom stamps Anne commissioned for others as heartfelt gifts include a seal depicting a delicate violet flower nestled amidst a tuft of grass, accentuated by the motto "Il faut me chercher" (I must be sought) cut into an amethyst surface—a testament to her affection for Sibbella Maclean.  Another emerged in the form of a bloodstone carving, exhibiting the bold inscription "Foi est tout" (Faith is everything) in block letters upon a scroll, thoughtfully crafted as a present for Ann Walker.

Photo by Shantel Smith, source: West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale (SH:7/ML/286)
Letter from Isabella Norcliffe (Langton) to Anne Lister (Shibden Hall), 17 November 1828. Seal contains a clock face with the motto “Cheto fuor commoto dentro” [quiet without, active within].
Courtesy of the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale (SH:7/ML/A/39)
Letter from Eliza Raine (Halifax) to Anne Lister (York), 23 May 1812. Seal reads, "Pensez à moi" [think of me].

"the woman at the comptoir gave me a stick of sealing wax – the man shewed me how they made their proof impressions of seals – the wax should never touch the flame and should never be enflamed – wave it about the candle till it melts then use it - the Dark coloured part of their impressions is done by smoking all but the impression of the seal near the flame of a candle" 

19 December 1829 - SH:7/ML/E/12/0135

The process of affixing wax seals entailed the heating of wax sticks through the use of candles or lamps, allowing the wax to either drip or be skillfully applied onto the paper. Subsequently, a stamp would be employed to imprint an impression into the wax while still soft and pliable. 

Different classes of seals were utilized for various purposes, ranging from royal and civic to private use. These seals displayed a diverse array of shapes, sizes, and colors, occasionally corresponding to the nature of the accompanying document. Notably, historical records and Anne's journal contain instances where black wax and black-edged paper were employed during periods of mourning. In some cases, this was noted as an extension or acknowledgment of the grief experienced by the recipient.

"I shall seal this letter with black because my heart shares the feeling of yours"

27 August 1817, to Isabella Norcliffe after the death of Dr. Charles Best


"Do not be alarmed at the sight of my black seal - it is for poor Mrs Duffin who died on the morning of the 31st ultimo"

11 September 1825, to Sibbella Maclean, 


"from the time of Dr. B– [Belcombe]’s funeral I have written on black edged paper to M– [Mariana]. Wrote this morning on plain paper but sealed with black. Have used black wax to everybody, but only black edged paper to π [Mariana] and Isabella and the Duffins.

31 December 1828, journal entry


Photos by Shantel Smith, source: West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale (SH:7/ML/897)

Letter from Isabella Norcliffe (Langton) to Anne Lister (Shibden Hall) regarding her mother's death. Dated 8 Dec 1835, the letter is written on black-edged paper, and sealed with "Isabella" in black wax.

The potential hazards associated with employing an open flame in close proximity to delicate paper and parchment prompted the adoption of adhesive paper, commonly known as wafer seals, during the 19th century. These seals were crafted from wheat flour, meticulously transformed into a thin, smooth paste which, once heated and solidified, assumed the characteristics of a sticker-like adhesive. Although lacking the visually appealing aesthetics synonymous with wax seals, wafer seals provided a cost-effective solution by reducing the burden of postage fees attributable to the weight of a letter. This advantageous aspect contributed to their widespread popularity, particularly in the city of Paris.

"wafers always used here because lighter than sealing wax, and for the same reason the French choose thin writing paper"

13 September 1824 - SH:7/ML/E/8/0043

It's worth noting that while Anne Lister displayed consistency and recorded the profound significance she assigned to factors such as paper selection, wax color, and seal choice, the same level of conscientiousness was not uniformly observed by all her correspondents.

There are examples that suggest Ann Walker, on more than one occasion, resorted to utilizing readily available seals for the sake of convenience. During her time in Scotland in 1833, Ann Walker affixed some of her letters with the seal belonging to Captain George Mackay Sutherland, which bore his coat of arms alongside a depiction of a cat and the clan's motto "Sans Peur" (Without Fear). Subsequently, while residing at Shibden Hall, she frequently dispatched letters employing certain seals belonging to Anne Lister, despite possessing many of her own.

Courtesy of the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale (SH:7/ML/149)
Letter from Anne Lister (Paris) to her aunt (Shibden Hall), dated 28 Sep 1824 and sealed with her ‘pelican feeding her young in the nest’ on black wax.
Courtesy of the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale (CN:103/4/38)
Letter from Ann Walker (Shibden Hall) to her sister Elizabeth Sutherland (Scotland) dated 2 March 1835, sealed with Anne Lister's pelican on red wax. 

Learn more about the art and significance of wax seals in Lister's life in this short presentation, and see a hands-on demonstration of traditional and modern wax seal methods. 

Seals and stamps, from Anne Lister and her correspondents

Anne Lister's correspondence reveals a a rich and diverse variety of wax seals and stamps, each possessing the ability to unveil a fragment of their respective owners' personal histories. This spreadsheet is a collaborative effort to compile as many descriptions of the known seals used by Anne Lister and her correspondents as possible. 

To view all the rows in the spreadsheet, click the 'Open Spreadsheet' button in the top right corner of the sheet. 

Reference tracker: Wax Seals & Stamps


This project is made possible through ongoing contributions from the following people:

How to contribute to this project

Tip: Don't worry about completing each column for your entry. Add the information you have and hopefully others will have more information to contribute. 

All information in this spreadsheet is in English, but please preserve the names of the people as written by Anne Lister and others.

Anyone can help research and add additional information for each references in this spreadsheet.