Wax Seals & Stamps

Published on 21 January, 2022 · Last updated on 6 September, 2022
Cover photo: Marlene Oliveiracourtesy 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. Wax seals cannot be removed without visibly displaying evidence of tampering. Therefore, they could be relied upon to fasten correspondence and secure documents from prying eyes between the time of having been sealed by the writer until delivery to the intended recipient.

Often the stamps used to make an impression in the wax seal were engraved with a motif that connected the seal with its owner, so a seal could also be used to validate a document and prevent forgeries. It was common for people to use stamps with their initials, coat of arms, or other insignia 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".

During her life, Anne acquired and gifted many stamps that were used in diverse items of correspondence, including business correspondence and letters to her wide circle of friends. She detailed the processes of carefully choosing mottos or selecting the material from which a stamp was to be carved in her journal.

Some examples of stamps Anne owned were adorned with: the Lister coat of arms, a new moon rising over the sea with the words "Si je te perds, je suis perdu", among others. One of the oldest stamps Anne Lister used was gifted to her by her mother, Rebecca Lister, and it was adorned with a pelican feeding its chicks.

Examples of custom stamps Anne had created for others as gifts include a seal of a violet flower among a tuft of grass with the motto, “Il faut me chercher" [I must be sought] cut into amethyst for Sibbella Maclean and one carved into bloodstone reading "Foi est tout” [Faith is everything] in block letters on a scroll 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

Sticks of wax were heated by candles or lamps, allowing the wax to drip or be pressed to the paper, and a stamp used to apply an impression in the wax while still soft.

Different classes of seals were used for various purposes, ranging from royal and civic to private use. They could come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, sometimes relating to the type of document attached. Examples of black wax and black-edged paper being used during periods of mourning can be found on letters in the archives and recorded in Anne's journal. In some cases, this was noted as an extension or acknowledgment of someone else's grief.

"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 inconvenience of using a naked flame in close proximity to paper and parchment led to the use of adhesive paper, or wafer seals, in the 19th century. These were made from wheat flour to form a thin, smooth, paste that after being heated and set functioned more like a sticker. Wafers lacked the pleasing aesthetic of wax seals, but reduced the expense of postage due to the weight of a letter and for this reason were popular in 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 documented the kind of meaningful intent she put into her selection of paper, wax color, or choice of seal, that was not necessarily the same for all of her correspondents.

There are examples that indicate Ann Walker used seals that were at hand as a matter of convenience on more than one occasion. While in Scotland in 1833, Ann Walker sealed some of her letters using Captain George Mackay Sutherland's seal (his coat of arms, with a cat and the clan's motto "Sans Peur"). Later, while living at Shibden Hall she often sent letters using some of Anne Lister's seals despite having 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.

Seals and stamps, from Anne Lister and her correspondents

In Anne's correspondence, there's a rich and diverse variety of wax seals and stamps, all of which tell a part of the personal history of their owners. 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:

  • Steph Gallaway

  • Livía Labate

  • Amanda Pryce

  • Dawn Susan

  • JY Jiang

  • Kathryn Williams

  • Lynn Shouls

  • Marlene Oliveira

  • Shantel Smith

How to contribute to this project

  1. Request access to edit the spreadsheet. Please include an email address that is associated with a Google account (this is the only requirement to participating in this project). If you don't have one, here's how to do it.

  2. You will receive an email confirming you have editorial access.

  3. Once granted access, you can add a new item to the list, organized by date.

  4. Locate the correct volume and click the (+) to expand the rows.

  5. Add your row to the appropriate place in the list.

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.