Philatelic Society of Lancaster County

The James Buchanan Chapter #173 of the American Philatelic Society
Chapter 118 of the American Topical Association

Exhibit: Wafers Seals on U.S. Folded Letters & Covers, 1840–1860, by Dr. Charles J. DiComo

Background: When writing letters was primarily reserved for Royalty, the custom was to seal letters with wax using a hand-held, wooden & brass sealer. In England after 1635, when the Post Office was no longer serving only the Royalty, the upper classes took up that sealing method (References 1, 2). Eventually, wafer seals were developed as a solution to sealing letters. They were small, symmetrically-shaped pieces of colored paper, gummed on the reverse. Initially popular in Britain, they depicted a wide array of images, initials, motto’s, phrases and scenery. They eventually made their way to the United States in the late 1830’s.

At the Great Exposition of 1851, De la Rue demonstrated a practical envelope-making machine that could simultaneously fold and gum. It was this availability of gummed envelopes that eliminated the need for wafer seals – however use continued until the 1860’s. This Single-Frame Exhibit endeavors to illustrate an assortment of these wafer seals utilized in the United States from the 1840’s through to the 1860’s.

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DiComo-Exhibit Wafer Seals on U.S. Covers, 1840-1860

References: (1) ”Early Wafer Seals”, by Arthur H. Groten, MD, The American Stamp Dealer & Collector, pp.46-6, March 2009; (2) “Wafer Seals in the Service of Political Activism”, by Arthur H. Groten, MD, The American Stamp Dealer & Collector, pp. 52-4, January 2012.

For those interested in learning more about wafer seals, the following video is a presentation by Dr. Art Groten entitled “Sealing the Letter in 19th Century Great Britain”, which was filmed at the Collectors Club in New York City on April 17, 2019. Enjoy!

“Sealing the Letter in 19th Century Great Britain” (42 min.)