Sunday, August 29, 2010

Seal stories

When examining a new certificate I always look for the presence of a seal. I hope a remarkable scenery will be present on it. Some of these seals are so striking that they can not possibly be overlooked at. Others, the embossed ones, are hardly noticeable but can just be as surprising as well.
(tip: double-click the images for more details)

Gold paper seal, embossed after being attached to the document
Texas Short Line Railway Company, 1902

In the Middle Ages, seals were made on bee wax. They were used for guaranteeing authenticity of documents and for sealing closed documents. On shares and bonds, seals are also used for authentication. More, the presence of a beautifull gold paper seal, serving as a quality label, helped issuers to attract potential buyers. Seals were also meant to make it more difficult to counterfeit a certificate. Sometimes, they were also used as proof that obligatory taxes were paid.
Seals on certificates can show the name of the issuer, a pictorial emblem representing the issuer such as a coat of arms, an incorporation date, or a picture of the kind of activity that was involved.
Seal integrated in the print design
RCA Corporation (specimen) 1977
A seal can be produced in several ways. In a dry seal , the imprint of a figure is made as a relief in paper. Another way to create seals is to use a liquid medium such as ink or wax. In case of ink a stamp imprent is made, in case of wax an impressed relief is the result. Seals can be applied to the document itself or can be attached to it by cords or ribbons or can be glued to the document.

The term seal can also be used for the device used to create the seal such as a signet ring, a rubber stamp or an embossing press. Such devices are basically a kind of mould with the mirror image of the target figure.

Wax Seals
Already in ancient civilizations, seals were issued to create an impression on clay. The same principle was used in the Middle Ages to make impressions in bee wax, or pine resin. Later sealing-wax was poured on the document and a ring, a stamp or similar device was impressed.
It occurs that a wax-sealed certificate has a seal that is covered with a piece of paper of about the same size, where the stamp was pressed through. This was done to strengthen the seal.

Wax seal
Connecticut River Bridge , 1829
(image : Centrum voor Scriptophilie)

Embossed seals (dry seals)
Embossed seals, known as dry seals, are printed on the document by means of an embossing press. An embossing press consists of two plates, one bearing the image in relief and the other one bearing the mirror image. By pressing the document between the plates, the seal image is produced forming a three-dimensional image in the paper. These kind of images are harder to spot but as you can see from the examples, can be quite revealing.

Embossed seal depicting ship
La Salvadora, 1857

Embossed seal, a real beauty
Indian Carrying Company, 1862,
click for details: sun (above), elephant followed by farmer, train, oxen (below)

Sometimes, a small piece of paper, often red, with a crenelated border was first attached to the document before embossing the seal. The resulting paper seal now looked like a wax-seal. An example, on a white piece of paper, was already shown in the posting on Masonic certificates (click here).

When the paper seal has a gold or silver colour, we often speak of a gold paper seal or silver paper seal. They make certificates stand out among others.

Gold paper seal, embossed after being attached to the document with the image of the waterfalls vignette.
Great Falls City, 1914

By the end of the 19th century, printing techniques became far sophisticated. Some printers, especially in the USA, printed a crenelated seal as part of the design of the certificate. An additional piece of gold papier was not needed anymore, just an an emboss of the image.

Emboss imprinted on pre-printed gold seal
Elm Springs – Wasta Telephone Company, 1909

Long before their widespread usage in the 19th century, embossed seals were made on stylished pieces of paper on the share certificates of Spanish trading companies. Examples and background information on this early seal usage can be found in A. Kipfer’s catalogue on these companies.

Stylished paper seal with embossed imprint.
Compañia Real de Toledo Unida a la de Extremadura, 1752
(image: Centrum voor Scriptophilie)

Stamped seals
Another way to produce seals is using a stamp. On the stamping device, such as a rubber stamp, an image is engraved onto a rubber sheet. After applying ink on the stamp, the latter is pressed on the document. Instead of rubber other medias are used such as wood, metal or rock.

Stamped seal
Dumra Gold Prospecting Syndicate, 1890

Stamped seal
Mount Pima Mining Company, 1906

In East Asia, ever since the beginning of writing, ink seals have been used for written identificiation by both individuals and organizations. They replace signatures in official documents. Often several types of seals are used together, such as a seal bearing the name and another one bearing a motto or a poem. The seals are carved from materials like wood, jade and soapstone. The liquid used to stamp the image is usually red ink or a red paste made from cinnabar. Many seal carving styles are known, and some seals are truly pieces of art.

In China ink seals are know as yinzhang. Yang seals imprint Chinese characters in red ink, where yin seals print a red background leaving white characters. A Chinese rubber seal are is referred to as chop. Originally Chinese seals are square in shape, later rectangular and eventually circular shapes were introduced.

Stamped seal
Gouvernement de la Republique Chinoise, Emprunt Industriel 1914
In Japan, many types of seals, referred to as inkan or hanko, are used for several occacions. Their usage and design is strictly stipulated and they are mostly made from hard stone. Initially used by the Japanese emperors, Samurai were permitted to use them as well in the Middle Ages. By the late 19th century, seals were generally used in the Japanese society.
Stamped seal
Nippon Omoshi (Stone Weight Co.) 1905
Printed and computer generated seals
By the end of the 19th century, when governments needed to issue more and more bonds, printers started integrating seals into the print design of the certificate. Printing machinery were able to produce certificates with seals at a high rate.
Seal integrated in the print design of the certificate (upper half shown)
2e Russ. 5% Inner. Anleihe mit praemien-verloos., 1866
Seals of modern shares and bonds are designed in the printing plate (see also the example of the RCA Corporation above), or are computer generated facsimiles. Usually, these are circular in shape and mention a name in the center or the border of the seal.
Computer facsimile seal
Apple Computer, 1995
Metal seals
I kept the most intruiging seal type for the last. In very exceptional cases, seals on medieval documents were made in metal. Even now papal bulls, charters issued by popes, still bear a lead seal. The Latin word for lead is bulla.
Copper seal
Vauxhall Bridge Company, 1821
(image: Centrum voor Scriptophilie)

So far, I’ve only seen one share certificate with a metal seal : the Vauxhall Bridge share. Its seal is made from copper and depicts a Saxon warrior in front of the bridge. The inscription under his feet shows the name of the company but also the warrior’s shield bears a motto in the border: ‘BRIDGES ARE SHIELDS IN ..’. Unfortunately, I can’t fully complete it and I would be happy if someone could.
There is a lot more to tell about the history of seal production and seal usage. The part of history science studying this fascinating subject is called sigillography . In East Asia, and some other parts of the world as well, seals are still in use for authenticating documents on a daily basis, but in most other regions, except for special official occasions, seals are rarely used anymore, which is a shame I think. In contrary to plain computer generated documents, the usage of artistic seals could add an extra bit of colour to our business activities.

For more articles on the usage of seals, click here.

1 comment:

  1. To my readers :

    There is a new category of seals that I have overlooked until recently : holograms. Please, see here,