Seal (device)

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A seal can be a wax seal bearing an impressed figure, or an embossed figure in paper, with the purpose of authenticating a document, but the term can also mean any device for making such impressions or embossments, essentially being a mould that has the mirror image of the figure in counter-relief, such as mounted on rings known as signet rings. This article is concerned with devices and methods for making such imprints.

If the imprint is made as a relief resulting from the greater pressure on the paper where the high parts of the seal touch, the seal is known as a dry seal; in all other cases a liquid or liquified medium (such as ink or wax) is used, usually in another color than the paper's.

For legal purposes, the definition of seal may be extended to include rubber stamps,[1] or writing specified words ("seal" or "L.S.").[2]

Sigillography is the term used for the study of seals.

Contents

Impression

Seals are used to authenticate documents, applied directly to the face of the document, or attached to the document by cords or ribbons (often in the owner's liveries), or to a narrow strip of the document, sliced and folded down, as a tail but not detached from the document. This helped maintain authenticity by not allowing the reuse of the seal. If a forger tried to remove the seal in the first case, it would break. In the other cases, although the forger could remove the seal intact by ripping the cords from the paper, he would still have to separate the cords to attach it to another document, which would destroy the seal as well because the cords had knots tied in them inside the wax seal. Most governments still attach seals to letters patent. While many instruments required seals for validity (i.e. the deed or covenant) it is rather uncommon for private citizens to use seals anymore, although in some parts of the world it remains common in private and public sector business.

Seals were applied to letters and parcels to indicate whether or not the item had been opened since the seal was applied. Seals were used both to seal the item to prevent tampering, as well as to provide proof that the item was actually from the sender and was not a forgery. To seal a letter, for example, a letter writer would compose the letter, fold it over, pour wax over the joint formed by the top of the page of paper, and then impress a ring, metal stamp, or other device. Governments would often send letters to citizens under the governmental seal for their eyes only. These were called letters secret. Seals are no longer commonly used in this way, except for ceremonial purposes.

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