Early Communication

Not that long ago and not in a galaxy far, far away, people here on Earth actually wrote letters to each other, so they could communicate over long distance.  This happened after writing was developed, but before the telegraph, or the telephone, or email was a thing.  Writing letters was how people stayed in touch.  People had to wait for weeks or even months for a letter to get from one part of the world to another.  If the letter was sent general delivery, then the post office would hold the mail until the recipient called for it.  In order to preserve the confidentiality of documents and confirm that they had been indeed written by the sender, letters were sealed with wax and stamped, which began in the Middle Ages.  At first, these sealed and stamped letters were the exclusive purview of monarchs, bishops, and royal courts for use in issuing official decrees and authenticating documents.  The use of wax seals then gradually became more popular and eventually each individual had their own seal.  In a time when many people were still illiterate, these seals were used in place of a signature to authenticate agreements, contracts, wills, letters which conferred rights or privileges or any act that needed to be executed in someone’s name.

Sealing wax was made principally of beeswax and Venice turpentine, then colored with various pigments, commonly vermilion or cinnabar to give a red color.  Some royal courts used different colors to distinguish various administrative functions.  The seals were sometimes melted directly onto the document, but just as often they were hung off documents with ribbon or parchment tags after being threaded through a hole or slot at the lower edge of the document.  The wax seal was used to verify that the document was not opened, and it also authenticated the sender’s identity.  There is a myth about an emperor who devised the first envelope, by writing a message on the shaved pate of a slave, letting the hair regrow, and then he sent the man to his destination to be shaved anew so the message could be read.  This seems like an ingenious plan, but it does come with a drawback that the message had better not be terribly urgent.  When actual envelopes were finally invented, they were often sealed with wax impressed by a signet ring to prevent the wrong people from reading them.  For a really important letter a gallows mark could be put on the cover, meaning that it had to be delivered under pain of death.

The Rolling Stones recorded a song titled ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ which mentions making sealing wax and this is said to be a metaphor for extremely pointless and superficial activities that the father of the girl is engaged in.  It is meant to convey the idea that he is preoccupied with meaningless and insignificant tasks, rather than focusing on reality, because people had stopped using sealing wax at this time.

Written for Reena’s Xploration Challenge 281, where today she gave us another picture.

21 thoughts on “Early Communication

  1. You reminded me of old times, when we did wait for letters. India Speed Post was the first to deliver in a day. Then, courier companies took over. Soon, the entire system got wiped out by email, messaging and social media.

    I wonder if offices still have fax machines.

    Liked by 1 person

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