National Geographic : 1946 Jul
Seals of Our Nation, States, and Territories square seals for diplomatic mail (page 2), the strips used for sealing freight cars, etc. From the lead seals we get our expression "papal bull." A bulla was originally a circular plate or boss of metal, so called because it looked like a bubble of water (Latin, bullire, to boil). The term was applied to the leaden seals used on papal and royal documents in the Middle Ages, and from that use it was trans ferred to the document itself. After the 14th century the term was especially applied to documents issued by the papal chancery as distinguished from other documents. Although a bull is defined as "an apostolic letter with a leaden seal," there have been a few "golden bulls," sealed with that metal. Sealing wax, invented in the 17th century, replaced beeswax for general use and retained its popularity until recent times. Of the seals obtained for this series, only one, the seal of the President of the United States, was im pressed directly into sealing wax. Georgia applies wafers on both sides of a wax disk. Practically all seals now are made by stamp ing the impression directly into the document, or by attaching paper wafers, or stickers, to the document and then stamping the impres sion into the wafer. Wafers usually have gummed backs, much like those of postage stamps. They are in various colors, gilt or gold stickers leading in popularity. The wafers almost invariably have points around the margin. The Great Seal of the United States and the seal of New Jersey were the only two exceptions in the entire series; they have scalloped circumferences (pages 8 and 13). Since the points and scallops are not con sidered an integral part of the design, but merely a "finish" for the seals, they are not shown in the paintings, except for the examples on page 28. Wafers vary from about two to four inches in diameter, depending upon the size of the seal. The seals in the paintings are shown in a standard size, but sizes are given with the individual descriptions. A matrix, or seal press, in the days of the scarab seal was the size of a large setting for a ring. Presses vary greatly in size. In the early days, Alabama had a 500-pound giant. When the State capitol was burned in 1849, State Senator Beloved L. Turner and a helper undertook to save the seal. The senator is reported as never passing the press again with out stopping to look with jaundiced eye at the troublesome heavyweight. Presses today are comparatively small, just large enough to hold the die and heavy enough to force an impression into the documents. Some are operated by hand, others electrically. Formerly many seals had two faces, an obverse and reverse (or counterseal). In this series of seals, only six have reverses: the Great Seal of the United States and those for Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Only Georgia, Pennsyl vania, and Virginia still use the double seal. Two-faced Seals and Red Tape Seals with two faces were originally used most frequently as pendant seals, and this is the present Georgia custom. For Georgia, a purple satin ribbon is run through holes in the top of the document, and the seal hangs free. The impression is made on gilt stickers affixed to the two sides of the disk of wax. While pendant seals are rare nowadays, the ribbons have been retained for seals en placard, or placed directly on the face of the document. For this purpose usually two, and sometimes three, short pieces of ribbon in one or more colors are laid on the paper. The wafer is placed over them with an inch or two of ribbon showing below the edge of the sticker, and the impression is made (page 28). When a sealed document has several pages, the ribbon is threaded through holes at the top; then the ends are laid flat on the last page and the seal wafer impressed over the ribbons (page 13). Ribbons have lost favor in recent years. They are most frequently used on extradition papers; States which ordinarily do not use them may want them for what an Indiana official calls "showy occasions." Colors used by the States, Territories, Departments, etc., are indicated on pages 9, 31, 35, 38. Red was a favorite color for ribbons used with seals. The fact that ribbon is generally necessary for documents of more than a single page furnishes one theory of the origin of the present-day expression "red tape." Artistic Aspects of the Seals At the time of the Declaration of Inde pendence, all civilized nations used seals to authenticate documents; so on that same day, July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress ap pointed a committee "to bring in a device for a seal of the United States of America." Not until September 16, 1782, was a design ap proved, cut, and actually used (page 35). By that time some States had already re placed their colonial seals by State seals. Most State seals, however, were adopted in what is sometimes called the Victorian era, as a glance at some elaborate designs will reveal.