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Signs (or stamps and seals) of the time

Posted by Amy Freeborn on Jan 9, 2015 10:15:17 AM

Maybe it was too much cheese and wine... over the festive break I had dream about a potential blog topic: detailing the different designs used by the Museum on wax seal stamps over the years.


Of course, when I woke up and my dreamy head cleared, I realised that in all likelihood the Museum never used wax seals.


The invention of the automatic envelope folding machine in the 1840s, followed by self-gumming machines in the 1860s, meant that by the time the Museum opened in its current location in 1881 wax seal use was well on the wane.


But just to be sure, when I returned to the office this week, I got in touch with our trusty archivist and asked if she could double-check for me. The reply was an 'I don't think so', but with a consolatory 'we do have various ink stamps that were used at different times'.


That's better than nothing, I thought, so off I went to have a look. Inside a box marked "Historical Objects & Memorabilia" was a manilla envelope containing 17 ink stamps from different eras and different departments.



The 17 stamps (above) ranged from the complimentary ('From the Directors Room', etc) to the functional ('Rothschild bequest 1938' and various departmental libraries) to the celebratory ('Centenary 1881-1981').



The designs above included initials, crowns and crests, as well as more contemporary logos.


In a second, smaller, envelope marked "Hand stamp for Museum documents c1880" was another example. But when I tried this one out, something struck me immediately - the intricate coat of arms I could see in reverse, was showing no detail in its positive impression. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the design was recessed, rather than raised. That could only mean one thing: this old stamp was not for ink, but for wax!



The wax seal stamp features a lion and unicorn holding a crowned crest. In the top two corners it says "British Museum" and along the bottom "(Natural History)". Suspected Latin on the ribbon under the coat of arms is illegible.


And so it seems, sometimes dreams really do come true (well, sort of). Here's to a happy 2015!


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