Guest blog post by Olivia Howarth, digital preservation trainee with the SCA Opening Up Scotland’s Archives programme.
Over the past three weeks I’ve been undergoing a conservation project with the Archive’s conservator Ela, surveying embossing presses in the University of Glasgow Archive Collections. Embossing presses form part of an important aspect of social and business history – the study of seals. Sigillography is the study of seals which are attached to documents as a source of historical information. This practice is closely tied to the discipline of Diplomatics, which originally arose to determine the authenticity of charters and diplomas issued by royal and papal chanceries. Gradually this area of study has shifted to encompass more aspects of social history, including the evolution of seal design, symbolism in communication and heraldry.
Embossing press for Archibald Campbell, Hope & King Limited, from the Brewing Collection.
Seals are a pervasive part of historical record and since early times have provided an important method of demonstrating authenticity and making documents “official”. Although commonly used in reference to wax seals, the term ‘seal’ is also widely used to refer to other symbols of identity on documents. These are usually represented by a name or mark associated with the owner or author. The earliest form of ‘seal press’ was the screw press, invented over 1000 years ago. The screw press was adapted to many uses, including the creation of impressions in wax, minting coins and medallions, pressing grapes and olives for wine and olive oil, and was even used in Gutenberg’s printing press.
One of the earliest records of a press designed to emboss a seal on paper, rather than wax, is for the seal of the Continental Congress in America, dated 1782. Embossing is the process of making raised designs on paper (or other materials) whereby two metal plaques, called dies, exert pressure which forces the fibres of the paper to mould to the seal design. Where this is done without any ink or paint, it’s called blind embossing.
In the 1840s, manufacturers started producing embossing (or seal) presses that were smaller, more decorative and made for frequent use. These were designed with a percussion or lever mechanism which made them faster and more practical for busy offices. It was at this time that embossed seals started to appear on commercial, business and personal papers rather than exclusively official documents. The popularity of seal presses lasted until the early 20th century when many were disposed of in the scrap metal initiatives of WWI and WWII.
In my survey of the presses in the University collections, one of my first thoughts was how much these machines remind me of the iconic Singer sewing machines. Once you consider that they were produced in the same era of heavy industry and mass production, their shared aesthetics aren’t so surprising. Naturally my survey revealed several presses that are connected to 19th century Glasgow industry. I focused specifically on a seal press (ref: UGC193/1/19/4) which was designed for The African Lakes Corporation Ltd, who traded throughout central Africa.
The import/export company was established in Glasgow in 1878 and this embossing press was used in their Glasgow office. I was drawn to the press itself because a lot of the decorative floral designs are still intact and the press has its own wooden case. While writing the condition report, I found other evidence that the press had been well cared for; the dies are unblemished and the mechanism is fully functioning, despite evidence of wear on the handle of the lever, a result of frequent use.
The embossed design produced by the dies is also one of the few pictorial, seals created by the presses I examined. The small seal features a flag divided into quarters diagonally, with the initials A-L-C-L in each quadrant, and an elephant in the centre.
A search through the papers in this collection revealed this design on a letter from Fred LM Moir, the company Secretary, to Messrs. Wright Johnstone Mackenzie & Roxburgh. The letter, dated 1901, corroborates that the press is from the turn of the century.
Another press, also belonging to the African Lakes Corporation, produced a larger seal with a thistle at the centre. The medallion design is more typical of other die designs in the collection. I found the embossed seal that it produces on an official agreement of goodwill from 1937 (ref: UGC193/1/4/9), where red labels have been positioned to resemble traditional wax.
Surveying these presses has given me a great insight into an aspect of technical archive practice and I’ve learnt about some basic, but key, preservation and conservation principles. Many thanks to Ela for guiding me on this project, and thanks also to this website and Cox R. Crider’s Fancy Figural and Unusual Seal Presses Collector’s Guide (2010) for providing much of the information for this blog post.
More images of these beautiful and informative artifacts can be found on the archives Flickr page.