I’m about to admit to something ridiculous. Follow me, won’t you?
Autobiographical note: You know the (utterly heartbreaking) children’s song (potentially about an opium addiction), Puff, the Magic Dragon? Of course you do; everyone in the English speaking world knows that song. There’s a bit in that about how the boy would take the dragon things like “strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff.” And for the longest time — seriously, I was well past college before it dawned on me — I was sure that it was ceiling wax.*
I’m just going to assume you know the purpose of sealing wax and move along.
Sealing wax was first used in the middle ages and was a colourless mixture of beeswax and a substance called Venice turpentine, an extract of the Larch tree.** Later, (though I can’t get a date on exactly when with the sources I have at my fingertips, but sometime before the 16th century,) vermilion was put into use to colour the wax red. From the 16th century, the wax was no longer wax, but composed of varying levels of shellac, turpentine, resin, chalk and/or plaster, depending on what it was being used to seal, and coloured red — though by the mid 19th century, a variety of colours, including gold, blue and black, were available.***
A fun side fact: Up until 2003, extradition requests between the US and UK were still sealed with wax and a ribbon.
*Whatever, I was like 5 when I first heard it. What did I know of sealing wax at the age of 5? And in my defence, it’s not like I thought awfully hard on this. Ever. Or sat around listening to Sharon, Lois and Bram after the age of 8. It was more one of those things that sealing wax came up — as it so often does**** — and the song crossed my mind and I went, “I’m an idiot!”
**In other news, turpentine is a derived from the plant resin of coniferous trees. I did not know that. It also, apparently, was, and in some cases still is, used for medical purposes.
****Okay, I was likely re-reading Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter.