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You have probably already seen old documents with wax seals on them. Seals were an early security system for manuscripts! Many important families had a metal stamp with a carved symbol that was specific to them. After signing an important document, they would drip a dab of hot wax on the ribbon that held the pages together and press the stamp in it, creating a seal. If the seal was broken, it would warn people that someone may have tried to alter the document.
This eight-page text called the Ordonnance, signed by François Bigot in 1751, came to Library and Archives Canada in 1919. Oddly, only in 1991 did we discover that the seal of this document is mysterious….
After some meticulous examination, we knew that the document was authentic -- the paper is of the right time period and the handwriting and the signature are the same as on other documents written by Bigot. The strange thing about this text is the seal. It's located in the wrong place, it's not the stamp that Bigot usually used and it seems… well… too perfectly round. When sigillographers had a closer look, they also noticed that the wax had not stained through the paper (like it usually does) and that the thickness of the seal had not left a bumpy mark on all the other pages (like it should have done). Was it added much later on? Why would anyone add a seal to a document that did not have a seal to begin with? Unfortunately, Canada has so few sigillographers that we still don't know why, when and who put this seal on this document. This mystery remains sealed….
Tricks of the Trade
Examine the seals closely. Can you see a wax stain through the back of the page?
Look at this letter written by the Bishop of Québec. For a long time, it was thought that this letter was proof that a printing press was in use in the city of Québec as early as 1759. After all, the letter is dated 1759 and it is printed by printing press, so why would anyone think otherwise?
Thanks to some good detective work, we now know that this is not the original letter and that it could not possibly have been printed before 1800. Here's why: Until around 1800, printers only used a small letter "s" at the very end of words. If there was an "s" somewhere else in a word, it would be written as a long "s" (that looked like a funky letter "f"). In this document, the small "s" is printed everywhere! This proves that the document was definitely printed much later than 1759. Another clue strongly suggests that the printing date was after 1800 -- the paper! Although wove paper like the one used in this document was available in 1759, it was still extremely rare and it would not have been available in Canada until after 1800.
Tricks of the Trade
Examine the letter "s" in the words of this document. Are they short ("s") or are they long ("f")? Do you know what this means?