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Municipal Seals - A Brief Background

Seal of Clémence of Hungary, second wife of Louis le Hutin (Archives Nationales, Paris F4757)

Local, county or state governments will most always have an official seal that becomes a popular and appropriate choice for use on a governmental custom coin. The use of seals for various purposes has a long historical precedent dating back thousands of years. They tell stories, identify people, create illusions of fame and wealth or separate the masses from royalty. The word seal (from the Latin, sigillum) describes imprinting a soft material such as clay or wax from a hard engraved surface, rendering an image in relief in the softer material. Seals have been unearthed in Syria and Egypt from the 4th millennium B.C. The emblems originated when most people were illiterate but of course were capable of recognizing bold and striking designs. Often quite artistic, such seals contained detailed drawings of plants, animals, musical instruments and chariots. Prominent citizens, those with a high rank in the army, owners of businesses and royalty had their own seals. The seals of merchants and craftsmen often depicted the tools connected with their trade.

Seals were used to both identify the sender of correspondence and to help ensure its confidentiality. A letter was written on parchment (the skin of a sheep or goat) with ink made of soot mixed with gum or acid and a goose quill pen. After the letter had been written, the parchment was carefully folded, had holes punched into it, and a string was carefully strung through the holes. Then, the sender would stick a dab of hot wax or molten lead on the strings to hold them together, and imprint the hot liquid with his seal. The seal was an image that was unique to the sender. It might be the coat of arms of his family or an image that he especially liked. Often, the seal was on a ring that the writer always wore. The letter was then given to a messenger, who took it to the recipient. The receiver would examine the strings and the seal to ensure that the letter had not been subject to tampering.

Seal of the Fishmongers of Bruges (Archives Nationales, Paris F4757)

By the 12th century, municipal seals became an important part of a town’s independence, and were an official device, used as a mark of authorization and decree. The seals of maritime villages often depicted a ship; seals of inland cities featured a picture of the town itself. By the 13th century, seals were used by all classes, including small landowners. Simple seals could be bought ready-made. The use of personal seals saw a decline as more people were capable of signing their names. Municipal seals remain to this day, usually required to authenticate official governmental documents.

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