The Scriptum Blog
Scriptum is changing. We have finally realised that journals, pens, inks, and beautiful objects have no place in the modern world and so we have decided to rebrand as a retailer of luxury microchips. Our new name will be Networkium. Our staff will undergo rigorous retraining to achieve utter apathy about the items we sell, and any indication of knowledge, creativity, or indeed enthusiasm of any kind will be severely discouraged. Our personal stationery service will be replaced by a coding and web design service, and we will no longer stock any item which might act as an expression of taste or individuality, especially anything which might bring a human heart joy through its beauty and craftsmanship. To this end, our shop will be refitted as a clean-lined empty white space with a single microchip on display. Finally, to fit in with out rebranding, all furthr corpor8 comms wl b in txt spk. Thx 4 reedin.
If you have only been on our website, it's difficult to get a feel for just how gloriously overcrowded our little Oxford shop really is. Piles of quills are stacked on every surface, drawers are stuffed with samples of paper, shelves groan under the weight of journals, and inkwells balance precariously in old printers' trays mounted on the walls. Low-flying model balloons and aeroplanes cause ducking and occasional cursing from tall browsers. Sticks of sealing wax jostle for desk space with pencil cases and praxinoscopes. The marble busts look down benignly on all this chaos, as does whatever piece of taxidermy we currently have perched on top of the Folio books (at the moment it's a baby crocodile, which is finding the very concept of "perching" rather tricky).
So, to give you a better idea of the feel of the shop and to show you our products in context, we have launched an Instagram account, @scriptumoxford, which will feed into our new online image gallery. We will show you things you might not usually see on our website, like some of our antiques, and we hope it will give a sense of the curious yet elegant aesthetic of our beloved Turl Street home.
We love our balancing toys, we love Christmas, and most of all we love a bad pun, so we would just like to say... Father Christmas rocks!
If you were really expecting to read about shoes and ships (or cabbages and kings, for that matter) you will be sadly disappointed. This post is about the sole item above which falls into our immediate realm of expertise - sealing wax.
We sell a lot of it. Perhaps it's the novelty value, perhaps it's because there really is no better way to feel like an Austen heroine or a character from Dickens than actually sealing a letter. All the sealing paraphernalia looks wonderful on a desk, and while no-one actually needs to seal anything these days, the look on a friend's face when presented with a gloriously sealed invitation is enough motivation for even technophiles to try it.
A brief history of sealing wax
In the middle ages, when illiteracy was rife, wax seals were commonly used for things we would use a signature for today, such as authenticating a will or contract - the symbol or crest on your own individual seal guaranteed your identity and integrity, and your acknowledgement of the contents. Some medieval clergymen are reported to have plucked out their own beard hair and added it to the melted wax, to show that the seal was truly a part of them!
Back then, sealing wax itself had a very different makeup to the kind we use now (even discounting beard hair). It was made principally of beeswax and Venice turpentine, then coloured with various pigments, commonly vermilion or cinnabar to give a red colour. Seals were sometimes melted directly onto the document, but just as often hung off documents with ribbon or parchment tags, like the example on the right.
From the 13th century, as people became both more literate and more mobile, sealing wax began to be used less extensively for authentication and more for security and privacy. Letter-writing grew more common, and when paper was still an expensive luxury, people folded their letters so that the reverse side, held shut by a blob of sealing wax, formed the envelope. It was even perfectly normal to cram your writing onto every available blank space still showing on the outside of the letter - paper really was that expensive.
The wax itself now needed to be more brittle than it had been previously, so as to show clearly if someone had tampered with a letter. This meant the composition of the sealing wax had to change away from the malleable beeswax mixture used on medieval documents. From the 16th century, shellac, a reddish natural resin secreted by tiny insects in Thailand and India (see left) became known in Europe, and was speedily mixed with the Venice turpentine and pigment to make sealing wax instead of beeswax.
When some genius invented the gummed envelope in the 19th century, wax seals slipped away from the practical into the decorative - while still retaining their medieval function of proving identity. Although they are still sometimes used in the legal profession, modern seals tend to be either purely decorative or an expression of personality; you can tell a lot about someone by whether they choose a rearing stallion, a delicate butterfly or a elegant fleur-de-lys to represent themselves. Still, the addition of a wax seal to a hand-delivered card does always lend a certain elegance and dignity to the contents, whatever they may be.
The wax we stock is made by the French stationery company J. Herbin. As nowadays people also tend to use wax more for aesthetic than practical purposes, we sell the traditional, brittle version of their sealing wax (you can find more details about its composition here, if all this talk of insects and beard hair has disturbed or intrigued you). We like this particular type of wax as it has a beautifully glossy finish, and gives a crystal clear impression of the seal image, so every tiny detail is rendered crisp and true. It is wonderful for decorative use on correspondence, certificates and wrapping, and almost anything else a creative mind can conceive. Scriptum's director used a beautiful custom-designed wax seal to decorate all sorts of things at his wedding, including making napkin rings from hand-marbled paper held together with a seal.
Wax sealing tips
Actually using sealing wax can be a tricky business if you've never tried it before. So, with all the usual caveats you would expect when giving advice for (quite literally) playing with fire - for heaven's sake, children, don't try this at home, and adults, proceed with care and caution and possibly even a small fire extinguisher - here are our handy hints for wax sealing.
- Place the envelope (or other item) you want to seal in the centre of your work surface. For more accurate results, you can draw lightly in pencil round the metal seal stamp where you would like the seal to go on the envelope. Have your wax and seal stamp to hand.
- Pour methylated spirits into the burner until it is a quarter full, and light it. Take the stick of wax, and holding it slightly to the side of the burner flame, melt it gently. Using the stick of wax as a pointer, direct the dripping wax to where you want the seal. You can use the end of the wax stick to stir the puddle of wax to shape it and get rid of air bubbles - this also helps the liquid wax to achieve a uniform consistency.
- Once the liquid wax covers about the area of a ten pence piece, and you are satisfied with the shape of your little puddle, calmly put the stick of wax aside on a non-stick surface (it will still be tacky from melting, don't put it directly on the table!) and put out the burner. The wax puddle is less likely to stick to the seal stamp when it has had a few seconds to become less liquid, so don't rush this bit. It also helps prevent sticking if at this stage you breathe lightly over the wax to create a barrier of moisture between the wax and the seal stamp.
- Check your seal stamp is the right way up, and press it firmly and decisively into the wax for a few seconds. Now leave the wax for a few minutes to harden completely, and your seal is done!
- For an even more beautiful effect, use a sponge to dab some gold or silver ink from an inking pad lightly over the seal to make the image stand out from the background.
- If you are doing multiple seals, allow the metal of the seal stamp to cool between each use, otherwise the wax will start sticking to it. But even if disaster strikes and the wax adheres to the seal rather than the paper, don't panic - a soaking in nail varnish remover will get the wax out of even the most fiddly cracks in a metal seal stamp's design.
- For a detailed history of all manner of stationery, consult the thoroughly informative Pen, Ink & Evidence by Joe Nickell (Oak Knoll Press, 2003).
- For a proper scholarly view of all aspects of sealing in Medieval times, see Good Impressions: Image and Authority in Medieval Seals, British Museum Research Publication 168.
- For an entymologist's-eye view of sealing wax, read the intriguing Fireflies, Honey & Silk by Gilbert Waldbauer (University of California Press, 2010).
If you've been keeping an eye on our website since we launched it in 2012 you'll have noticed that the selection of products is getting wider and wider. We can still only offer a fraction of what's available in the shop (and if you've visited us on Turl Street you'll understand why!) but have tried to cover as many different areas as possible.
One area that has been completely left out, though, are our antiques. Until now! Look out over the coming weeks as we begin to add an assortment of items taken from our eclectic antique collection. There will be inkwells and, of course, a good few Bavarian carved wood bears (these are now Scriptum mainstays!).
We only have one of each of these very special pieces, here's a sneak preview of some of them:
Ivory & silver page turner, 1909
Bavarian carved wood inkwell, c. 1900
Silver Mappin & Webb inkwell, 1899
Bavarian carved wood inkwell, c. 1890
Last time, you met Holly. In the next of our series it's time to find out a little bit more about Nick:
Hi Nick, thanks for chatting to the blog! First of all tell us how long you’ve been at Scriptum?
I’ve been here five months now. It really hasn’t felt like five months though - it’s been going by so fast. When you’re having fun you don’t really notice time going by.
What did you think of Scriptum the first time you visited?
Honestly, my first reaction was “wow! It’s my shop”, because if I had a dream shop it would be Scriptum. I’m still not done purchasing everything that I want to buy! I liked all of the detail in the shop - there are so many nooks and crannies, where you wouldn’t necessary think to look straight away, where you can find little treasures. I really think it takes a good four or five visits to the shop before you can take in a good chunk of everything - every time you come back you’ll find something you missed.
Now that you work here, what would you say is your favourite thing about Scriptum?
As much as people would think one might complain about the opera playing constantly in the shop, I never get tired of it. I even go home and listen to more. It gives the shop a bit of extra ambience and sets the mood, like you’re actually stepping into another world. As soon as you step out of the shop you can’t hear the music any more and you’re back in reality.
Ok, so in case our readers can’t detect your Louisiana accent through their computer screens, you’re from the States aren’t you? Can you tell us about the difference between Oxford and Lafayette, where you’re from?
They’re roughly the same size in population but I’d say the similarities end there. There’s definitely a lot more charm to Oxford, but having said that Lafayette is probably a bit more fun [Nick looks slightly guilty for saying this - ed] - there’s definitely a liveliness to Lafayette, with its Cajun culture.
Holly, as we learned last time, has her calligraphy. You also have a creative outlet outside Scriptum, don’t you?
I have a bachelors degree in fine arts and I concentrated on painting and drawing, which I still love, but currently my work takes the form of building sort of dioramas and sets for claymation. I enjoy making the little rooms that I create, I have a big soft spot for interiors - that’s another reason Scriptum appeals to me. I love the layout and interior of the shop.
You mentioned earlier that you still haven’t bought all of the things in the shop that you’d like to… Do you think you might have a bit of an addiction to shopping at Scriptum, despite working here?!
Haha, I think so. It definitely started out with my owl purchase before I began working here. I bought a taxidermy owl and after that I was hooked. Working here doesn’t make it any easier because each time I come in I see any new stock we have and just go “ooh”. I still have a laundry list of items I’m planning to get. My wife says I’m starting to develop an addiction to wax seals; I already have six, along with eight different colours of wax. I even have a fleur de lys for letters back home as that’s the symbol of the local football team, the New Orleans Saints.
Here's the first in a series of posts introducing Scriptum's staff. First, meet Holly:
Hi Holly! Let’s start with the basics: how long have you been working at Scriptum?
Just over two years. I’d just finished my masters at St Hilda’s but wasn’t ready to leave Oxford - then I saw that there was a job going at my favourite shop in the world so I walked in and begged to be employed.
What did you think of Scriptum the first time you visited?
I was a little intimidated by how beautiful everything was, but Karima, who worked here before me, was always very friendly and helpful. I used to come in mostly for the books but I ended up with several journals that I used to do my university work in. And friends would always buy me presents from here.
What’s your favourite thing about Scriptum?
I would say the people I get to meet, who share my love of beautiful stationery and the other quirky things we sell. There are loads of people who have fascinating stories about why they need a particular sort of inkwell, say, and you feel involved in people’s lives when you help them choose a special present.
You do calligraphy don’t you? Did you learn after working at Scriptum?
I did, I decided it would be a lot easier to sell inks and dip pens if I actually knew what I was talking about, and then I found that I really love it [and she’s very good at it - ed]. And then we started getting lots of requests for calligraphy projects, so I started doing it professionally. I mainly do specially commissioned pieces for people who want quotes, poems and certificates. The strangest commission I’ve ever had was filling a beautifully bound book with painstaking calligraphy detailing the rules of drinking games for a college rugby team! I’ve had the occasional request for a love letter too, and those are my favourite.
You’ve lived in Oxford for three years now, can you imagine ever living anywhere else? Can you imagine Scriptum being anywhere else?
I wouldn’t really want to live anywhere else. Oxford suits me, and Scriptum suits Oxford. I imagine it might possibly work somewhere like Bath, but the idea of Oxford without Scriptum is unthinkable.
Can you tell us about some of your favourite Scriptum products?
[Holly starts panicking and shouts “but I love all of it!” as she ponders the question.] Can I say journals? I have a different journal for every single thing at home, I spend most of my pay on them. One for books that I’ve read. One for dinner parties I’ve given. One for gardening. I have one for lists of present ideas. One for general lists. I have a music manuscript journal for piano practice and I also have a separate journal where I record how much I’ve practised. And then I’ve got lots of calligraphy journals for practising new fonts and things. I’m really stretched now when we get new journals in to think of something I actually need it for. Yet I still buy them! Oh and I’ve got a translation journal and an etymology journal. [Ok, I think we’ve got enough now - ed. Holly points out that this doesn’t even cover half of her journals.]
An example of Holly's calligraphy
With London very much in the international spotlight this year, and the Olympics in full swing, we thought it might be a good moment to showcase a few of our favourite products that are made in the UK.
Large faux book bookends, £85. Handmade in the Cotswolds.
Dinner party journal, £46.
Labrador bookends, £105. Handmade in the Cotswolds.
We hardly need to be reminded how much pleasure can be obtained from writing with a fountain pen, but nonetheless we’re very happy to read of their recent resurgence.
The BBC reports that many fountain pen stockists have seen sales increase this year - some up to double 2011’s figures for the same period. But this “is not part of a wider handwriting boom” - sales of ballpoint pens have remained stable. The fountain pen seems to hold a special place in our hearts, not simply for providing a superior writing experience to the ballpoint, but also because of its connection with tradition and its status as a beautiful object in its own right.
Stephen Bayley, writing in the Telegraph, thinks there’s “something touchingly humane about this resurgence. Given the choice, we prefer warm, wet smudginess to glacial perfection.”
In fact, the Telegraph has recently received a deluge of letters on the joys of fountain pens - providing even more reassurance that they’re here to stay (although some correspondents apparently still prefer to write with quills!).
And whilst every fountain pen devotee has his or her own brand of choice, at Scriptum we’d have to side with author Neil Gaiman, who tells the BBC that his current favourite is a Visconti.