Prior to 1850 or so, envelopes were seldom used for letters. People simply folded their letters and sealed them shut with wax, stamping the warm wax with their personal seals for security. When envelopes came along, they had no adhesive initially, so the same method was used to seal them - wax dripped onto the back and impressed with a seal.
As envelopes evolved, adhesive was added, and the wax was no longer needed, but people were accustomed to the circular blobs on the back of their envelopes, so they continued to use wax for awhile, but as stamps came into use, the idea of gummed paper led to paper seals like these. Long after the concept made sense, people continued to use the seals, well into the twentieth century, since it added some additional security, and it declared the source of the letter quite impressively.
These seals were especially popular in Germany and Austria-Hungary, which is where all of mine originate. Below are thumbnails of images showing one hundred eighteen of them, most with a train image, all originating from railroads of central Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
My thanks to Veikkos.com for some of the
images reproduced above. They're a great source of European cinderella material.
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Revised -- 11/11/2004