The sealed document

Yep, it happened again.

And you’d think by now The Legal Genealogist would know better.

On Tuesday, the blog focused on a reader question about certified documents. Michael Stills wanted to know about the raised seal on many vital records and its legal implications.1

And I could have — should have! — predicted that somebody would come right back and ask about another kind of seal: the wax seal you see on some very old documents and the handwritten word “seal” surrounded by a squiggly circle or line or the letters “L.S.” that you see on many others.

Which means, of course, that a reader promptly asked about those wax seals and handwritten seals. What are they all about?

Locus sigilliNow I’ve written about this before2 but let’s review it again so folks have the whole context in one place… or at least in one week.

A seal, in the law, is “an impression upon wax, wafer, or some other tenacious substance capable of being impressed” and “a particular sign, made to attest, in the most formal manner, the execution of an instrument.”3

A seal, then, is a “device used to create an impression or imprint on paper utilizing wax or a stamp”4 or “a device for making an impression in wax, clay, paper, or some other medium, including an embossment on paper, and is also the impression thus made.”5

So a sealed instrument is “an instrument of writing to which the party to be bound has affixed, not only his name, but also his seal, or (in those jurisdictions where it is allowed) a scroll.”6

That scroll, in turn, is “a mark intended to supply the place of a seal, made with a pen or other instrument of writing.”7 You’ll see it all the time on so many court documents and land documents and contracts of sale for so many things. Down at the bottom, next to the signature, whether it’s the original document or the copy recorded by the clerk in a will book or deed book or court minute book.

It’s there in a squiggly circle. Or maybe it’s just there by itself. The abbreviation “L.S.” or the word “seal.”

The technical legal term is locus sigilli — the place of the seal. And it’s defined simply as “the place where a seal is to be affixed, or a scroll which stands instead of a seal.”8 And, “In many of the states, instead of sealing deeds, writs, and other papers or documents requiring it, a scroll is made in which the letters L. S. are printed or written, which is an abbreviation of Locus Sigilli.”9

And in either case, as a wax seal or a scroll in place of a seal, its purpose was “to execute a legal document or guarantee the document’s authenticity.”10

Here’s a more complete explanation:

In the law, a seal affixed to a contract or other legal instrument has had special legal significance at various times in the jurisdictions that recognise it. In the courts of common law jurisdictions, a contract which was sealed (“made under seal”) was treated differently from other written contracts (which were “made under hand”), although this practice gradually fell out of favour in most of these jurisdictions in the 19th and early 20th century. The legal term seal arises from the wax seal used throughout history for authentication (among other purposes).

 

Originally, only a wax seal was accepted as a seal by the courts, but by the 19th century many jurisdictions had relaxed the definition to include an impression in the paper on which the instrument was printed, an embossed paper wafer affixed to an instrument, a scroll made with a pen, or the printed words “Seal” or “L.S.” (standing for the Latin term locus sigilli meaning “place of the seal”).

 

Notwithstanding their reduced significance, seals are still used on contracts, usually in the impression on paper form.11

The Wikipedia page goes on to note that, in the United States, “wax seals were never expressly required.” It cites the Restatement (Second) of Contracts:

A seal is a piece of wax, a wafer or other substance, affixed to the paper or other material on which a promise, release or conveyance is written, or a scroll or sign, however made, on such paper or other material, or an impression made thereon; provided that by a recital or by the appearance of the document an intention of the promisor, releasor or grantor is manifested that the substance, scroll, sign or impression shall be a seal.12

Now on some older documents you will see an actual wax impression with a raised seal. And on some newer documents you will see a raised seal but without the wax impression (many notarized documents will have the raised seal of the notary and corporate documents often have to have the corporate seal).

But for our poorer ancestors without the sealing-wax and without the signet rings or other fancy stuff…

A squiggly circle and the word seal or the letters L.S. did just fine.


SOURCES

Image: German “L.S.” mark from 1687, for locus sigilli, Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Judy G. Russell, “Certifying the record,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 9 Jan 2018 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 11 Jan 2018).
  2. Ibid., “… And sealing-wax,” posted 15 Mar 2017.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1068, “seal.”
  4. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex : accessed 11 Jan 2018), “seal.”
  5. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Seal (emblem),” rev. 8 Jan 2018.
  6. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1069, “sealed instrument.”
  7. Ibid., 1067, “scroll.”
  8. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 731, “locus sigilli.”
  9. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, 1856), II: 83, “locus sigilli.”
  10. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex : accessed 11 Jan 2018), “seal.”
  11. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Seal (contract law),” rev. 14 Oct 2015.
  12. Restatement (Second) of Contracts, §96, in Tyrell Williams, “Restatement of the Law of Contracts of the American Law Institute, Sections 95-110,” 18 Washington Univ. Law Review (January 1933): 93; PDF version, Open Scholarship (http://openscholarship.wustl.edu/ : accessed 11 Jan 2018).
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