Shining Sand and Sealing Wax

Shining Sand and Sealing Wax and Other Fancy Stuff

On 11 July 1778, W. Jackson, the proprietor of a store in High Street, advertised his wares in the Oxford Journal including a fine selection of stationery supplies.

Stationary Wares, viz. Writing Paper of all Kinds, Wholesale and Retail; Gilt, Plain, and Black-edged; Playing Cards, Message Cards, and Visiting Ditto, in elegant Compartments; – sealing wax, red, blue, and black; – Shining Sand, Pens, Quills, black-lead pencils, Cake Ink, liquid Ink black and red, and black and red Ink Powders.

From the Oxford Journal, Saturday 11 July 1778

While the majority of the English were still illiterate in the late eighteenth century, certainly the upper and middle classes of the time were more likely than ever before to be able to read and write. Oxford was home to Oxford University, the oldest university in the English speaking world and would have been home to many scholars who would have purchased their writing materials from a store such as W. Jackson’s shop in a time period known as the era of scientific discoveries and religious controversy. 

Quill Pen

Quill pens were made primarily from goose feathers, sometimes from the rarer and more expensive swan feathers and for finer lines, from crow feathers. According to The Saturday Magazine, in 1832, 33,668,000 goose quills were sold in England. Most of these came from the Netherlands and Germany but many were also imported from Russia and Poland.1 “The Saturday Magazine; On Writing Materials.” Google Books. 1838. Accessed May 31, 2015. The quills best suited for writing are the large feathers from the end of the goose wing. Each quill had to be prepared for writing by a quill-dresser. Quills were sorted into three qualities based on the length and thickness of the barrel. The largest and longest were called ‘primes’, while the next best were called ‘seconds’ and the least of which were designated ‘pinions’. The quills were then ‘clarified’ by plunging them into heated sand to crack the skin and then scraping them with a sharp edge. The heating also served to harden the barrel of the quill and make it transparent. The quills were then dipped into diluted aquafortis or nitric acid to make them split more easily. Finally the quills were cut into pens using a pen-knife and trimmed, ready for use. Most quills would last less than a week before they had to be discarded. Ink could be purchased in either liquid or in a cake, the latter of which would last longer.

Shining Sand

Shining sand was any white sand that glittered and it was often used as a drying agent for ink. It was sprinkled on the paper to absorb any wet ink and then shaken back into it’s container.2 “Shift – Shop Bill.” British History. Accessed May 31, 2015.

Sealing Wax

As a child, I was fascinated by my grandmother’s account of how they used to seal their letters with sealing wax and under her watchful eye I experimented with melting crayons to seal letters I’d written to my friend across the street. My efforts were not successful and the crayon, although it stained the paper, did not stick in the way I had imagined it would. Sealing wax was historically made of beeswax and turpentine and sometimes shellac, resin or plaster, along with colouring materials like vermilion. The wax either be in the form of a stick, or as loose granules. It would be melted and placed on the flap of an envelope and a seal would be used to imprint the wax.


Parchment or vellum was a material made from animal skin such as calf, sheep or goat skin. The skins were limed and then scraped and then stretched to dry. They might have been smoothed with a pumice stone and whitened with chalk. After the fifteen century, parchment was slowly replaced by paper for many uses including the printing of books.


1 “The Saturday Magazine; On Writing Materials.” Google Books. 1838. Accessed May 31, 2015.
2 “Shift – Shop Bill.” British History. Accessed May 31, 2015.