Wax Jacks

A silver plate wax jack having a handle and attached snuffer

p4A ItemID E8862571
A George I brass and steel wax jack

p4A ItemID E8849145
A Continental wrought iron wax jack

p4A ItemID F7968965
A wrought iron scissors on post wax or taper jack

p4A ItemID F7963102

Wax Jacks

Wax jacks were used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for heating and thus softening the hard wax discs or sticks that were used to seal letters and documents. A standard candle would have accomplished the same purpose, but the jack allowed the user to employ a thin, and thus less expensive, taper instead.

The wax jack was produced in a wide variety of forms in silver, wrought iron, brass or bell metal. It usually comprised a vertical or horizontal shaft mounted on a pan with legs and topped with a scissors-like pincer. The thin wax taper came in long rope-like lengths and was coiled around the shaft with its ‘business end’ stretching up to the pincer where it could be held in place and the flame easily controlled to melt the sealing wax. A variant, called a bougie box, included a pierce-decorated enclosure around the shaft, often in the form of a canister or ball, in which the wax taper could be contained while allowing one to see how much remained in the jack. Occasionally a cone-form extinguisher was provided as part of the jack.

Wax jacks are most frequently found in England and on the Continent. They are known to have been used in the American colonies, but are thought to have been rarities. Envelopes were not in general use in the colonial period; correspondence was folded over and sealed with a wax puddle impressed with sender’s insignia or initial. Wax seals were also used on some official governmental documents. Thus the need for a wax jack was limited to individuals with a substantial correspondence or to senior governmental officials, a relatively small number of individuals in the colonies.

Period inventories occasionally document the presence of a wax jack. When Lord Botetourt died in 1770 at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia his inventory listed ’1 large black ink stand, 1 small Japan’d do [ditto], 1 Green wax Taper & Stand’ on the desk in the closet off the parlor. (Taper and stand is another period term for wax jack.)

There is no evidence of wax jacks being used for lighting. They were pretty messy when lit for too long, so they probably weren’t practical as lighting devices. Their thin rope tapers would not have provided much illumination for lighting purposes either.

Wax jacks are an interesting and affordable area of antique collecting, with auction prices ranging from about $200 to around $1,500. They also make an ideal period accessory for display on fall-front desks or secretaries in a collector’s home.

p4A acknowledges the assistance of Ronald L. Hurst, noted author and Vice President of Collections, Conservation & Museums at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in the preparation of this note.

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