May 23 (Tuesday)

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Traditionally, a seal was a device used to make an impression, typically in wax, clay or paper. The impression made by a seal is also called a seal.

Letter from Loudoun Castle, Scotland, sealed with wax

Seals were used to authenticate documents, envelopes or the covers of containers or packages holding valuables or other objects. They were especially associated with people who were wealthy or powerful. If you received a letter stamped with the King’s seal, you knew that letter was sent by the King.

Over time, seals came to represent governments and the countries they represent, similar to flags and coats of arms. Though most nations are represented by a flag and coat of arms, some have an official seal instead of a coat of arms. Others, including the United States, have both. Each of the fifty U.S. states has an official seal, while several also have a coat of arms.

Official seals of Brazil (left) and the state of Colorado (right)

Note that these “political seals” aren’t always used to make impressions today. Instead, government authorities commonly use pictures of their seals (in color or black-and-white) as badges of their authority. Not surprisingly, the laws governing the use of seals are often strict. In general, only government officials can use seals – and only on official documents. However, ordinary citizens are commonly allowed to use pictures of seals in educational projects (like this web site, for example).

Modern seals are generally circular. Some have a different design on each side, similar to a coin. The front side is called the obverse, while the other side is called the reverse.

Great Seal of the United States, obverse (left) and reverse

Seals are sometimes featured on flags, a practice common among the fifty U.S. states. However, the practice is generally frowned on by vexillologists (people who study flags).

One glance at Washington State’s flag – one of the world’s ugliest flags – on the right says it all.

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