You’ve probably seen those old cast iron seal presses sitting on a lawyer’s desk or in a courthouse office. You may have noticed you see them less frequently than you did 20 or 30 years ago. Inked stamps have replaced embossed seals for 99 percent of their former uses and cast iron seal presses are fast becoming part of America’s past.
To the astute collector, these artifacts provide a fertile field for a gratifying collecting experience.
The cast iron seal embossing presses are divided mechanically into three groups: screw presses, percussion presses and lever presses.
Screw presses have been put to many uses (including coinage) and some were used to emboss paper seals. Screw presses used to emboss seals rarely appear on the market. Most of this type are in museums or archives of various government entities. This leaves the ordinary collector to pursue the percussion press or the lever presses.
Percussion presses operated by striking the press with the hand, thereby imparting the pressure to emboss the paper. Some of the designs were more efficient than others, but many could not produce the crisp embossments of the lever presses, which provide a greater mechanical advantage. In the 1850s, two of the prominent percussion press manufacturers were Platt Evens Jr. and C.F. Hall of Cincinnati. They were extremely competitive in the sales of their presses. Platt Evens Jr. continued in the business for many years, but C.F. Hall’s interest turned to other things. He eventually lost his life searching for the Lost Franklin Expedition in the Arctic.
In general terms, the percussion presses are encountered less frequently than the lever presses.
Collecting opportunities abound in the realm of the lever presses. The popularity of the presses began in the 1840s and by the 1860s nearly every business entity, government agency, and fraternal organization had a seal embossing press. As a result of this wide use, many varieties of seal presses were produced. They may categorized by body type as figural, fancy, unusual, indented body and smooth body.
All of these types may be found with historically-interesting seals, which could also form a specialist collection.
The most common of the figural seal presses are the lion head presses, produced primarily from the late 1850s through the 1920s. There are over 60 known varieties of the lion head press, and new varieties are discovered each year. Examples of the lion heads range from common to rare and a grouping of them makes an impressive collection.
Other popular figurals are the sea monster lever presses made by Platt Evens Jr. and the “fist” seal presses made by the American Seal Press Company. Animals ranging from beavers, bison, toads, dogs, eagles, among others may be found in the figural category.
Fancy seal presses have many cast-in embellishments in the older examples, followed by hand-painted decorations, which were in turn replaced by decals. The unusual category contains examples with different modes of operation or some other aspect that is not ordinarily found in a seal press. Examples in the unusual category would be the watch case seal press and the key seal press.
“Fancy Figural and Unusual Seal Presses Collector’s Guide” by Cox R. Crider with Don Grampp and Ron Gonty, 113 pages depicting 160 different styles, $50 plus $4 postage.
The indented body seal presses began to appear in the market in the late 1870s. They are very common as a general category, but with some scarce or rare varieties. The smooth body seal press arrived on the scene in the 20th century and by the 1930s were the most popular style. Smooth bodies are very common, although there are some scarce and interesting varieties.
There are a few companies that can still supply the indented body and smooth body style presses with contemporary custom seals.
One of the most gratifying ways to collect seal presses is to form a collection with presses containing historically-interesting seals. A collection of this type could encompass all the various body styles of presses. A collector could specialize in a particular fraternal organization, railroads, banks or hometowns.
Collecting seal presses is generally “safe” as far as fakes are concerned, but when it comes to historical seals, some caution some be exercised because the dies can be replaced with reproductions.
Be especially careful with popular entities such as Wells Fargo or Pinkerton Detective Agency.
How do you know if a seal in the press is historically interesting? The Internet has simplified research and made it fun. Just type your seal information into one of the major search engines and you are on your way. Internet auctions are also a good source to locate examples for your collection.
Cast iron seal presses are under-appreciated artifacts of the collecting world. They are a part of our history and heritage that deserve preservation by the collecting community. ?
The San Francisco “Committee of Vigilance” Seal Press
Collectors seek historically important seal presses such as this original 1856 seal for the city of San Francisco’s Committee of Vigilance. The press sold for $3,250 Dec. 12, 2004, by Early American History Auctions.
Next to 1848, when gold was discovered in California, 1856 was perhaps the most exciting year of the era because of the flood of crime into the city. This brought about the organization of the “Committee of Vigilance,” a form of direct action that attracted the attention of the world to a new style of summary justice.
Behind it were reasons and principles that radiated in diverse directions, some of them being influenced by the causes which eventually led to the Civil War, four years later.
As for local conditions, it is enough to note that in the first 10 months of 1855 there were 489 murders in the state and only six legal executions. Stuffed ballot boxes were used to qualify the election of supervisiors who did not reside in the districts. Ballot boxes with false bottoms were common. Trials in the courts were a farce and those in power made no pretense of shielding their friends when charged with crimes.
As in all struggles, one honest man made the difference that changed the course of history. For San Francisco that man was James King. As a member of the local banking business he saw many corrupt transactions, which brought him to a point of voicing his convictions on the conditions of the city. On Oct. 8, 1855, he began publishing “The Evening Bulletin,” which quickly denounced the actions of a city supervisor, James P. Casey, a former inmate of New York’s Sing Sing Prison.
On May 14, 1856, Casey shot King just outside of The Bulletin’s editorial rooms. He died a few days later at his home.
Following the shooting, followers of King formed a “Committee of Vigilance” to see that Casey be brought to trial. More than 3,500 members of the Committee of Vigilance ensured Casey was tried and hung for King’s murder. This heavy iron seal press, measuring 13 1/2 inches long by 21 inches high at the handle, is the same press used by the Committee of Vigilance. When the press sold in 2004, it was accompanied by a copy of the “Proclamation of the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco, June 9th, 1856,” a copy of the envelope from the “National Seal & Stamps Works” to the Richmond, Ca. Lodge No. 119 I.O.O.F., and a copy of the entry label for the 158th Anniversary of the Founding of the City of San Franisico, Historical Exhibition, Sept 11-22, 1934. ?
— Early American History Auctions
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