Clearly, the position of scribe was one of responsibility and influence and surely preferable to that of emptying the chamber pots or pitching out the stables. The scribes, therefore, were conscientious about their work. The singular disadvantage of this system was that the recipient of a letter needed some way to know for certain that it had come from the Queen or the General and not from some imposter. Hence, the seal and signet ring.

The seal, used to sign official documents and proclamations, was a rather large version of today's rubber stamp, except that it was carved of wood or stone. The document, once prepared, would be folded, sealed with a great glob of warm wax; and then the seal would be impressed upon it. The signet ring, applied to more personal correspondence, worked in the same way, though it was, of course, much smaller and was made from precious stones or metals.

Time, as is its wont, flew by, and Herr Gutenberg invented the printing press. Literacy, among the privileged classes, increased by leaps and bounds, and life became rather more complicated. The seal and the signet ring, therefore, did not disappear but metamorphosed into the Official Stamp. This ubiquitous item was required to verify deeds of sale, for instance, and there was the usual nominal fee for the stamping. At first, these stamps were impressed on wax, as the seals had been, but later they were inked and pressed directly onto the paper in question.

It was this very stamp-and its nominal fee-which brought about the original Fourth of July.

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