NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, January 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Sealing wax.
Not talking here about putting wax on the upper interior surface of a room. Different spelling, same pronunciation: S-E-A-L-I-N-G.
I’m talking about sealing a document so that the envelope is closed and the contents are secure.
You’ve probably seen sealing wax on old documents in family archives or in museums.
You make these by melting a stick of wax and letting it drip onto the paper until it’s about the size of a nickel. Then you press the stamp into the warm wax to leave an impression unique to the sender.
EICHER: …which authenticates the sender.
Today, sealing wax is used mainly by jewelry makers, optical companies, and hobbyists. Now, there are many ways to make it, but just one company in the United States makes wax the old-fashioned way: by hand. WORLD Radio’s Michelle Schlavin visited their factory and brings us this story.
MICHELLE SCHLAVIN, REPORTER: When visiting a new town, sticking to the main street is the thing to do. Along Princeton, Illinois’s main street there are dozens of locally owned cafes, antique shops, and other businesses to enjoy. It’s a safe bet.
But a short walk away from main street is a business few people find, the Princeton Sealing Wax Company. Founded in 1907, it’s operated for well over 100 years.
AUDIO: [Sound of train horn as it passes through town]
The building is a stone’s throw away from the Princeton Amtrak station. Several of the factory’s windows are boarded up and painted red to match the building’s worn red and brown brick. It almost looks abandoned.
BOWERS: I tell people I work with…the sealing wax factory, and you’ll see people go like this, you know, don’t you wax your ceilings? They last longer.
Sue Bowers is the factory’s only full-time employee. It’s been 24 years since Bowers’s son saw an ad in the local paper and suggested she apply for the job. At 76, she’s the one who keeps the factory running.
BOWERS: Well I’m making more black this morning…
Like she’s cooking, Bowers follows a formula and combines several ingredients into one of the factory’s four large cauldrons. The process is a trade secret so she doesn’t share exact measurements.
BOWERS: The rosin is first. That’s what we put in to get, get us started…
Rosin is a solidified pine resin. It’s shipped from Honduras in pillow-sized sacks weighing about 55 pounds. They come in huge chunks that need to be broken up. Bowers’s back can’t handle the task anymore.
BOWERS: My son opens them up for me, pick it up. He’ll hit that a couple of times with the back of the axe.
AUDIO: [Son breaking up the rosin]
Bowers shovels the shattered lumps of honey-colored rosin into a pile. She fills one jumbo popcorn sized bucket to the top and pours it into one of the metal cooking drums.
AUDIO: [Sound of the shellac being poured into the bucket]
Thin amber colored flakes called shellac are next. Each piece is coin-sized or smaller. It’s the most expensive—and unusual—material in the recipe.
BOWERS: Pretty colored. This is the gold of the mix. Now you do know that is bug poop… (laughs) Seriously…
Using a smaller bucket, Bowers adds two scoops of the treasure to the pot. Mixing the rosin and shellac, she stirs in two buckets of a powdered sugar like dust called whiting.
BOWERS: It’s just ground limestone. But it all melts down and everything and it sticks together. It makes it harder.
The natural wax is buff colored—it looks like butterscotch. Bower removes the shellac from this batch and adds tar to make it black. Other days she might add dye to turn her usual formula red or green.
AUDIO: [Stirring the boiling/simmering pot]
After simmering for about 20 minutes it’s ready for the molds. Bowers slides the two blocks of concrete together to create long rectangular tubes. Each block is 80 pounds. She has to line them up perfectly or else risk ruining the sticks.
Bowers takes her time pouring the molds and letting them cool.
AUDIO: [Sound of pouring the mixture]
Nothing good comes from rushing the process.
BOWERS: I’ve been burned quite a few times. See that white spot care I had, I’ve had wax all over it and pulled skin all off when I pulled it off. See that little Brown spot? That’s my birthmark. That part didn’t get burned off, but this part here did.
AUDIO: [Tapping to loosen molds]
Once the wax cools, Bowers takes a small hammer and lightly taps the top of the molds. This loosens the wax sticks inside. After packing the boxes by weight, Bowers ships the product all over the world to places like Japan and Australia.
AUDIO: [Sound of Bowers and son talking while packing/moving boxes]
In 2008, Bowers had a stroke. Her arm was left weak and her hand twisted into a fist which she had no control to open. Over time she recovered the use of both her hand and arm, but her strength never fully returned.
BOWERS: At the time it was the only job I had and I wasn’t on social security or anything like that, you know.
She couldn’t afford to stop working back then and now, she doesn’t want to! Her son comes in most mornings to help with the more physical tasks. Bowers also has picked up some helpful tools like a cart for moving boxes. She says when she goes, so does the cart.
BOWERS: I’m gonna stay as long as my back will let me. But when my back gets bad enough that I can’t work in here and then I’m just going to have to chuck it up and I’m the only one that knows formula. So I guess it’s left up to me because I know once I have to quit who’s gonna do it?
For WORLD Radio, I’m Michelle Schlavin reporting from Princeton, Illinois.