In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter", a minister known only as D-- has a letter which he is keeping for the purposes of blackmail, and the police prefect G-- comes to Dupin for help in finding and retrieving it. Dupin succeeds in doing so, knowing D-- well enough to figure out where he hid the letter (in plain sight), and recovering it by means of a ruse:

D-- rushed to a casement, threw it open, and looked out. In the meantime, I stepped to the card-rack, took the letter, put it in my pocket, and replaced it by a fac-simile, (so far as regards externals,) which I had carefully prepared at my lodgings; imitating the D-- cipher, very readily, by means of a seal formed of bread.

What does it mean to "imitate [a cipher] by means of a seal formed of bread"? How could he do this?

2 Answers 2


Leaving to @Mithical's answer the matter of the pun, this is the ‘more boring answer’ about making of a seal with bread which makes the pun possible:

While the thing adhering to the letter to keep it closed is called a seal, it should be noted that the object used to impress the design on the wax can also be called a seal. Per the OED:

An engraved stamp of metal or other hard material used to make an impression upon wax, etc. affixed as a ‘seal’.

There is no reason to suppose that Dupin would not have sealing wax of his own at his disposal in his lodgings, or readily be able to obtain wax in the correct colour. What is wanting is the device representing the D── cipher with which to impress the wax.

As @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine points out, bread can be kneaded back to a more dough-like consistency, although it lacks the springiness of unbaked gluten. Depending on the nature of the bread one may not even need to add moisture to get a cohesive lump. Once such a lump has been obtained it could, feasibly, be sculpted into an imitation of the required sealing stamp.

In practical terms I can imagine that one might use the play-doh type substance over the top of one's own seal, or over a coin or button of appropriate size to give it the required rigidity for use, and perhaps coat the face with something to help it release cleanly from the wax. I wondered about lamp oil, but thought the scent might be too obvious, possibly black ink would work as an easing agent, and not be conspicuous on the black sealing wax required to emulate D──'s own seal.

Sealing wax is extremely soft at the moment one impresses it, setting quickly afterwards. The wax does not rely on the pressure of the stamping for its adhesion to the letter. A blob of sealing wax or a wafer[a] can be used between the layers of paper for the primary seal. The impressed wax seal then performs its primary function of identifying the missive as a genuine communication from the sender, although it also contributes to detection of tampering. A bread-play-doh stamp should easily be firmer than the wax, which is all that is needed to create the impression. It only needs to be robust enough to survive a single use.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this is something that was ever really done, or would work well enough to fool anyone. But I’m think it works just well enough to service the de pain/Dupin pun. If I’d had need to furnish a temporary stamp in my lodgings, I’d have carved it out of soap.

Edit: I present my proof of concept for the bread seal! Made with nothing but an M&S naan and a red tea light, with a little olive oil as releasing agent. Not perfect but the principle is proved I think.

Seal de pain

[a]A small disk of flour mixed with gum and non-poisonous colouring matter, or of gelatine or the like similarly coloured, which when moistened is used for sealing letters, attaching papers, or receiving the impression of a seal.

  • This is really what I was looking for, how one would make a seal out of bread, and the reason I didn't accept Mith's answer. But would a bread stamp really be firmer than a wax seal, sufficiently so to leave a reasonable impression in the wax?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 15, 2021 at 15:59
  • Sealing wax isn’t wax so much as a mix of ingredients which may include wax, but is more shellac and turpentine. When melted it drips as a liquid that is held in place by surface tension as it starts to cool. I can’t see that being firmer than a dense dough of re-kneaded bread. If I had bread and sealing wax on hand I’d do some empirical testing!
    – Spagirl
    Sep 15, 2021 at 17:01
  • @Randal'Thor see edit, the wafer was probably a red herring, but if you watch the linked video through from 7:26 until 16:30 you can compare the pressure he puts on the wax seal compared to the wafer seal. Although the wax one initially looks quite firm, when you see the other you realise it’s actually pretty gentle.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 15, 2021 at 17:50
  • @Spagirl have I rotated the image correctly? (Note: I used this site to do so)
    – bobble
    Sep 15, 2021 at 22:01
  • That’s perfect @Bobble thank you. I always have real difficulty with photos from the phone.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 15, 2021 at 22:12

It's part of an elaborate set of puns. Shosuke Kinugawa, in the paper "Taking Yet Mistaking: Puns in “The Purloined Letter”" explains it like this:

There are six interrelated puns here. First is the triple pun on the phrase “D── cipher.” First and foremost it is a pun on the word “decipher,” suggesting “very conspicuously” that the reader must decipher something. The imperative to decipher the “D── cipher” then suggests that the “cipher” (monogram) of “D── ” is also a “cipher” in the sense of a cryptogram. So then “D── cipher” reads: decipher the “D── ” cipher (monogram) as a cipher (cryptogram). The other two puns are related to the material of which Dupinʼs replica of the D── cipher is made: bread. As Servanne Woodward notes, the bread is a pun on Dupinʼs last name (42). In French, “bread” is “pain,” and “of” is “de.” So a seal formed of bread is a seal formed “de pain” (pronounced “du pan”), and thus the seal “of Dupin.” In other words, the seal of D── is also Dupinʼs seal in that it is made of material that signifies “Dupin.”
(emphasis added)

So the "bread" is there purely to form a bilingual pun with the name "Dupin", and is part of a host of other puns that Poe included in the text.

Apparently, Poe loved puns, although I'm having trouble pulling up examples of this literary device in other Poe works.

  • 3
    Wow, that's interesting. I hadn't noticed the pun, even though I speak French (better apparently than the author of that paper: "of bread" would usually be translated as "du pain", not "de pain", and that's pronounced exactly the same as "Dupin"). In fact I was expecting a more boring answer explaining how a seal could be made out of bread :-) Literally, then, is it meaningless/impossible to make a seal out of such a porous substance as bread, and that phrase is only for the sake of the pun?
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 3, 2020 at 10:10
  • 1
    @Randal'Thor: When I was a child, we sometimes used moistened bread for modelling — it starts out a bit like play-doh, and hardens to roughly like papier-mâché, but more brittle. I guess with practice and paint/ink, you could certainly fake a wax seal well enough to fool a passing glance (and a key point of the story is that it doesn’t need to withstand more than that). I don’t know if you could make it stand up to closer inspection or longer usage — certainly not as I ever knew it, but perhaps with more ingenuity and additives. May 4, 2020 at 10:19
  • @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine Could you make that observation into an answer? We normally think of sealing wax as being red, but white sealing wax was also used -- it was coloured with white lead, like cheap white bread, so that the two would be a similar colour at a quick glance May 5, 2020 at 16:03

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.