By: Judy Penz Sheluk

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, November, 2005 

Courtesy of Susan Dean,
Antiques & Uncommon Treasure
Whimsical French opaline and ormolu miniature carriage inkwell, drawn by a pair of harnessed brass goats, set on alabaster base. A Grand Tour souvenir of the Victorian/Napoleon III era and likely from the Palais Royal shops of 1850-80s Paris, $900.

Nowhere is the passage of time more evident than in the history of inkwells. The demise of the inkwell began in the 1880s, with the invention of the first practical fountain pen by Lewis Waterman. Not only did Waterman's writing instrument carry its own supply of ink, the flow of the ink was emitted in a regular, controllable stream. In 1939, Liszlo Biro, a proofreader from Hungary patented the first ballpoint pen. Eighteen years later the U.S. Post Office would replace all straight pens and inkwells with the much improved ballpoint. After centuries of use, the inkwell virtually disappeared from daily life.

Courtesy of Susan Dean,
Antiques & Uncommon Treasure
French whimsy and late Victorian naturalist aesthetic combine in the mounted turtle inkwell, ca.1900 France. Shell is inset with a pair of matching milk glass inkpots. Hinged shell closes to hide the wells, $800-1,100.

 Inkwells also illustrate the class distinctions so evident in earlier times. Prior to the 16th century, it was considered undignified for an aristocrat to do his own writing and a scrivener would fulfill the duties of correspondence. Consequently, inkstands were primarily utilitarian and without ornamentation. However, by the end of the 16th century, the well-to-do began handling their own correspondence and the elaborate silver inkstand would become a "necessary" item. These were often made in the shape of a box and contained items beyond the inkpot, including a wafer box for paste wafers (used to seal letters) and a sander or pounce pot. The sander held powdered gum sandarac, a fine sand which was sprinkled on the unglazed paper to prevent smearing. The sand would be poured back into the pounce pot once the ink was dry, ready for reuse. Many boxes were also fitted with a drawer for the storage of quills and sealing wax.

Courtesy of Susan Dean,
Antiques & Uncommon Treasure Reticulated gilt bronze tray is set with hand-painted floral and blue porcelain inkwell and trim. Tea kettle style was designed to keep the ink from evaporating. Pen dips into the spout extension "quill hole" of the kettle, ca. 1780-1830, $1,000-1,400.

 In the 17th century, traveling with one's own writing materials became a necessity for the literate and the travelers' well was introduced. For the affluent, the inkwell was housed in a box with host of other necessities, including paper, quill pens, ink, sewing notions, medications and toiletries. Of course, the humble traveler would simply carry a tiny inkwell which could safely be tucked away in a pocket or valise without spilling.

Courtesy of Susan Dean,
Antiques & Uncommon Treasure French champlev inkwell with matching monogram sealing wax stamp, $300

 Cruet-type stands also became popular in the 17th century home. These included three cylindrical containers, one for ink, one with a perforated top for use as a sand-caster and the third for wafers. Up to this time, an inkstand was commonly known as a standish, a term which would be eliminated in18th century America.

 The 18th century would bring about many other changes. Silver or gold inkstands would be prominently displayed at the homes of the wealthy and often featured Rococo designs, footed stands and trays with grooved channels for penknives or quills. Many included a matching bell, used to summon a servant when a letter was ready for posting. Travelers' boxes became known as compendiums and would feature ornate designs, covered in tortoiseshell veneers, ivory or embroidered fabrics.

Courtesy of Susan Dean,
Antiques & Uncommon Treasure Pair of French gutta percha inkwells, ca. 1860-1880, $500-800.

 From 1750-1880, the "golden span" of china would begin in England, making it the greatest china producing country in the world, followed closely by Germany. Many of these china inkwells were made as souvenirs or specifically for export to the U.S. and porcelain inkwells would be made with feminine appeal. Unfortunately the fragility of these inkwells has made them rare; most surviving examples exist only in museums.

Courtesy of Susan Dean,
Antiques & Uncommon Treasure Ebony lap desk, inlaid with tortoise shell and brass. The upper lid lifts to expose a mahogany compartment fitted for stationery, and includes two travel inkwells. The front panel opens to the leather writing surface with a hidden compartment beneath. Signed by Tahan, a premier French maker of fine furniture and boxes, mid-1800-1900, $1,800.

 By the mid 19th century, inkstands became both ornate and whimsical, with each country specializing in their own unique style. In the Palais Royal shops of 1850's to 1880's Paris, figural designs made of ormolu (gilded bronze), porcelain and shell would abound. In England, glass-insert inkwells would be encased in maple, oak, rosewood, mahogany, burled wood and papier-mâché. In America, cut glass inkwells were the rage; an 1840 U.S. Census lists 34 glass cutting shops in America.

 19th century America would also produce excellent examples of blown mold, milk glass and pressed glass inkwells. Today, those attributed to the Sandwich glass factories of New England are valued in the several thousands of dollars. Gutta percha, resistant to ink and a modern day forerunner to plastic, was used both in carved designs and as an insert material. By the 1870's, figural shapes of animals, men and exotic birds were frequently mounted on inkstands, celebrating the Victorian's love of kitsch.

Courtesy of Susan Dean,
Antiques & Uncommon Treasure English sterling silver and intaglio etched blown glass inkwell with silver inlaid tortoise shell lid. Matching tray with winged pen holder. Hallmarks are Sheffield, England, maker R & S (Roberts & Slater), 1881-2, $1,500.

 As the fountain pen was making its way into everyday life, the inkwell became the lesser part of a larger desk set or a novelty item primarily used for decorative purposes. By the 20th century, the end of the inkwell as a functional and necessary item was inevitable.

 It is not certain when the inkwell went from trash to treasure, however renowned collector Vince McGraw purchased his first inkwell in 1965 while attending an auction in Crawfordsville, Indiana. In 1972, McGraw published a book about his collection, McGraw's Book of Antique Inkwells. The book generated much correspondence and McGraw realized many collectors were eager to communicate with one another and share their knowledge.

Courtesy of Skinner, Inc.  Silver blue and blown molded ink set, Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, ca. 1835-1855. Only nine of these inkstands are known to exist. Sold for $32,900 at Skinner Auction Sale 2171, March 9/10, 2002

Although McGraw died in 2000, his legacy lives on. In 1981, McGraw started the Society of Inkwell Collectors (SOIC). Today the SOIC has over 500 members from around the world, which benefit from an informative publication, The Stained Finger, an annual international convention and a marketing page for buying and selling inkwells. For the novice collector, antiques dealer, or inkwell aficionado, SOIC also offers a safe haven for all those who want to remember life before text messaging.





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