Accession #: 1901.38.1
The creation of the inkwell began in ancient Egypt during the sixteenth century. Prior to and throughout this time, it was considered undignified for an aristocrat to do their own writing so a scrivener, or scribe, would fulfill all the duties of correspondence. Scribes who were appointed by aristocratic families used small ink palettes produced in small pieces of stone with round hollows to hold different colors of ink. As the art of writing became more widespread, Egyptians using larger stone containers with wax stoppers and eventually even animal horns to store their ink. These inkwells were strictly for utilitarian use and lacked any ornate decoration or design.
By the end of the sixteenth century, aristocrats began handling their own correspondence. This prompted the creation of a more elaborate and decorative style of inkstands. Inkstands were usually made in the shape of a box and contained items including a wafer box and a sander. A wafer box was a container used to hold paste wafers for sealing letters. A sander held powdered gum sandarac which was sprinkled on unglazed paper to minimize the unwanted smearing of ink. Many of these boxes were also fitted with space to hold quills, penknives, and a bell. The bell was used to summon a servant when an individual was ready for their letter to be posted. Inkstands were produced in a variety of materials including brass, silver, bronze, iron, glass, steel, and shell. For the affluent, these inkstands became very popular and were displayed prominently on the desks of their homes. By the nineteenth century, inkstands became incredibly ornate and whimsical as each country developed their own stylized design. Figural shapes of men, women, exotic animals, and foliage were often mounted on inkstands.
The demise of the inkstand was inevitable following the invention of the fountain pen by Lewis Waterman in the 1880’s. The fountain pen carried its own ink supply and the flow of ink was emitted in a regular and controllable flow. By 1939, the ballpoint pen had been patented and eighteen years later all post offices replaced inkwells with this improvised tool. As a result, the inkwell became a less functional part of everyday life and more of a novelty item used for decorative purposes. Although this was inevitable, the inkstand continues to represent the prominent class distinctions which once existed in the sixteenth century.
Inkstands played a significant role in some of American history’s greatest events. When signing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson signed using a feathered quill dipped into a silver inkwell. This inkwell was designed in 1752 and was the same Syng inkwell used in the signing of the U.S. constitution in 1787. During the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln used a chased bronze inkstand when at the desk of The War Department. Clearly, inkstands played a significant role not only in the lifestyles of everyday people but also in important historical events and literary progression.
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Sheluk, Judy Penz. “Inkwells-A Signature of the Past.” Antique Shoppe Newspaper, November 2005. Antiqueshoppefl.com. <http://antiqueshoppefl.com/archives/jsheluk/inkwells.htm>