Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Art of Writing

Object: Inkstand, 18th century
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.

Allen, Lorena O. “Inkstands and Encriers.” Antiques and Art Around Florida-Antiques and Arts Booklet_2012-2013. <>

Bandyopadhyay, Anindya. “Inkwell.”, 2010. <>

Sheluk, Judy Penz. “Inkwells-A Signature of the Past.” Antique Shoppe Newspaper, November 2005. <>

 Picture Credit:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Beautiful View, Or a "Colonial Postcard"

Object: Optic Print, c. 1800
Accession#: 1984.0052
Perspective views were a popular style of print published in 18th century England.  A vue d’optique was the device through which this flat print could be viewed to give it a third dimension, depth.  This hand colored optic print in Wilton’s collection titled Interieur De L’Eglise De St. Paul a Londres is a view of the interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.  Prints like this one were sold on the streets by traveling showmen and meant to be taken home for private entertainment.

The sons in the Randolph family could have taken a tour of Europe in their early teens and St. Paul’s Cathedral may have been one of the sites they visited.  St. Paul’s Cathedral still stands today at the highest point in London and was designed by British architect Christopher Wren, between 1675 and 1710.  The previous cathedral dedicated to the saint was built on the same site but destroyed as the Great Fire swept through London’s streets from September 2, 1666 to September 4, 1666.  Historical places like St. Paul’s Cathedral were the subject of most optical views or perspective views as were imaginary and historical events.

Engraved, and in this instance, hand colored, these optical views were made to be viewed through a perspective glass or vue d'optique which was fitted on a stand with a mirror and lens.  The perspective glass would be placed on a flat surface, the print placed behind it, and the lens kept in a vertical position.  Then a nearby candle would be lit and the print could be viewed in the mirror through the lens.  According to one historian, “The most characteristic feature of the perspective views is their emphasized linear perspective, done to further intensify the enhanced appearance of depth and illusionistic space in the prints when viewed through an optique.” Some perspective views could even be viewed using just a mirror which would show the view in reverse.  Hence, many of these prints were printed in reverse so when viewed would be seen correctly.

Perspective views provided entertainment for wealthy families and their guests.  The Randolph sons may have brought these optic prints back from Europe with the intent of showing the places they had traveled.  Visit Wilton today to see this print and others like it on display throughout the house.

Anderson, Myrna.“More Prodigal”. Calvin: Minds in the Making. 21 March 2012. 19 April
2013. <>
Whalen, Catherine L. Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 1998) pp. 75-88. Chicago
Journals. <>
“History and Nature of Perspective Views or Vue D’OptiqueThe Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd.
19 April 2013. <>
“Cathedral History”. St. Paul’s Cathedral. 26 April 2013. <
Image Credit