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Writing Boxes Stand the Test of Time
by Bob Brooke

 

One of the delights of collecting old things is to be able to use the object for its original purpose. Such is the writing box. It can be used to contain correspondence and stamps or to organize monthly bills. Unfortunately, in this age of hi-tech wizardry, people write few letters and the writing box has fallen out of use.

Writing boxes date back to the beginning of writing. Monks used boxes, called scriptoriums, in the Middle Ages. Eventually, craftsmen mounted these on stands and later added legs, creating the first desks for doing illuminated manuscripts. The writing box, which came much later, survived through the 19th century.

From the end of the 18th to the end of the 19th century, the writing box featured prominently on military expeditions, travels, libraries and in drawing rooms. People wrote dispatches, contracts, letters and postcards on their sloping surfaces.

Prior to 1780, the only portable writing devices were inkstands, writing sets, oak Bible boxes, and sloping writing boxes. These were rectangular and had sloping tops which were less steep than the earlier Bible boxes. They also had side drawers for paper and spaces for containers of ink and sand.

After 1780, merchants began using writing boxes for business, and the tops became flat in order to make traveling with them easier. The production of suitable glazed writing paper and the improvement of writing materials, together with the introduction of organized postage led to the popular demand for the personal writing box.

Construction Materials
In general writing boxes came in two types—those that looked like a rectangle when closed and those that formed a slope when closed. All featured a top that opened to reveal a removable compartment tray for storing inkwells, pens, sand, seals and wax. Under the tray was a hinged and folded surface for writing which, when opened, provided ample space for the writer to work. Makers of writing boxes covered the writing surface in velvet, felt, or tooled leather. A bottom compartment, under the lid, provided space for storing papers and letters.

Writing boxes came in all sizes and a variety of woods, including mahogany, burl walnut, and rosewood. Cabinetmakers used calamander wood for the more expensive ones. For the less expensive writing boxes, craftsmen veneered exotic woods such as calamander and rosewood onto a pine base. Marquetry, the delicate inlay of patterns of a lighter color wood such as boxwood, was also common. The more ornate boxes had brass ormolu mounts added to protect the corners from damage.


The design of writing boxes reflected the changing fashions of the times. More ornate boxes made of papier mache featured shimmering mother-of-pearl inlay while delicate Sadeli Mosaic covered those made in India. Deluxe boxes had velvet interiors while cheaper models had laminated paper interiors with baize—the green felt-like cloth used on billiard tables—covering their writing surfaces. Writing boxes seldom had marks and only the type of wood and the overall design gave a clues to their origin.

Towards the end of the 19th century, makers often covered the outsides and insides of their writing boxes with tooled leather in burgundy red, midnight blue, or black. It wasn’t unusual for a wealthier person to have their name engraved on the brass handle plate.

Makers fitted writing box interiors with the necessary writer's accessories—stationery, letters, pen-holders, quills, seals sealing wax, ink and pounce—all had their separate holders or compartments. Many had a secret drawer. Simpler tourist writing cases became available in Moroccan leather, lined with satin, equipped with everything but an inkwell.

The utility of an easily portable box to provide storage for writing materials and a surface on which to write eventually led to the continuing usage of a smaller and more compact box that became very popular in the late 18th century. Known as lap desks, these writing boxes were quite portable, so the user could hold it on his or her lap or use it at a table. They came with lids, hinged at the front, that slanted upwards towards the back, opening to form a writing surface with only one compartment underneath for storage.

The Campaign Box

Army officers needed larger writing boxes, which could withstand the rough and tumble of strenuous journeys. This gave rise to the most popular type of 18th century writing box, the military style, or campaign box, made of solid mahogany in a rectangular shape with a flat surface. They were 8 to 20 inches long, 10 inches deep when closed and 7 inches tall. They opened up to a sloping writing surface consisting of two flaps with space under them for paper.

In 1790, cabinetmakers crafted campaign boxes of solid mahogany with dovetail construction with brass strips wrapped around them for extra support. When opened to the writing position, these boxes contained a space for ink and sand wells, pens and quills in the top part of the box. They often featured drop side handles and side drawer, which followed the line of the slope, for storing papers. Inside there was a sloping leather writing surface and other compartments for papers and writing implements. Hidden behind a panel might have been a nest of secret drawers. The box also has an adjustable riser enabling it to be used as a reading stand.

By the early 1800s, writing boxes had become more popular due to the popularity of traveling and the onset of the Napoleonic wars, during which officers used them both for military business and for writing to their families.

Captain's Boxes

Similar and somewhat larger boxes began to appear on ships. Captains usually had a writing box on board which had secret compartments and a screw-down mechanism to keep everything in place as the ship rolled on the waves. Of all the writing boxes at the time, this was the most complex and intriguing. Each one differed in its arrangement of secret compartments and drawers. Often the box contained spaces for candlesticks and a reading stand.

Traveling Writing Boxes

Another type was triple opening writing box, made to open in two directions, one part upwards, the other down. The middle and down part form the two sections of the normal writing box. The upper part opens as an upright lid with an attached leather covered container and sometimes pockets for notes. It also featured two white writing boards on its writing surface and a concave wooden pen holder.



As the century progressed, well-to-do young men took to traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East on what became known as the Grand Tour. Some gentlemen’s writing boxes contained space for toiletry items such as shaving, soap, and lotion containers that they might require while traveling. While they toured, they kept journals in which they recorded their impressions and some made drawings of historic landmarks and objects. Businessmen also traveled the globe in search of commercial and trade opportunities.

From the end of the 18th, to the end of the 19th century, the writing box featured prominently on military expeditions, travels, libraries and in drawing rooms. Many people used them, from famous writers like Charles Dickens and Lord Byron to merchants and travelers.

Collecting Writing Boxes
Serious collectors of writing boxes tend to establish a theme because of the many types available. This could be based on material, size, or intended use. In addition, a specific collection, such as writing boxes, has enormous value as a link with history.



Since writing boxes were personal possessions, their condition is often good today. But some show wear and tear, which can often be easily repaired and restored. Restoring a writing box is far less time consuming and expensive than doing the same to a large piece of furniture.

Simpler boxes can be found for anywhere from $50 to $750. English antique writing boxes often sell for a lot more. However, most antique dealers carry only one at a time because they're difficult to sell unless a customer is a collector or has a personal use for one.

Although quality, ornament and form did play an important part in people’s selection of a writing box as a personal item, it’s the purpose for which they used it which gave prominence to the writing box, at a time of expanding intellectual curiosity, communication, literacy and increased commercial activity. e they're difficult to sell unless a customer is a collector or has a personal use for one.
 

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