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History of the Inkwell/ Inkstand/ Desk Standish

What is an Inkwell / Inkstand?

The inkwell is a small jar or container, often made of glass, porcelain, silver, brass, or pewter, which contains ink for an artist or writer. The artist or writer dips the brush, quill, or dip pen into the inkwell as required. An inkwell usually has a lid to prevent evaporation and spillage. Some inkwells which were specifically made for travellers were designed with special tight lids, which could survive a long, arduous journey via horseback without leaking into the owner’s luggage.

An inkstand, (or desk standish) is a stand or tray used to hold various writing instruments, often including a tightly-capped inkwell and a sand shaker for rapid drying. A pen wiper would often be included, and from the mid-nineteenth century, a compartment for steel nibs - which replaced quill pens - was usually a component.

Inkwell History

The earliest that we can date the conception of the inkwell is with the Ancient Egyptians, where members of wealthy or upper-class families hired scribes to write for them.

These scribes used small ink palettes housed in pieces of stone with round hollows for each separate colour of ink. Over time, these palettes became larger pieces of stone or clay, and gradually were developed into being containers when a stopper was added to protect and add to the longevity of the ink.

In Europe, prior to the sixteenth century, a scribe or scrivener would correspond using a quill pen and ink on behalf of aristocracy, as writing was considered to be a lowly task.

As the art of writing travelled across the world animal horns began to be used as the material for making ink containers. To begin with, these inkwells were fairly basic and designed purely for purpose, with little ornamentation.

The decorative inkwells were introduced during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Gold and silver inkwells began to make an appearance.

silver inkwell

During the Baroque period, excessive ornamentation was common throughout Western Europe, as was the fashion within most silverware, jewellery and clothing at this time.

The inkwell was then further developed as the portable inkwell was devised around the time of the American Civil war, so that soldiers could carry them easily and write their correspondence from the battlefield.

Affluent travellers used inkwells specifically designed to be compact, housed within boxes which also held other writing equipment such as quills, ink, paste papers (used to seal letters) and a sander (to hold a fine sand, sprinkled to prevent ink smearing), medications and toiletries. Such boxes were known as compendiums.

Stylized and fanciful figures of maidens with flowing hair, butterflies, oak leaves, iris blooms and tree stumps were found on inkstands and inkwells at the beginning of the Art Nouveau era in the late nineteenth century.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Art Nouveau movement welcomed the use of feminine flowing shapes, flora and fauna across all mediums of art and design, so stationary such as inkwells and inkstands followed suits.

porcelin inkwell

Novelty pieces from seaside towns were fashionable during the Victorian era, with the advent of rail travel meaning that tourism within these towns flourished. The images of famous monuments or vistas were often crafted with enamel or etched into the glass inkwells, as the first flush of souvenirs became sought after home décor. The increasingly ornate and whimsical designs that adorned these pieces reflected the new trend for interior decoration during the era.

The invention of the typewriter in the 1870s spelled the demise of the inkwell, along with the first fully functional and reliable fountain pen being patented by Lewis Waterman in 1884. With increasingly practical fountain pens increasingly being produced in the twentieth century, the demand for inkwells fell to the point of obscurity, now being regarded as a rarity which is only owned by collectors.

omar ramsden inkwell antique inkwell

The Inkstand

In England, Inkstands were known as 'desk standishes' between the fifteenth and the eighteenth century. Later inkstands contain a wide variety of accessories, such as a taper stick- used to create a wax seal - a pounce box, which held a powdered gum that fixed ink to paper, a wafer-box which held wafers used to seal letters, a penknife, and quills.

desk standish

From the seventeenth century on wards, inkstands became more decorative and elaborate as gentry began to undertake writing themselves, rather than feeling that this was a task suited for the lower classes.

Although silver was the most popular material used for inkstand during the eighteenth century, inkstands were also fashioned from porcelain, pewter, or even lead.

art deco inkwell

Gold and silver inkstands were incredibly popular with those in high society during the eighteenth century. These standishes usually have a rectangular form supporting three or more pots for ink, pounce, and one for cleaning purposes. There were often grooves incorporated into the outside of the design so that quills could be held in them.

silver inkstand

Inkstands suffered the same fate as ink wells with the introduction of the typewriter and fountain pens during the early twentieth century, however as a decorative and ornamental have enjoyed a revival in popularity recently, owing to their practical nature and often heavily ornamented or stylised design.

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Andrew Campbell started trading in Antique Silver in the 1970's. Initially, Andrew lived in the South of England, travelling the country, searching for items of silver to buy. Andrew sold these items at various London markets and antique fairs. Over time, and through selling at a range of venues, Andrew built up a large and diverse customer base from private buyers to national and international trade customers.
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