Inkwells and Feather Pens - Past to Present

The history of inkwells is closely intertwined with the history of writing. Writing systems have existed since ancient times, and as writing evolved, so did inkwells. In fact, it may have been the other way around.

While writing had been thought to be a demeaning task for millennia, worthy only of scribes, as inkwells became more intricate and fanciful, made of fine materials such as silver, pewter, and gold, the wealthy class decided that writing may in fact be suited for good taste.

Perhaps less utilitarian, in recent times, inkwells have gone through a revival in popularity. They are given as high-end keepsakes worthy of kings and dignitaries, gifts for newly sworn-in lawyers and judges, and timeless gifts for modern day homes and offices. 

So, What is an Inkwell?

An inkwell is a small pot or container used for holding ink in a place convenient for a writer to dip their quill or pen into. Early materials included clay, stone, or even animal horn.

Over time, these evolved into more ornate containers, made of glass, porcelain, pewter, sterling silver, and gold. The designs kept up with the times, and during the Baroque period, excessive decoration characterized inkwells. Silver remained the most popular material used throughout the 18th century.

Inkwells would often fit into a hole in the surface of a desk or table and usually featured a lid to prevent accidental spillage. This also protects the ink from evaporation.

Originally the writer would dip the quill or dip pen into the inkwell. Later on, with the widespread popularity of fountain pens in the 1800s, inkwells were still necessary. Indeed, as fountain pens had a reservoir holding the ink that needed to be refilled, inkwells were used by writers as the source for refills.

With the invention of the typewriter and later on with the release of the ballpoint pen in 1943, the necessity of inkwells has gradually declined, yet inkwells continue to make high-end keepsakes and thoughtful gifts for calligraphy or even just handwritten letters

The History of Inkwells - From Stone to Pewter and Sterling

The earliest forms of inkwells date back to Ancient Egypt. Back then, wealthy men would not write their own letters, they hired writers called scribes to write for them. These scribes would use stones with round holes that held the ink.

Over time, these evolved into larger pieces of stone or clay, becoming more elaborate as time went on. By the 1st century AD, scribes across the Roman Empire would use small, unadorned inkwells usually made of metal or pottery.

Writing continued to be considered a humble task, exclusively suited for scribes, throughout the Middle Ages. However, during the Renaissance, more affluent classes began to undertake writing themselves. As male nobility and the wealthy alone were educated, writing became a source of pride and a symbol of status.

In tandem, inkwells became more elaborate, with decorative qualities and rich designs. Ornate inkwells were a symbol reflecting high education and social status.

As the art of writing spread around the world and across demographics, so too did the designs of inkwells. Merchants and bookkeepers typically stored their ink in simple, unadorned, traditional inkwells. On the other hand, the rich often decorated their writing desks with gold, silver, brass, or glass inkwells. Others preferred copper-alloy or bronze models shaped like animals, including horses, roosters, ramping lions, or contemplative scholars.

Inkwell designs also kept up with the times. The Renaissance period brought an increase in the standard of living, as well as cultural enlightenment across Europe, and with it, it brought decorative inkwells often crafted in silver or gold. Excessive ornamentation came into prominence with the baroque era, adhering to the fashion of most silverware, jewelry and clothing at this time.

At the advent of the American Civil war (1861-65), the necessity of a portable inkwell became essential. This was for the benefit of soldiers, to enable them to send letters from the battlefield.

As such, the portable inkwell was developed. The wells would be housed in a box, known as compendium, which could also hold other writing materials, such as quills, paste papers (used to seal letters), and a sander (to hold a fine sand, sprinkled to prevent ink smearing).

This new portable design soon became popular among a broader range of travelers, especially as rail travel became more affordable during the Industrial Revolution.

By the Victorian era, with the expansion of train and steam ship travel, Victorians not only carried portable inkwells in their hand luggage, but inkwells also started being viewed as a fashionable souvenir, as they could be shaped like famous monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe. 

Inkwells Today - Keepsakes, Calligraphy, and Commemoration

With the invention of the typewriter in the 1870s, along with the invention of the more practical ballpoint pen in 1943, the need for inkwells started to fall. Though ink no longer stains affluent businessmen's fingers, inkwells continue to charm to this day.

They not only evoke a bygone era when writers put ink-filled pens to paper, but their decorative nature, fine designs, and often exceptional craftsmanship make them timeless gifts, worthy of kings. Indeed, King Charles of Great Britain was gifted a sterling silver inkwell by his two sons, William and Prince Harry.

The inkwell got into the media spotlight when King Charles used ink from this inkwell when he signed the declaration which officially made him the new British Monarch.

The Supreme Court is another example of how inkwells can make for timeless gifts. To this day, the Court gifts pewter inkwells to newly elected Presidents, visiting heads of state, and other special recipients.

Every lawyer who argues cases before the Supreme Court receives a quill pen as a keepsake. The tradition dates back to the 1800s when the quills were accompanied by full inkwells, modeled after the quill and inkwell set used by Chief Justice John Marshall.

While the pewter inkwells gifted by the Supreme Court are reserved for dignitaries today, sterling silver or pewter inkwell gifts are often given to commemorate lawyers or justices being sworn in. They are often given for special occasions, such as graduation, admission to a PhD, starting a new job, or getting a promotion to that sought-after corner office.

Along the same lines, inkwells are still used by calligraphers and those who appreciate the art and style of handwritten letters.


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