When letter-writing was the main form of communication with the world at large, the inkstand was as important as the PC keyboard is today.
In the early 19th century, making personal contact with far-flung friends, relatives and business acquaintances was difficult. Travel involved long, uncomfortable stagecoach journeys, or riding horses over rough and dangerous roads. Sending letters, therefore, by special arrangement with coach companies, friends or personal courier, was the only practical means of keeping in touch.
Literacy continued to increase at this time and letter-writing was taken very seriously, as indeed it was until the widespread appearance of the telephone in the 20th century.
In these golden years of letter-writing, dealing with correspondence was a morning routine among the better-off. Husband and wife of often wrote their letters together - the man at a desk or writing table, the lady at a smaller desk or a portable writing slope. On the main desk, pride of place was given to the inkstand, or 'standish' as it was known.
Pewter, lead and other base metals were used to make inkstands for the ordinary user, while silver was the preferred metal of the wealthy. Simple inkstands of this period were often made in the 'capstan' shape - originally for use in ships - with a saucer-like base to prevent tipping and to catch spills. The design proved enduringly popular and was still in use in post offices and banks in the 20th century.
Ink was stored in covered pots and had to be changed daily because it congealed rapidly. Small bottles with stoppered mouths were used from the beginning of the 18th century.
Until inks improved in the Victorian era, both quills and nibs clogged easily and needed constant wiping and scraping. Small brushes on the desktop, with their bristles pointing upwards, were made for this purpose. More common, though few survive, were pen wipers of black velvet, fixed to the side of inkstands.
THE POUNCE POT
Up to the invention of glazed paper in the 19th century, inkstands often carried a pounce pot. This held powdered gum sandarach, which was sprinkled over the paper and rubbed in to stop the paper soaking up ink.
Some inkstands had a drawer for paper and a box for sealing wafers. Envelopes had to be made up by hand and then sealed with the moistened wafers. Later, wax superseded wafers and inkstands included a taperstick and miniature candles to melt the wax.
A fine inkstand looks good when used purely decoratively on a desk or table, perhaps alongside a paper knife. Most inkstands are still in perfect working order, and make an ideal gift for those who continue to use a fountain pen. Regency examples, however, are pricey.
Collecting early 19th-century writing antiques is a specialist area so it is advisable to buy from a reputable dealer - especially if you want to collect solid silver stands.
lnkstands of this period usually have two inkpots. These were mostly of glass with hinged lids, though they were sometimes of bronze. The doubling of glass tax during the Napoleonic Wars led to a revival of brown stoneware for inkpots and these were made as wide-based cones with stoppered mouths.
THE ORMOLU PROCESS
Many inkstands were made entirely of brass or bronze with an ormolu finish. Ormolu
involved mixing ground gold with mercury, applying it to the base metal and then heating it so that the mercury evaporated off to leave the gold deposits covering the piece. This was an expensive and dangerous process, as mercury fumes are highly toxic. Consequently, ormolu was mimicked by other finishes. True ormolu can be confused with an electro-gilded finish, which was used after the 1840s. Gold lacquering was also common as it left almost as impressive a finish as ormolu. However, gold lacquer is prone to flaking, so if you come across any flaking 'ormolu', try to establish its true identity.
Accessories kept on inkstands make attractive and interesting items to collect. Small penknives had a special cutter on one end to fashion quill nibs and a small blade on the other to sharpen and scrape the nib. The blade was also used to cut through wax seals on envelopes. It is from this instrument that all penknives derive their name.
The Regency seals that were used to imprint patterns, crests or initials into sealing wax are attractive small collectables in their own right.
POUNCE POT WITH DISHED, PERFORATED LID
This ornate and colourful inkstand would have graced many a lady's writing desk in the early 19th century. This particular model was made by the Worcester pottery in 1815 and features two recessed inkwells with hinged lids alongside a recessed pounce pot with a perforated lid. Behind them is a raised candleholder. At the front of the inkstand, below the floral frieze that features passion flowers and roses among other flowers, is a shallow nib tray. Throughout the highly elaborate design there are gilded edgings.