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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. Boxes in which writing materials were kept, called scriptoriums, were used by monks in the Middle Ages. Eventually, these were mounted on stands and later legs were added, creating the first desks for doing illuminated manuscripts. The writing box, itself, survived through the nineteenth century.

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.

In general writing boxes came in two types: Those that look like a rectangle when closed and those that form a slope when closed. The majority of writing boxes were made somewhat alike. The top 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. Writing surfaces were covered in velvet, felt or tooled leather. A bottom compartment, under the lid, provided space for storing papers and letters.

They came in all sizes and were commonly made in mahogany, burl walnut, rosewood and the more expensive ones in calamander wood. Most are rectangular boxes, often made of exotic colored woods such as calamander and rosewood, veneered onto a pine base. Marquetry, the delicate inlay of patterns of a lighter color wood such as boxwood, was also common. Brass mounts were often added to protect the corners from damage.

Writing boxes were personal possessions and their design reflected the changing fashions of the times. Construction materials varied widely from fine veneers over a pine base to a simple varnished pine or fruitwood box with laminated paper interior. Writing boxes, no matter how elaborate, were seldom marked and only the type of wood and the overall design can give the collector a clue to their origin.

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 were 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 eighteenth century. Known as lap desks, these writing boxes were quite portable so they could be held on a lap or used 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.

Among collectors of writing boxes, the more serious 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.

"Unfortunately, there were no manufacturers of writing boxes per se," said Sally Kaltman owner of Sallea Antiques of New Canaan, Connecticut, and one of the foremost dealers in writing boxes in the United States. "Many were made by cabinetmakers for retailers who put their label inside. But most were made by coffinmakers as a side business."

Since writing boxes were personal possessions, their condition is often good. But collectors shouldn't reject a writing box because it's broken. Even if there is some where and tear, many can 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 here in the United States for anywhere from $50 to $750. Most dealers carry only one at a time, for they're difficult to sell unless the customer is a collector or has a personal use for one.

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