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. 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.
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
"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
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.
< Back to
Go to the next antiques article >