QUESTION: My aunt has an unusual box that opens out into what looks like a sloping writing service. I’d like to find out more information about it for her. Can you tell me anything about it?
ANSWER: Your aunt's box is what's known as a writing box. These date generally from the 19th century. Hers probably is from the last decade or two. Victorians carried these boxes with them on trips so they could write letters and postcards back home. When not traveling, many also used them in place of a desk. Essentially, they were the laptops of their day.
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 into the early 20th century.
People used traveling desks or writing boxes throughout the 19th century. When opened, they offered a leathered or velvet slope and rested on a table or over compartments for holding stationery. More luxurious versions included a removable pen tray under which spare nibs and holders could be kept, and screw-top inkwells, usually of glass, on each side. Others offered secret drawers or compartments. Though the origin of these remains obscure, they were most likely based on military dispatch boxes.
Towards the middle of the 19th century, manufacturers produced wooden writing boxes in enormous quantities to meet a growing demand. They came in all sizes and varieties of wood, including mahogany, burr walnut, rosewood and the more expensive ones in Coromandel wood. Less expensive ones, usually made of thin pine or fruitwood, were a step above an elaborate school pencil box and often decorated with cheaper decals instead of inlay..
Makers produced each to various specifications, depending on the intended type and amount of use. An army officer posted to the northwest frontier, for example, would want one robustly built, heavily brass bound, with brass mounted corners and edges to withstand rough treatment. A Victorian lady, on the other hand, might have one made in Tunbridgeware (a type of English marquetry decoration from the spa town of Tunbridge Wells, England) or even papier mache. The more expensive ones had serpentine lids, sometimes inlaid with intricate designs in brass or a mother of pearl or a shield for the owner's initials.
Simpler tourist writing cases in Moroccan leather and lined with satin came equipped with different sizes of stationery, pens, pencils, and a paperknife, but not 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 18th century. Known as lap desks or writing slopes, 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.
Before the days of central heating, members of the family could gather by the fire and each work at his own small desk. A lap desk provided each individual with a private place in which to keep letters, paper and writing materials. In those days, ink, quills, paper, sand, wax wafers, and seals were all necessary equipment to use in writing a letter.
The writing box enjoyed its greatest popularity in days when ladies and gentlemen kept detailed diaries and wrote many letters. Imagine a romantic novelist or poet using just such a box while working in the warmth of a cozy fire. Today, cell phones, laptops, and tablets have made writing boxes and even stationery obsolete. However, as decorative boxes, they're more sought after than ever.