While sloped writing surfaces of various forms have been around for many centuries, the flat surfaced rectangular writing box really only became widely available towards the end of the 18th century. They were extremely popular through the Victorian era but their usage had mostly ended by the beginning of the 20th century.
The main reasons for their development and rapid adoption by the population… literacy was on the rise, along with growing interest in travel. Increasing numbers of travellers meant more people wanting to diarize their adventures, compose letters back home, sketch where they’ve been, etc. To do any of these required access to quills or dip pens, paper, ink, seals, sealing wax, and a secure container to transport it all in… the answer was the writing box, the 19th century’s version of today’s laptop!
Writing boxes were very personal items and they were intended to be portable. They were not designed to be a piece of furniture that simply sat on a desk in one’s home. While many were built with brass trim along the edges and corners to help protect the box during its travels, transportation methods of the day meant that they would not have an easy life even with the brass protection. Their often scarred casings are a pleasing reminder of how well-traveled they and their owners were. Writing boxes came in a variety of sizes, designs, and complexity, to meet the varied demands of those using them. While I think of my writing box as a well-designed and beautifully crafted piece, it probably would have been considered a fairly basic model in its day.
In our ergonomically driven modern world of furniture design, having the writing surface at a slight angle is believed to reduce the strain on one’s neck and back. However, apparently the reason that writing boxes (and writing stands/desks before that) were sloped had little to do with ergonomics. The principle writing tools prior to the introduction of the first mass produced fountain pens in the late 19th century were the quill, and the dip pen (and the pencil, of course!). By angling the writing surface, when the quill or dip pen is held it is then close to being perpendicular to the writing surface, thus allowing the ink to flow more readily.
This box was purchased from a couple in the U.K. that do beautiful work restoring victorian writing boxes. It is 15.75 inches by 9.75 inches by 6.75 inches high. The wood is likely a walnut veneer, with a solid mahogany interior. The original lock & key are present and the top surface mounted brass cartouche is vacant.
On the inside, there is a completely new leather writing surface.
The upper area is recessed and is divided to allow for two ink bottles (in case one needs a couple of colours of ink, or wants to ensure an ample ink supply for the entire journey), as well as sections for pens & nibs. Lifting the top half of the leathered section reveals a generous storage area and by gently pulling on one of the dividers of the recessed area one side of this inner compartment pops open to reveal two secret drawers (I wonder what secrets these tiny drawers have held over the years?).
The bottom half of the leathered section is opened by releasing the two small brass lock tabs and this area nicely holds all the stationery one might need.
I didn’t buy this piece specifically as a collection item but I wanted to have a victorian writing slope so that I could more fully enjoy the simple act of writing. What I intended to write about was inconsequential; the mere act of putting pen & ink to paper can be relaxing and almost therapeutic. Try it sometime… close up that laptop, put away the iPad, stop poking out communiques on your phone one letter at a time. Grab a pen and some scrap paper and write something, anything, and before you know it you may be looking for your own Victorian writing box!