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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

Country Inkwells

There's something about New England country inkwells - they are simple and utilitarian, but so beautiful in a way that the fancy city ones are not. Long before the invention of the pen the quill and inkwell were the writer's tools. There were really nice inkwells made in Philadelphia and New York, and lots imported form England at the time, but it's the home made ones, the ones made by the country craftsman that sing to me.

The first one I ever bought, well, let's just say when I was young, - was a turquoise molded glass inkwell probably dating from the mid 19th century. I still have it. No maker's mark. Some bubbles in the glass, and it has turned murky over the years, has a little chip in the rim. I still love it.

I found the sweetest one in New Hampshire about a year ago - it is wooden and it has tiny stenciling around the top. The sides are curved with incised lines to decorate them. The original cork stopper is held by a string which is attached through the top. It must have been made as a gift for a lady, it's so pretty and delicate. It is quite early - maybe 1820 or so.

Soapstone inkwells were the most common for the country writer. Soapstone is still quarried in quantity in New England. It is very soft and suitable for carving. These inkwells are getting increasingly hard to find. They date as early as the 1700s, many being pre-revolutionary. I am a sucker for them. Some are really plain - just a square block with a hole in the top for a little ink. The hole was always small enough so that the quill wouldn't fall in. Others are more intricate.

This one has 4 quill holes, a deep indented line around the middle and mitered edges.

This one looks like it has a lid, but it doesn't - it's one solid piece of soapstone. The top is nicely carved and there are diagonal lines on the sides. 2 quill holes.

Three pen holes and carved edges creating a cross in the center.

Here's one with feet.

Concentric circles around the hole.

My favorite, a new acquisition, is 3 tiered.

You can find a lot of molded glass inkwells in the marketplace, like my first inkwell. Recently I found one that is really quirky and cute - it is molded glass and is marked by a New Hampshire maker.

Sometimes inkwells were made with other materials - whatever was available. Here is one made of lead:

Some country inkwells were fashioned after the fancier city ones, as country furniture makers copied the styles of Newport and Boston, but using whatever wood they had, and painting it so that you couldn't tell it wasn't mahogany. I love that. Pewter was made into all kinds of things, and here is a simple inkwell. It would have had a glass insert in the middle to hold the ink.

Basalt, a volcanic material, was also fashioned into inkwells and other things. It was possible to make the carvings more detailed in this harder stone. Many were English, but I believe this to be American, ca 1835. It has fine reeding around the sides and precise incised lines around the top and the inkwell. The well is funnel shaped allowing the ink to be poured into the well without dripping.

I imagine letters being written to loved ones, bills and receipts being created for commerce, and little children learning to write in their classrooms. That's why I love inkwells. And they are fun to collect - they don't take much room and you can still find them at reasonable prices.


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