Friday, November 22, 2019

What are the Inkwells

Inkwell from a 17th century casket. The center hole allowed
the quill to be dipped into the ink (Private Collection)
In the 17th century there were three general box types; the valuables cabinet, the toilet box (jewelry and makeup), and the writing cabinet.  The embroidered caskets for girls seemed to be a mix of all these functions, including a tray for writing needs and bottles for makeup/scent as well as areas specifically for holding rings.

In at least two collections (the V&A and a private collection), there are quills that have been decoratively wrapped with filament silk in patterns which fit into the writing tray.  These wrappings are similar to what some kids do today with embroidery floss on pencils to help their grip.

Pounce pot with the half sphere depression and shaker holes
(Private Collection)
There are two metal pots that are put into the embroidered cabinets.  One is a cube with a lid that has an open hole in it, closed by a swinging lid.  This would have held ink for dipping the quill into it.  The second was the pounce pot.  Paper at this period was rough and had not been prepared smooth for gliding the quill over the surface, so a fine powder usually made from cuttlefish bone would be sprinkled over the paper and rubbed.  This powder was then at that point or after the writing, poured or tapped off the paper back into the depression on the pounce pot and shaken into the pot.

Taking very accurate measurements off of over a dozen
inkwells in private and public collections.  This is a
special tool where the measurements show up well
in reflected light under microscopes.  (Private Collection)
There are several characteristics of these little pots. The bottom is an open cube which has been soldered to the lid with a hole or shaker in it.  There is a swinging round lid with a stopper that is caught by a bent over piece of metal.  A pin that is smashed connects the two lids and a second pin goes through the swinging lid to make the handle.

In other words, these are tiny but complicated when you are thinking of reproducing them.  There are six pieces per pot.

I had spent a great deal of time measuring these little pieces and we chose a set that was a good representative size and whose cube bottom would make a good size for our double casket proportions.

The next task would be to figure out what all the pieces were made from and the processes that were used so we could start thinking about re-engineering them.

Looking through the hole in an ink well at the inside of the cube
The layers and bubbles in the metal were clues that told us
these were pewter that were slip cast.
There were pieces that were silver colored, yet dull and ones that were brass but the bottom was still a dull silver color.

Reasoning said that the tops were brass sheet and the bottoms appeared like pewter, which was a common metal in use at the time.  Showing detailed photos to Judy Danforth (of Danforth Pewter based in Vermont), she confirmed that the bases were slip cast pewter in a sand mold.  The excess pewter would be poured out as it solidified against the sides of the mold, leaving the characteristic ripples we saw in the bottom of the cubes.
Another piece, looking through the hole
with a microscope to see the technique of

This is something that Danforth could do, but they weren't sure about how to make or connect the rest of the lids/pins.  They had never had experience soldering brass and pewter together.

So while I had a willing partner for the bottom part of the inkwell, I needed to go off and find solutions for the top.

More about those parts tomorrow (We are up to 2012 now...)

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