Of Inkstands and Standishes

Even before the Regency, these diminutive and decorative altars to the pursuit of belle lettres could be found on the desks of most educated people. Before the Regency came to a close, they could also be found in the homes of the middle classes as well as the upper classes. Like snuff boxes, watches and other personal items, they were also sometimes made as special presentation or keepsake items to honor the recipient and/or to memorialize an important event. Though these delightful objects were nearly ubiquitous during the Regency, they have long since fallen out of daily use. Therefore, a modern-day Regency author may want to know more about them in order to make use of one or more of them in an upcoming romance.

Standishes and inkstands through the Regency . . .

The importance of writing to the historian cannot be stressed strongly enough, since history itself is differentiated from pre-history by the very existence of writing. Events which took place before humans had learned how to write fall into the era of pre-history, while those which took place after humans had learned how to write, and thus record their activities, are part of history. Writing with ink dates back to at least the Ancient Egyptians, and any culture in which the people wrote with ink needed vessels in which that ink could be conveniently stored and/or used, as needed. Through the Middle Ages and into the sixteenth century, most of those ink vessels were fairly utilitarian in design, since writing was considered to be manual labor. Even though they could read, most aristocrats considered writing to be a menial activity better left to scribes and scriveners and never bothered to learn to write themselves. That attitude began to change not long before the turn of the seventeenth century.

Even before the sixteenth century came to an end, literacy among the English aristocracy was on the rise. More and more people had learned to read, as books became more widely available, and less expensive. Many of those same aristocrats also took the time to learn to write so they could carry on their own correspondence, with some measure of privacy. But simple stoneware or base metal ink pots would not do for these members of the upper classes. Not only could they afford higher quality materials, they also wanted better ways to organize their writing materials in one place. This need led to the development of the standish. Also known as the ink-standish or the desk-standish, this often ornate stand provided a receptacle for an ink pot or two, maybe a pounce box, sealing wax, a pen knife, and space for quills, some cut into pens, others ready to be cut. A large and elegant standish typically had pride of place on an aristocrat’s desk, through the seventeenth century and into the early eighteenth. A large and ornate standish was very often thought to be a status symbol.

As the eighteenth century progressed and the Age of Enlightenment flourished, writing became much more common in England, not only among the nobility and gentry, but also among the members of the growing middle class. But as the Baroque style gave way to the much lighter and more elegant Rococo style, the manufacture of massive ink-standishes began to wane. Instead, lighter, more delicate and more functional inkstands began to take their place. Though inkstands tended to be a bit smaller, there were also many more of them made, to serve the varying needs of the growing number of writers. In fact, in many households, writing had become so important an activity that it also often had its own furniture. More and more homes across all classes had a desk or escritoire, intended primarily for writing. And inkstands were usually to be found on these writing desks, from the eighteenth century well into the nineteenth century.

Inkstands made in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were usually somewhat smaller than the earlier standishes, but included most of the same fittings, if not more. Some had two ink wells, one for black ink, and another for red ink. Several other colors of ink had been available for decades, but right through the Regency, most people tended to use primarily black ink, though a few added occasional red accents. However, the use of red ink became much more common in the Victorian period. Another nearly standard item was the pounce pot or sander, which held finely powdered gum sandarac. This fine powder was lightly sprinkled over a newly written page to absorb any ink which was not yet dry. Most pounce pots and sanders had large holes or easily removable lids, since it was common practice to pour the powder back into the container once it had served its purpose, so it could be reused. Though sealing wax was still in use during the Regency, the wafer, a small, wax-like disk, was also in common use. Many inkstands included a container to hold these delicate wafters, which could be used to seal letters, in place of sealing wax. The majority of inkstands by the end of the eighteenth century included ink wells, pounce pots and wafer boxes which were all made in the same or similar style and size to create a unified design.

The base of most inkstands, from the mid-eighteenth century, was a tray, set upon small decorative feet, on which the inkwells, pounce pots and wafer boxes were placed. These trays were typically made with one or more depressions or compartments, each intended to hold quill pens, and any spare quills, as well as a pen knife, and tapers, for use in heating a wafer or a stick of sealing wax. Some inkstands had a small fixture attached to the tray that functioned as a wax jack, which held a length of coiled taper that could be used for heating wafers or sealing wax. Even before the turn of the nineteenth century, the most complete upscale inkstands also included a place for a paper knife. Paper knives were used most often to cut the folded leaves in books, but some people did use them to break the wax seal on their correspondence. Many of the larger inkstands were made with compartments in or below the main tray for the storage of paper as well. Some of the more elaborate inkstands even had a small bell, by which the letter writer could summon a servant to dispatch an important letter as quickly as possible.

Though the majority of inkstands in the eighteenth century were made of silver, by the turn of the nineteenth century, they were made in a wide array of materials. As it had been since the eighteenth century, silver was still the most popular material for the making of inkstands in the nineteenth century. It became even more popular in the second half of the Regency, when newly discovered silver deposits in both Australia and North America made silver more readily available, at somewhat lower prices. A few Regency-era inkstands were made of gold or silver gilt, for those who wanted a more ostentations desk ornament. Those who wanted the appearance of silver at a much lower cost could acquire inkstands made of Sheffield plate. More utilitarian metals, such as brass, pewter, and even lead, were all used to make inkstands in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Such utilitarian inkstands might be found in the homes of the less affluent members of the middle class, but similar utilitarian inkstands were also fairly common on the desks of workers at many businesses of the time. Of course, the head of the firm might have a silver inkstand on their desk, as a way to visually set them apart from the rest of the staff.

From the second half of the eighteenth century, well into the nineteenth century, English potteries became increasingly expert in the production of porcelain and other fine ceramics. Even before the turn of the nineteenth century, some of the larger pottery houses were turning out inkstands in stoneware, bone china and even porcelain. These inkstands typically had fewer intricate parts, but they were also usually very colorful and much more highly decorated. Many of these ceramic inkstands were decorated with rich colors, often with floral motifs, so it is no surprise that most of them were to be found on the writing desks or escritoires of ladies. However, at the Wedgwood ceramics works, some inkstands were made in jasperware and basalt ware. Such ceramics were of a plain body color, typically blue, green or black, with applied white cameo-type designs, often classical motifs. These ceramic inkstands with more restrained ornamentation could be found on the desks of a number of gentlemen, as well as ladies, during the Regency.

Some inkstands were also made using multiple materials. Glass was often used for the inkwells of metal inkstands of all types, from gold to lead. Other inkstands were made of wood, with glass and silver fittings. Tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl and even papier-mâché, were all used to make inkstands. From the early nineteenth century, as travel become easier and more common throughout Britain, inkstands were made as souvenirs for different localities. A number of inkstands were made of Tunbridge ware, the delicate wood inlay work which was produced in the spa town of Tunbridge. Several popular tourist spots had ceramic inkstands made which featured the best known views of their area. During the Regency, inkstands could be found in a wide array of materials and price ranges all across Great Britain. Unfortunately, many of those inkstands have not survived into the twenty-first century. [Author’s Note:   Images of some of the inkstands which have survived can be found on this results page, for a search on the keyword "inkstand," at Google Images.]

In addition to souvenir inkstands, a number of very elegant and sophisticated inkstands were made as presentation or keepsake pieces. Fortunately, a couple of the most elegant Regency-era presentation/keepsake inkstands have survived and are now in museums, which have given them their own web pages. The first inkstand, of silver, was made as a presentation piece, in 1810, though the circumstances surrounding its creation were quite sad. This special, elegant Neo-Classical style silver inkstand was commissioned by Queen Charlotte, as a gift to Dr. Matthew Baillie, to thank him for his care of her daughter, Princess Amelia, during the final illness of the young princess. The inscription on the bottom of the tray reads:

The Queen wishes Dr Baillie to accept this small present as an acknowledgement for his attendance upon her deceased beloved child Princess Amelia which cannot be obliterated from her mind.


the 12th Nov 1810

This elegant Neo-Classical silver inkstand is now in the collection of the Royal College of Physicians, in London.

The other grand survival from the Regency period is Lord Castlereagh’s gold inkstand. This inkstand is very special, since it was made from the many gold snuff boxes given to Lord Castlereagh while he served as Britain’s representative at the Congress of Vienna. It was very common at that time for monarchs to give snuff boxes which carried their portraits on the lid. These snuff boxes were usually made of gold and often studded with diamonds. When he returned to Britain, in July of 1817, Lord Castlereagh commissioned the prestigious firm of goldsmiths, Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, to make an elegant gold inkstand as a keepsake, from his collection of twenty-one gold snuff boxes. Part of the commission required that the arms of each of the sovereigns from whose snuff box the inkstand was made be engraved on the body of the inkstand. The inkstand bears the mark of Paul Storr, one of the most skilled goldsmiths in Britain, along with that of Philip Rundell. Its design features a central golden palm taper stand, flanked by two elegant inkpots in the Neo-Classical style. The tray on which they stand carries the coats of arms requested by Lord Castlereagh. Given up in lieu of taxes in 2003, this stunning inkstand is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

By the beginning of the Regency, literally thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of inkstands were in use all across Britain. Many thousands more were made during the years the Regent ruled the realm. The majority of aristocratic and upper class homes may have had more than one writing desk, each of which may well have had its own inkstand, with both the lady and the gentleman of the house having their own writing desks and inkstands. Such may have also been the case in the majority of the homes of the affluent middle classes, while even the homes of the lower ranks of the middle classes may have had at least one writing desk with an inkstand. By this time, though many old standishes still existed, the word itself was considered quite old-fashioned. During the Regency, only a older person would have refered to an inkstand as a standish. Some younger people may not have even known the word. It must also be noted that it was not until several years after the Regency that inkstands began to be made with compartments for steel pen nibs, since steel pens were not produced commercially until the mid-1820s. It was at about this same time that inkstands were made with spaces for pen wipers, small cloths which were used to wipe ink from steel pen nibs. Such pen wipers were not necessary with quill pens and therefore were not considered in the design and construction of inkstands before the mid-1820s. By the end of the nineteenth century, the development of the fountain pen had made inkstands unnecessary and by the first decades of the twentieth century, they were no longer made.

Dear Regency Authors, how many ways might an inkstand, or even an old standish, figure in one of your upcoming romances? Might a crochety older character demand a young one move the standish, only to have the young person not understand the command? Could you make use of one of the many small compartments in an elaborate inkstand to hide some small object crucial to the plot, perhaps a secret note or a tiny key? Perhaps a souvenier inkstand could expose the lie of a character who claims to have never been to that place? Then again, might one of your characters recieve a presentation inkstand to recognize some important event or extraordinary action in which they were involved? Or, will a character treasure an inkstand which was presented to a dear friend or relative? On the other hand, will one of your characters commission a special inkstand to remind them of a particularly meaningful event, or person, in their life? Though few of us have inkstands on our desks today, they were very common during the Regency, and there are many ways in which one of them might serve the plot of a Regency romance.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Of Inkstands and Standishes

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    what amazing, and in many cases vulgarly tawdry, ink stands! Castlereagh’s is horrible. I have a couple of very plain wooden ones, which fit into writing desks of my ancestors, one with cut glass ink pots with silver lids, the other with plain porcelain ones with ordinary corks! I also remember that there were older desks when I was at school – one did not throw away a perfectly good utilitarian piece of furniture – which essentially contained an inkstand as standard, but also designed for other kit you would use. On the right was a metal lid which opened to reveal the glass ink pot, which you took to the ink monitor to fill, the long slot on the rest of the back of the desk was for pens, pencils, bungy and ruler. We filled our fountain pens from the ink pot rather than dipping, however, but dip pens were still in use for mapping until Rotring produced fine enough cartridge pens.
    I am thinking of what might happen if the heroine manages to upset an ink pot on the priceless Aubusson carpet when her letter writing is interrupted by the importunities of her employer’s younger brother/older son. Will the hero both rescue her from his toils, and either take the blame or call for his Jeeves-like valet who knows how to deal with these things? [if I recall correctly you soak up as much as you can with bicarbonate of soda and then scrub it with white vinegar]. Mrs Rundell informs me that you take ink out of mahogany using vitriol, which sounds nervous and not for a pure silk Aubusson carpet! and she declares that sour buttermilk rubbed in and dried in the sun will remove most stains.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Though many of those inkstands may seem rather gaudy in the 21st century, they would not have been considered so in the early 19th. Today, in our very busy world, filed with telephones, radios, stereos, televisions and computers, &c., we tend to prefer fairly restrained ornament in our surroundings. However, many of our ancestors in centuries past took great delight in objects of ornate design and bright colors, eye-candy which brightened their lives, because they were not exposed to the constant din we must endure through most of our waking hours.

      Imagine you are a person in the Regency, sitting down at a desk in a country house to write a letter. The only sounds to be heard are those of nature which waft in the windows, and maybe bits of conversation drifting from another room. What a treat it would be to cast one’s eye over a colorful and decorative inkstand as you prepare to write your letter.

      We had desks in my elementary school which had depressions for ink wells, too. That was in the 1960s, and the school was more than fifty years old then, so I think, as you noted, they were just continuing to use perfectly good furniture. However, those depressions no longer had glass ink wells in them, but I was curious about them and one of the teachers explained their original purpose to me. Even then, I was fascinated with the history of things. 😉 In fact, I think that is when I first became interested in both dip and fountain pens. I still write with a fountain pen to this day.

      I like your plot bunny with the ink on the Aubusson carpet. However, if I recall correctly, most Aubusson carpets were made of wool rather than silk. Wool is a much more sturdy fiber and could stand more rigorous cleaning, but certainly not vitriol. The buttermilk and sunshine formula may be quite effective. When I was little, my grandmother used to put lemon juice on any stains on her household linens, then laid them out in the sun. That worked on most stains on either linen or cotton.



      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I tend to use lemon juice, bicarb or vinegar or a combination for most things; they work as well as any, and are better for the environment. Buttermilk was a new one on me! but I’ve used milk to take out stains before now, so maybe the buttermilk was just the cheaper alternative. if you are expecting your mistress of the household to be churning as part of her wifely duties. And I am thinking of the illustrations of A A Milne’s poem about the butter for the royal slice of bread..
        Now I always thought the value in an Aubusson carpet was in it being made of silk, my mistake, then. Wool would certainly stand scrubbing. And milk gets ink out of wool school trousers from the fountain pens leaking happily in teenage boys’ pockets.
        I like my dip pens, prefer them for line art to anything else.

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