Reading and Writing Essentials of the 19th and Early 20th Century

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, a variety of objects were used to complement the activities of reading and writing. These essentials were richly ornamented and beautifully made with creative craftsmanship and unique designs.

Please click on the images to view details of the artifacts

Paper Knives, often mistaken for letter openers, became popular in the beginning of the 19th century. Their sole purpose was to open the uncut pages of books. The blade has round edges and a rounded blunt tip to prevent any damage to the page. Common materials used to construct paper knives were bone, silver, wood, ivory, mother-of-pearl, and different types of stone and ceramic. Paper knives became less common in the mid-20th century due to changes in book production.

Paper knife, mother-of-pearl. Donated by Estate of Sarah Jane Brittenham

Paper knife carved by A.S. Bixby from White Oak. 1900. Donated by Florence L. Bixby

Paper knife carved by A.S. Bixby from Eucalyptus wood. 1900. Donated by Florence L. Bixby

Brass paper knife. 1900. Donated by Avis Bixby Dudley

Brass or bronze paper knife. Figure of Hircocervus, The Trusty Servant. 1900. Donated by Avis Bixby Dudley

Ivory/Celluloid paper knife. 1870-1900. Donated by Gwendolen Shakeshaft

The Letter Opener evolved from the paper knife in the second half of the 19th century. The narrow and sharp shape enabled it to break off the seal without doing any damage to the envelope. Like paper knives, the handles had decorative designs.

Silver handled letter openers. 1871. Donated by Stephen B. Dudley

Ivory pocket notebooks are portable notebooks made out of ivory leaves. They were used as daily calendars or to write notes in pencil. The contents would later be transferred to a permanent notebook and the pencil marks would be erased so the ivory plates could be reused.

Ivory notebook. Donated by Florence L. Bixby

Ivory notebook. Donated by Eula Clemmer

The first Portable Lap Desk was invented by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 to occupy his time during his 200-mile coach ride to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The Portable Lap Desk is made with durable wood like mahogany or walnut and has built-in compartments for stationery and writing utensils.

Portable desk made of mahogany and walnut wood with small glass ink bottle and a mother-of-pearl mechanical pencil. 1872.

Donated by Florence L. Bixby

The first Dip Pens became popular when metal nibs started being mass produced in 1822, replacing the quill.  In the mid-19th century, Inkwells were embellished with elegant designs.  Gold and silver inkstands were popular for those in high society, and other materials used for inkstands were porcelain, pewter and even lead. Portable inkwells were developed during the Civil War for soldiers to write in the battlefields. They were also useful for those who travelled. With the development of the fountain pen in the early 20th century, inkwells became less popular.

Dip pen, mother-of-pearl. 1860. Donated by Carolyn Miller

Inkwell with silver hinged lid. 1870-1910. Donated by Juliana E. Schano

Inkwells. 1800-1870s

Dip pens and nibs. 1900

Silver tray with inkwells. Belonged to Flint family. 1871. Donated by Stephen B. Dudley

Crystal inkwell. 1871. Donated by Stephen B. Dudley