Antique Inkwells

By Karen Parr-Moody


Before text messaging or Tweeting, before ballpoint or even fountain pens, communication required the service of ink wells. And while it has been 80 years since they were even marginally used, these diminutive treasures are now popular with collectors. At GasLamp Antiques and Decorating Mall, there are many styles from which to choose.


While the fountain pen was invented in 1884, ink wells continued to linger on until the time of the Depression. They finally vanished from use when the ballpoint pen arrived in the 1930s. Today, collectors look for inkwells that emerged during the era of the American and French Revolutions and ranged through the Thirties.


Inkwells exist in every imaginable design and material. Beyond the standard geometric shapes, there are also animals and other figurals. Materials represent an array of crystal, glass, pottery, brass, bronze, cast iron, and wood. As seen with the inkwell in the photo, above right, they were also made in porcelain (part of a Limoges hand-painted desk set, $169; Booth B-200). Inkstands differ slightly from a stand-alone inkwell in that they contain a well and one or more other features.


The charming – and highly unusual – fox seen in the photo at left is a “nib cleaner,” which was another part of the well-kept desk of centuries past ($375, B-1003); it is thought to be either English or Austrian. Such items were usually more utilitarian in design than this charming fellow. Tiffany Studios had one in its “Pine Needle” pattern as part of a desk set.


The years of 1750 to 1880 represented the "golden age" of china in Europe, and porcelain inkwells of this period were made with feminine appeal. This 19th century inkwell, at left, would have been part of that particular trend, riding on the popularity of the tin-glazed earthenwares of French faience ($165; Showcase S-551).














By the mid 1800s, inkstands became increasingly ornate and whimsical. As the Victorian era grew near, figural shapes of animals, men and birds were frequently mounted on top of inkstands, as is the case with this charming dog inkwell (S-551, $75). How Victorians loved their kitsch.













During the centuries that inkwells were popular, so was traveling with one's own writing materials; this would have necessitated a lap desk such as the walnut one seen in the photo at left (lap desk, $129; at Days Gone By, Booth B-200). In such a box other necessities would have been found, including paper, a traveling inkwell, quill pens, sewing notions, and toiletries. However, the inkstand and blotter, also in the photo, would have stayed at home ($175, S-551). This 19th century set, made of heavy and ornate brass, is quite heavy and represents the trend of footed inkstands that would have been prominently displayed at the homes of the wealthy. Such stands often included a bell – how else would one summon a servant when a letter was prepared for the post?



After centuries of use, the inkwell virtually disappeared from daily life in the 1930s. This was not before the Art Deco movement imprinted its design on such inkwells as the one in the photo at right ($79, at W-101). This inkwell may have even been a novelty item used for decorative purposes. 


In 1972, inkwell collector Vince McGraw published a book about his collection, called “McGraw's Book of Antique Inkwells.” In 1981, he also started the Society of Inkwell Collectors (SOIC), which boasts its own publication, appropriately entitled “The Stained Finger.” Learn more about the society at 

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