Tools for Writing Well

WritingTools copyI must confess that I love tools and gadgets- every time I delve into a new hobby,  I relish collecting the paraphernalia that goes with it. My pursuit of the penmanship of Jane Austen’s era presents a challenge.  Most authentic antique pieces are outside my budget, even if I felt comfortable using ink and pencil lead on 200-year-old objects.  Modern versions of the tools, when they exist, can be almost as expensive and don’t do much to evoke the era.

I’m extremely lucky to have a husband who is skilled at wood- and metal-work and loves historical arts and crafts as much as I do! Over the months I was on hiatus, he’s made several tools for me which have made writing like a student in the late 18th century much more fun. The picture above shows, from left to right, a straight-edge, a pounce-pot, a rolling ruler, and a quill knife.

Contemporary instructions for penmanship practice suggest ruling lines on paper as a guide for writing in straight lines. As I discussed in a previous post, The Young Man’s Best Companion suggested using dividers to mark off exact intervals and  “plain, flat ruler” at first,  until the learner has enough experience to measure the lines by eye and can use a rolling ruler “for expedition’s sake.”  The “plain flat ruler” above is made out of ebony so that pencil lead and ink stains won’t show. Its shape is based on an undated antique ruler we own, but it’s petite enough to be convenient for ruling lines on writing paper.

RollingRuler copy

My idea of “expedition” for most of my penmanship practice is a pre-ruled graph paper pad, but I was eager to try out a cylindrical rolling ruler like the Young Man’s Best Companion recommends. My husband made one for me out of “brown ebony”, otherwise known as guayacan wood.  It was inspired by various examples seen in photos(usually on auction sites). You can see some of the antique inspirations on my Pinterest Board of 18th-19th century Writing Tools.  Many antique rolling rulers have bulls-eye or target patterns incised on the circular ends, and I’m very pleased that mine does too.  I haven’t found instructions for using this type of ruler, so I turned to trial and error. I found that I can get straight, parallel lines by holding the side of my pencil against the cylinder at an even angle.  I can line up my eye with the ruler so that the pencil appears to follow the line where the ruler meets the page, even though (as the picture shows) the point of the pencil is far from where the cylindrical ruler rests on the paper. It is very quick to roll the ruler down for the next line, and not too hard to eyeball where the next line should fall. I expect to use my rolling ruler often- whenever I’m not using graph paper, that is!

QuillKnife copy

I cut my first quill pens with an exacto knife. It was plenty sharp enough, but it just didn’t look or feel like the right tool for the job. A proper quill knife has a bit of curve on the backside of the blade to help it follow the curves of the shoulder and nib of the pen, while the thin, angled exacto blade tended to hit the curve and take chunks out of it unless I used only the narrowest tip to cut with.  My new, home-made knife has a comfortable applewood handle modelled on images of quill knives in 17th and 18th century trompe l’oeil paintings. I have a number of examples pinned on my Pinterest board Quill Pens in Art.  My husband forged and sharpened the knife blade to my specifications, and it certainly looks and feels much more like the right tool. I keep its edge honed to a mirror finish and it slices through quill beautifully.

PouncePot copy This turned applewood pounce pot was a surprise Christmas present, and what a nice surprise it was!  Pounce pots, also sometimes called sanders, were used to sprinkle powdered pounce over a sheet of writing and were made in a variety of materials from china to cut glass. Wooden examples are often made out of ‘fruitwood,’ box, or lignum vitae- all hard woods that show up turned details beautifully. The cup-shaped top has a pattern of holes drilled in it, like a salt shaker, that allow powder to be shaken out from a reservoir in the body.  Like many antique examples, there is no other opening- the reservoir is filled by shaking powder in through the same holes. The cupped shape assists filling and also returning excess powder to the shaker. What exactly was the nature of the pounce or sand that should go in this little pot? How it was used with writing? These are questions I’ve been researching, and the answers surprised me- but that’s a topic for another post!

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2 thoughts on “Tools for Writing Well

  1. I’m currently doing some research into the life and business of the London stationer Samuel William Fores (1761 – 1838). Fores sold stationary alongside caricature prints, books and other printed ephemera but there are no surviving catalogues of his stock, or records of his business activities.

    Can you recommend any primary or secondary source material which wold provide a useful overview of the mundane details of the trade in stationary during the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century? I’m thinking specifically of things like wholesale and retail prices, manufacturing costs and networks of supply? This sort of material would really help me in trying to reconstruct the business environment in which Fores operated.

    Many thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This sounds like a very interesting project! I don’t know of any relevant sources off-hand, but I’ll certainly keep my eyes open as I trawl through bibliography. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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