Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine


Jun 15, 2011 08:50PM ● By Anonymous

Nowadays we study calligraphy as a hobby and, if we want to simulate the appearance of graceful, flowing script associated with metal nib pens and quills, there are felt-tip markers and liquid ink pens. Gone is the worry about messy leaks of ink, but also gone are the charming accessories which used to be a necessity on a writers desk: inkwells, pen stands, and desk blotters.

While pen stands and desk blotters are not high on the list of desired collectibles, inkwells made of glass and metal have remained a favorite touchstone for remembering the way desks used to look when writers used a pen that required filling with ink.

The earliest pens in history were sharpened reeds. Beginning in the fifth century, sharpened quills from poultry feathers were used for writing. Steel nibs were first introduced to the public in 1843. The pen points were repeatedly dipped into ink and the slit in the nib held the ink. Hundreds of different nibs were produced for different types of lettering, including special nibs for mapping, sketching, and italic writing. Inkwells were made in a variety of materials—from pottery, porcelain, and metal to stone, wood, and shell—but the most commonly used material was glass. The majority of inkwells available for collectors to purchase are from the 19th century and early 20th century.

A great majority of attractive inkwells were made of pattern glass. Molten glass was blown into a mold. often containing three parts. Glass of this era, made in the early 19th century with three sections, is often referred to as “three-mold.” The mold was carved with intricate patterns and designs. The relief ornamentation served to camouflage imperfections in the glass and often attempted to imitate the more expensive cut-glass patterns of the period. Collectors look for three seam marks in the design to identify a “three-mold” piece of glass.

Cut-glass inkwells were hand-blown and then carefully polished on an abrasive wheel. As the glass turned, it was polished and cut by craftsmen with various specially designed instruments. The bottom of the inkwell, where the glass was originally attached to the glass gaffer’s rod, is called the pontil. The pontil of a piece of fine heavy-cut glass is usually cut down into a circular depression— referred to as a polished pontil. Look for a polished pontil when purchasing quality cut-glass or art-glass inkwells. Artist’s signatures on quality pieces were usually etched on the bottom of the inkwell with acid or a sharp instrument.

Metal inkwells were made of bronze, silver, pewter, brass, and even gold. The inkwell used by the signers of the Declaration of Independence was made of silver and designed by Philip Syng, Jr. of Philadelphia in 1752. It now sits on display, for all to see and admire, at Independence Hall.

If you traveled, you needed to take an inkwell with you. Small inkwells were specially designed for the purpose, along with a top designed to seal in the ink during a bumpy ride by horse and carriage or train.

A cast-iron inkstand was a common fixture in hotel lobbies and public buildings. It usually contained two wells of pressed glass along with a pen for use by visitors. Any combination of inkwells together is referred to as an inkstand or standish. An inkstand with more than one container usually signified the use of different colors of ink for different occasions. Some inkstands had as many as 20 different accessories during the Victorian era.

Inkwells vary in value from $25 to thousands of dollars depending on the type, age, and maker. As with any valuable collectible, there are many reproductions, so buyers should beware.

Editor-in-Chief Nadja Maril answers readers’ questions in her blog, “All About Antiques,” at If you have a question related to this column or a previous column, email her at A nationally known author, appraiser, and former antiques dealer, she also invites readers to send photographs and suggestions for future columns to 929 West St., Suite 208A, Annapolis, MD 21401.