Story: Paulette Pearson | Styling: Mandy Keener |
It’s often said that handwriting is a dying art form, but Mac and Sue McFarland of Bath House Row Antiques in Hot Springs are keeping it alive with a beautiful assemblage of antique writing accessories.
The McFarlands’ collection encompasses not just pens but everything one would have needed to execute the written word. There are, for example, traveling spring-loaded leather inkwells made to close tightly for transport, as well as a portable lap desk with military handles from the 1840s. “An important person keeping records on a day-to-day basis would have had that piece,” Mac says.
There are also accessories meant for display on a desk. One of the most prized is a rosewood inkstand with a bronze handle and scrolled feet, cut glass inkwells and a drawer with lock and key, likely owned by a person of great wealth. “In those days, people who had servants in the house locked everything away,” Mac says. Its intricacy dates it to the pre-Industrial Revolution era, before machine assembly led to simpler designs. In contrast, a smaller, less expensive oak inkwell, probably made in the 1920s, has the same components, including a handle and drawer, but with less detail.
The McFarlands’ collection also boasts an enamel-painted dore bronze inkstand originating in France, and a stunning figural horse version with a polished brass finish. “Bronze is more valuable than brass, which is often patinaed to resemble bronze,” explains Sue. How inkwells would be used and by whom influenced the materials used in their design. The McFarlands once possessed a post office inkwell made from sturdy pewter, while styles owned by less prominent individuals were made from chimney or sewer tile and churned out by the thousands.
The art of writing, which dates back to the Chinese and Egyptians in 2500 B.C., and its tools have developed over the course of many centuries. Ink formulas were once stored in powder form and put into solution in small amounts as needed. As they became more complex they were produced by specialists, purchased and stored in a dry place before being mixed with water and used from an inkbottle. And in 1836, Henry Stevens developed the first mixture to stay in solution and be sold in bottles. Mac notes that it wasn’t until the 1890s that fountain pens were made that could be filled rather than dipped in ink, with early manufacturers like Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman still producing quality specimens today.
“Consider a set of letters from someone like Thomas Edison, the value in what he wrote and the beauty of his penmanship,” says Mac, touting tradition. “Today, we type an electronic message, press send and it’s gone. It’s not the same. It’s nice to have something tactile to help remember what once was.”
Tips for Collectors
1. An inkwell’s value may depend on the type of wood used, so wood identification is important. Rosewood, which is very valuable, has a reddish grain pattern and a floral smell, and is often confused with mahogany, which doesn’t have the fine black or white rings present in rosewood grain. Other varieties include oak and ebony.
2. “Wood has a certain moisture content, and can start to break up if it gets too dry,” Mac says. He suggests polishing with beeswax or Old English.
3. Expect to pay anywhere between $500-3,000 for a well-constructed antique inkstand made from quality materials.
4. Remember to differentiate between a liner, inkwell and inkstand—the liner, which holds the ink, lines an inkwell, which may be fitted into a larger inkstand that houses several writing instruments.
5. Keep an eye out for ink erasers, blades with sterling silver or wooden handles once used to scrape away wax-based ink.