Antique Writing Boxes

In conjunction with the uniquely crafted Indian and Chinese boxes featured in The Story by Saffronart, Medha Kapur shares a note on Antique Writing Boxes or Lap Desks 

An Organizer Table
The Story by Saffronart

Mumbai: Writing boxes or lap desks have existed for many centuries and in many cultures. More of a personal possession than the writing desk or table, these were mainly used by men and were also a symbol of social status. Essentially, writing boxes were small enough to be carried anywhere and often traveled with the owner. Antique lap desks had hinged writing surfaces, often covered in leather or felt, that flipped up to reveal storage space for papers. Individual compartments were designed to hold inkwells, pens, sealing wax, and other writing implements. Some desks also had concealed storage compartments.

From the late 1700s, writing boxes were frequently used in military expeditions and travels, besides libraries and drawing rooms. Several famous pieces of literature, contracts, letters and postcards have been penned on them. These boxes were hugely popular among army officers, who used them to write letters to their loved ones, as well as for business.

In the middle of the 18th century, with industrialization, land reforms, new mechanical inventions and expanding overseas trade coming into play, there was a need for goods to be transported. This led to a boom in personal travel as well. Portable writing boxes became obligatory for more people as they transacted, traveled or wrote letters from home. Education was revived on many levels of society to cope with the new needs. These boxes were an item that connected with intellectuals; however, the style, quality, ornament and form of the desk also played an important role.

Thomas Jefferson's Desk-1776

Thomas Jefferson’s Desk-1776

Thomas Jefferson conceptualized a design for a small lap desk that could be taken anywhere. This desk, one of numerous inventions Jefferson devised for his own convenience, was designed in May 1776 and built by Benjamin Randolph, a Philadelphia cabinetmaker and prominent patriot. Randolph built the desk for Jefferson based on his plans, using solid mahogany with inlays at both ends. Though small, the desk must have proved a very difficult project, with lots of fine, delicate details to be taken into account. The desk, being small and portable, provided the perfect companion to Jefferson during his travels, allowing him the comfort of reading and writing wherever he roamed. Many of Jefferson’s letters, memos and papers were composed on the desk, and it was also used in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson carried the desk with him until the year he died – at which point it was passed on to his grandson-in-law, Joseph Coolidge.

Another interesting writing box from the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a late 16th or early 17th century example from India, probably Gujarat or Sindh. This box consists of sections made from diverse materials including tin, wood, ivory and bone.

Writing box from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Writing box from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Similar to these pieces is the unique Munim Chest or money lender’s box, part of the collections Boxed on The Story by Saffronart.

Munim Chest

Munim Chest
The Story by Saffronart

Munim Chest

Munim Chest
The Story by Saffronart

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