Writing boxes, or writing slopes, were popular from the late 1700’s through to the late 1800’s. They were the laptops of their day-they were portable and private, they contained receptacles for inkwells (that didn’t spill), pens, writing paper, a ruler (flat or round), envelopes, stamps, sealing wax and also provided a convenient surface to write on. In a time when all non-verbal communication was done with a pen and paper these essential boxes contined everything that the owner needed to communicate with other people, businesses or authorities. As with any item, they ranged from humble ones to very sophisticated items. For instance some had integral candle sconces so that the owner could write at night, drawers, secret drawers and other hiding spots where you could store your valuable items. Accessibility to secret spaces was initially via a variety of sliding or spring loaded panels, but by about the 1850’s most secret drawers were situated below the pen tray and inkwells, and the cover was released by lifting up one of the side panels holding the inkwell.
Many writing boxes feature brass mounts on corners and edges. These would have helped to protect the edges of the box in its travels, although the above box is described on the makers label as a “Camp writing desk”. So-called Campaign furniture and equipment was made for military officers, explorers and administrators travelling to the far flung corners of the British Empire. All pieces were cleverly and robustly made to withstand the rigours of travel to places where the roads, if they even existed, were not for the faint hearted. Items like the writing box enabled the owner to write reports and correspondence on his travels.
As fashion changed so did the decoration of the writing box. From the simple elegance of mahogany in the Georgian period, through to the fussiness of the Victorians, from rosewood veneer, to oak, walnut and inlays of brass and exotic timbers, and even papier mache. Sizes varied from extra large to small, with the smaller ones usually for ladies or students.
Jane Austen wrote her novels on her writing box and Thomas Jefferson composed the American Declaration of Independence on his.