The Laptop Computer is Nothing New: The History of Writing Boxes

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone invented a device or a storage-facility that could hold all your documents and word-processing hardware and software and lock it up safely, out of reach of fiddly hands and out of sight of prying eyes? A storage facility that was portable and light and handy and which you could take with you anywhere that you wished, and which you could, in a pinch, open and access all those documents that you so desperately needed?

“Yeah we have that. They’re called laptops”, someone might say.

But what about the days before the laptop? What if you were travelling from London to New York or New York to Los Angeles or Melbourne to Hong Kong a hundred years ago and you had a whole heap of documents to bring with you that you couldn’t just stuff into a briefcase. What then?

Enter the Georgian answer to a “Generation @” question. How to store your files and folders when you’re on the move: The Writing Box.

What is a Writing Box?

Also called a writing case, dispatch case, dispatch box, writing chest or lap-desk, a writing box was mankind’s answer to the laptop computer in the days before…well…laptops! These boxes or cases were designed to be desks or offices…packed into a box. They ranged from the plainest of plain-Jane boxes, to the most elaborate, fanciful, foppish boxes that you could imagine, inlaid with pretty woods, ivory, pearls and other wonderful materials that did absolutely nothing to the practicality of the box and only increased its weight. But, whether a banged-up ‘entry’ model or a super-deluxe model, writing boxes were designed to hold everything a 19th century professional gentleman needed for correspondence and business and were stocked with everything that one could expect to find in an office, study, den or standard bureau desk of the era.

Such boxes typically came equipped with locks, keys, a writing-surface, inkwells, lightwells, pen-trays, pidgeon-holes, storage-spaces for such essentials as paper, seals, sealing-wax, nibs, postage-stamps, envelopes, pencils, money and enough little hidden compartments to spirit away the Crown Jewels right under the nose of the queen. They really were offices in a box. They were the iPads of their day, transforming a huge, bulky thing like this…

…into a compact little thing like this, small enough to put in your steamer-trunk:

Isn’t that just lovely!?

The History of Writing Boxes

In a day before passwords, ID numbers, retina-scanners and fingerprint-readers, professional men were always on the lookout for a way to safeguard all their precious documents such as private letters, deeds, wills and testaments and other important pieces of paper…like birthday cards from mummy.

To hide these things from prying eyes (especially those birthday cards!), men would store these papers in boxes when they weren’t at their desks, and lock them to keep them secure. The first writing-boxes like these were descendant from “bible-boxes” and came into being in the 1600s. Bible-boxes were used to…as the name suggests…store bibles in, during an era when bibles were expensive, handwritten documents worth their weight in gold and liable to be stolen.

Eventually, in the second half of the 17th century, such ‘bible-boxes’ were repurposed or the design was taken and improved, and the first incarnation of the writing-box appeared on the scene, as a rectangular box with a sloping lid. The box held papers and the sloping lid was the writing surface. They looked a bit like this:

This bible-box with a sloping lid for reading and writing dates from 1673

Such boxes provided a ‘desk on the move’ for such people as merchants, members of the clergy and professional men of the turn of the 18th century. But pretty soon you’ll see a big problem with these boxes.

They’re not squared off.

In the blocky world of the 1700s, where squarish chests and trunks and boxes were stacked onto the rooves of carriages and sent rattling and bumping halfway across Europe and America, a box with an irregular, sloping lid was difficult to pack and wasted space when it came time for people to pack up their new, 2hp fourwheeled carriage for the drive from London to Bath in 1725. A better and more practical design was needed.

As the 1700s progressed, some smart fellow realised that if he sliced a rectangle in half, diagonally, and moved the cutting-line so that it was slightly off, when this was applied to a box, when the lid was opened and laid down flat, a complete, compact writing-slope could be created for anyone who wanted to use it. When business was done, the slope was simply folded up into a neat little box. Such was the basic form of the writing box for the next two hundred years.

A writing box from 1790. Note the diagonal cut on the side of the box which would allow it to be opened up to present a sloped writing-surface for the user, and the spare drawer in the side of the box for storing writing-equipment

Once the form of the box was established and the basic design had been finalised, writing boxes became wildly popular. Maybe people in their wigs, tricorne hats and long coats lined up outside the local carpenter’s shop at 4:30 in the morning to get the new iBox 1.1 in 1730 or something.

Such was the popularity of the writing box that they started being used by and for everyone and everything. Their practicality and portability allowed them to be carried on journeys, on long sea-voyages, on military campaigns, scientific and geographic expeditions and even for a trip out of town to visit the Duke for the weekend shooting-party. It was during this time that writing boxes became fine pieces of craftsmanship, handmade by cabinetmakers, carpenters and skilled artisans. They ranged from sturdy, utilitarian pieces with brass-edgings to protect the wooden corners from damage…

…to exquisite, five-star models with inlaying on the outside of the case, brass handles, beautiful leather writing-slopes and lots of secret compartments:

As time progressed, writing boxes only became more and more popular and people from all walks of life, both men and women, carried them around for their own personal use. Unlike a desk which was a piece of furniture that anybody used, a writing box was considered a personal and private accessory, like a woman’s handbag or a man’s briefcase. Only your most personal and important documents or necessities were stored within its sides.

In trying to understand why writing boxes lasted so long, one has to understand the nature of correspondence, communication and just good-old-fashioned pen-pushing back in the “good old days”. Even in the third quarter of the 19th century, writing boxes remained essential pieces of travelling kit and they were essential when you consider what they were used for.

Why, for example, were writing-boxes carried everywhere? Surely it was easier to carry a pen?

Well…the first practical fountain pens didn’t finally show up until around 1895. Before then, a dip-pen and inkwell was the only way to go. Before you could get ink that was bottled in safe, screw-top, leakproof bottles, a travelling inkwell, which had a lid that locked securely and a rubber or leather seal to prevent leakage, was the only ink supply you were likely to get. And with the dip-pen shaft came the little box of nibs or ‘pens’ as they were called then, that went with it. This was a lot of things to carry around in your pocket when all you wanted to do was write “c u back @ home 2nite” on the back of your Victorian calling-card at King’s Cross Station in London.

Writing boxes therefore carried everything that you needed to do business. Mostly though, they were used for correspondence. Most likely, their contents included seals and sealing-wax, stamps, a couple of envelopes, notepaper, nibs or quills and a pen-shaft. All writing-boxes also had a dedicated slot or alcove where a sealed inkwell would sit. Such wells usually came with the box as a set.

Apart from the fact that writing on the move was rather tricky before the invention of the fountain pen, the fact of the matter was that a lot of Victorians and Georgians carried around a frightful amount of paper with them, especially when travelling. Before the age of the electric telegraph in the 1840s and 50s, sending a letter was easy. Receiving a reply could take months! To cope with likely memory-loss, most people wrote two letters! One for themselves and one to send to their friend or member of their family. That’s why all those old-fashioned desks have those pidgeon-holes. When it took three months to get a reply, you wanted to be damn sure you remembered what you mentioned in your letter in the first place! This accounts for why writing-boxes had so many cubbyholes and storage-spaces underneath the writing-slopes.

The Victorian Writing Box

Writing boxes in all honesty, probably didn’t die out until well into the 20th century and each era had its own special designs of writing-boxes. Elaborate Victorian boxes looked very different from their Stuart grandparents in the 1660s, since the Victorians were communicating faster with more people and had more papers and documents to store. Telegrams and letters meant that news moved faster and secrets had to be kept even safer. While secrecy was still important and it wasn’t uncommon for such boxes to have secret compartments, emphasis moved more to storage and organisation than anything else.

Here is a series of photos detailing what a writing box belonging to a businessman or other wealthy professional who did a good deal of travelling, would have looked like in the 1880s up to the turn of the 20th century:

Typical in design of most boxes from the middle-Georgian era up to the turn of the 20th century, this three-fold writing box is representative of the fine, top-quality boxes made during the the heyday of this unique piece of office-equipment. Swathed in black leather on the outside and navy blue leather inside, this box measures 10.5in. wide by 6.5in. high and 15in. long. It is fitted with brass hinges, propping hinges, locks and a folding handle on the lid.

Unlocking the box and raising the lid reveals the three smooth panels of ivory which collectively were called an “aide memoire” (Latin. Literally ‘Memory Aide’) which was basically a really fancy notebook for you to jot down any quick notes that you needed to remember, with a pencil. These pencil-marks could later be erased with the wipe of a damp cloth. The dark blue leather is also visible along with the pen-tray and the two boxes for “LIGHT” (matches) and “INK” (a travelling inkwell).

When opened, the underside of the lid reveals compartments for storing papers as well as sleeves for holding the writing box’s original desktop implements, made of elephant-tusk ivory:

This panel on the underside of the lid slides into a recess behind it so that the top of the box can close and lock smoothly down upon the part below it. The ivory utensils comprise of a letter-opener, a paper-folder, an old pencil (sadly, not made of ivory!) and an ivory-shafted parchment-scraping knife, used to remove dried ink from paper by scraping the edge of the knifeblade over the parchment to remove the stained paper-fibres. The black, leather sheath is marked with “JOSEPH RODGERS & SONS / CUTLERS TO HER MAJESTY”. The Joseph Rodgers company was a famous manufacturer of cutlery, ranging from first-class silverware to paperknives to fine gentlemen’s grooming equipment (err…straight razors!).

The paper or parchment-folder (the thin piece of ivory above the pencil) is an interesting implement used by only a few people today…mostly book-restorers and bookbinders…and which was used to help fold letters and handmade envelopes back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Modern envelopes are a relatively new invention and before their arrival, most letters were themselves folded into their own, handmade envelopes before the whole thing was sealed with wax, addressed and posted. A paper-folder such as that one was used to make sure that the lines and folds of the letter were clean and crisp and as tight as possible, so that it could be folded up to make its own envelope.

Removing the pen-tray from between the “LIGHT” and “INK” boxes reveals the secret compartment underneath (which these boxes were famous for having), which served as extra storage-space for writing necesities such as nibs, extra pen-shafts, sealing-wax and sealing-stamps. Postage-stamps might also be stored down there.

Modern matchsticks as we know them today, were invented in the 1820s and they were soon given their own little boxes in writing boxes, along with their partners, the travelling inkwell:

These matches are the original strike-anywhere ‘vesta’ matches. The inkwell has had a modern, plastic insert put inside it to replace the original liner (probably made of either glass or ceramic) which has been lost over the last hundred or so years. Matchboxes like the one pictured also came with a specially inbuilt striking-surface and match-holder to put the lit match in while lighting a cigarette or, as was probably more common, lighting a candle or a stick of sealing wax:

The match-holder is the small, round hole in the bottom right of the matchbox, below the striking-surface.

Another famous feature of all writing boxes was that the leather writing-slopes had leaves which could be lifted up to reveal extra storage for paper underneath. And this one is no exception:

Another common feature on boxes such as this was the catch on the bottom leaf of the writing-slope, to prevent the leaf from falling open when the box was folded up and locked:

This particular box was manufactured by the Toulmin & Gale Company of London and dates to about 1885-1890 and it’s part of my personal collection of writing instruments and paraphernalia. It was also the inspiration for this article.

Writing Boxes Today

Once an essential piece of luggage for anyone travelling further than six feet from a desk or a public inkwell, writing boxes eventually died out as practical pieces of office-equipment and convenient desks-in-a-box during the 20th century. The invention of the fountain pen and the growing popularity of the mechanical typewriter meant that it was easier to write and correspond on the move without carrying around what would soon become a historical curiosity. As reservoir fountain pens became cheaper and more widely available, boxes such as the one above were soon forgotten. Their very historical significance was forgotten the moment the latest Parker or Sheaffer or Waterman hit the shelves of stationers’ shops all over the world and many were shoved away into attics, basements or just plain thrown out. For that reason, they can be treasured and valuable antiques today, worth anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Many writing-boxes were simply trashed, smashed and thrashed, their locks broken, leaves ripped out, inkwells smashed or lost and their secret compartments destroyed. Some were repurposed as sewing-boxes, piggybanks, nick-nack nooks and other, more practical things.

Many of the surviving examples from the Georgian or Victorian era, such as the ones featured in this article, are more often than not, locked away in museums behind glass cases where people can see them and appreciate them from a distance. Boxes of a quality such as the one in my collection are quite rare and are usually museum-pieces. Boxes which are as in good a condition as mine and which as complete as mine are rarer still – many of them have all their utensils broken, broken up or just plain lost over the fifty or more years since these boxes were ever used as desks on the move.

If you own a writing box such as one that might be featured in this article, be it one that you bought at an antiques shop or which you inherited from family…Look after it. They are rare and beautiful pieces of writing history which should be treasured for centuries to come.