Writing Boxes – What Are They

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When I was in elementary school, we used old cigar boxes to house our pencils, erasers, rulers and other knick knacks in for our classes. The concept of this portable container was quite practical, especially since school backpacks weren’t invented yet. One must wonder if such an idea stemmed from the once widespread use of writing boxes. The development of the writing box was used for both business and personal activity. Portable boxes for writing materials existed for many centuries and in various cultures. These stylish and fashionable boxes were necessary during a time when the art of letter writing was popular.
A writing box was a portable desk that came in the form of a rectangular shaped box which could be placed on a table or on one’s lap. Hence, the name “lap desk” was adopted because of this purpose. Traveling was more difficult then, than it is now. Civilians and army officers needed compact, strong writing boxes, which could withstand strenuous journeys. It was prominent on military expeditions, travels and in drawing rooms, from the end of the eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century. Great literature, contracts, letters and postcards were written on its sloping surface.
When open to the writing position, there was a space designated for ink wells, pens and quills. Some earlier examples accommodated these writing accessories in a side drawer, which followed the line of the slope. Several box styles contained “secret” small drawers. Occasionally, they may have a hinge and a piece of wood that converted to a reading stand. Unlike the writing desk or table, the writing box was personal and “not” a household possession.
Quality, ornamentation and form played an important role in its selection as a personal item. Although its popularity invoked a sense of style and fashion, writing boxes were also connected with commerce, intelligence and global consciousness.
Most of the smaller boxes were made of pine, and occasionally of mahogany or oak. They were veneered in mahogany, rosewood or kingwood, carefully selected for their rich timber and exotic appearance. Small sloping boxes of the eighteenth century were designed to house sewing and writing elements. Writing boxes were multifunctional and exquisite traveling companions.
As we moved through the industrial era into the digital revolution, writing boxes lost its popularity. The advent of laptop computers modernized the portability of writing, transmitting, receiving and storing personal and business related information. Just as laptops are symbolic today for convenience and accessibility of information and communique, so was the evolution of writing boxes pertinent to the needs and daily operations of the consummate traveler, during a time when handwriting was the main artery in the flow of communication.

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