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Primary Source of the Month
Inkstand, ca. 1795, with quill cloth, reproduction quills, and handwritten letter.
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Closeup of inkstand, ca. 1795. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
This silver-plated inkstand is globe-shaped with a folding lid. It is decorated with leaf shapes, an acorn finial on top, and four female masks around the edge with with floral festoons between them. The inkstand contains three blue glass bottles with silver-plated tops. The bottle with three holes in its lid is for holding quills. Quills must be kept damp with water to stay viable. The bottle with one hole in its lid contains ink, and the bottle with many holes in its lid contains sand.
Quills were commonly made from the outer wing feathers of geese, but could also be made from swan or crow feathers. The feathers were dried and the inner membrane removed. They were then cleaned and hardened, and the end of each feather was cut using a pen knife to create a nib. The hardness of the quill determined how often the nib needed to be recut.
The most common form of ink was iron gall ink. It was made from oak galls, which are growths that form on an oak tree when the tree is infected by wasps. The gall is ground up and mixed with iron sulfate, gum arabic, and other ingredients. The iron in the ink oxidizes over time, making the ink darker with age.
Paper in the eighteenth century was made from linen and cotton rags. Colonists bought their paper and ink, which were mostly imported from Britain. Ink could be purchased in liquid or powdered form.
Fine sand was sprinkled over a finished piece of writing to soak up extra ink and speed drying. It could also be used to prepare the paper before writing and soak up any grease. Powders used for this purpose were referred to as pounce.
The cloth seen in the image was used for removing remaining ink from the quill when it was finished being used. It was also used for removing extra ink from the quill during writing.