V., my good friend, moved to Casa Dorinda in Montecito, and before she moved, she sent me a picture of an inkwell that she had owned in her family since 1896. She had wondered about it for years and wanted to know the value.
Back in the days of businesses with big desks, people used 11 to 30 tools, including an inkwell, which held up to three or more colors of ink — red being important, and of course, black, and more.
You had a fountain pen, a blotter that covered about a 3-foot surface of the desk and heavy porous papers needing an anchor at both ends. Those anchors were generally bronze or brass and were called “blotter ends.” And they were decorative.
Adding to this was the loose paper rack for stationary, a pen tray because a pen could leak if not put into a tray and a rocker blotter. And that meant that once you wrote something on paper, you must have had a blotter to soak up the extra ink. You had a utility box for paper clips, a calendar frame, a notepad holder and a letter opener.
In the past, handwriting was necessary to accomplish a business deal. When I see how folks today run their office from one cell phone, I remember that a real desk with implements was highly important. The desk set was a central feature of any business person’s desk, and, moreover, was composed of all the elements above.
No one writing at businesses earlier than the 1910s and especially from 1890 to 1905 could be without such sets. These were “showy.”
V’s inkwell was part of a set. A lone inkwell was not done. In fact, we see that the top of V’s inkwell has a monogram, and that was par for the course, because these desk sets were gifts in the best families.
“AHE,” it says.
This inkwell went with a set for a female ancestor of V’s, because it is so delicate. It is a blown glass base with tiny air bubble designs.
The inkwell is English, but blown in the Italian manner. Those little air bubbles were originated by the Italian glass blowers of Murano in the 16th century, and the English glass blowers learned from them, or, in many cases, Italian glass blowers came to the continent.
Thus we learn that a desk set was de rigor and that these desk sets. And before the typewriter came on the scene in the 1910s, these desk sets were all about handwritten letters.
To put the valuation of V.’s inkwell in context, I focus now on the period of her inkwell 1890-1905 and evaluate other inkwells of the period to see where V.’s fits. One could have purchased a complete top of the line Tiffany desk set, with 11 to 30 elements that were strewn across the desk, and those today in bronze would be worth $3,000 to $30,000.
In 1919, one could have purchased for one’s wife who (of course) only wrote letters to family, a lovely Lalique inkwell in black deco inspired glass, and those today are worth $3000.
Earlier than the Deco inkwell, one could have purchased an American Brilliant cut glass inkwell which today, with a sterling cap, also monogrammed, would be worth $600.
If you had forward design taste in 1910 you would have purchased a Tiffany or Steuben Favrile glass inkwell, which might have been blown in, at $2,000 and up.
Tiffany because they loved exotic patterns in bronze might have sold you in 1903 a Zodiac pattern motif on your inkwell.
If you were interested in phrenology, the study of the shape of the head to tell a malcontent’s pathology, you might have purchased a milk glass head shaped inkwell, on which a forehead snapped open. Those today sell for $2,000 and up.
I would put the value of V’s lovely little lady’s inkwell at $600.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.