15 November 2012

Anatomy of the Well-Dressed Desk, Part 4: Pen Wipes

 
A  very stylish bronze lizard pen wipe with boar bristles, ca. 1900
 
Every well-dressed desk includes fine writing tools, and we all have our personal favorite pens and pencils that perfectly suit our needs. There are many excellent sources for information on writing instruments, and one of my favorites is the very informative blog, Palimpsest. So today, rather than concentrating on writing instruments, I thought I'd introduce a lesser known desk accessory, the pen wipe.
 
A rare Tiffany glass mosaic pen wipe, 1906
 
In the early years of letter writing, before the ballpoint pen and fountain pen, writers used quills or dip pens which were dipped into an inkwell for use. Since this operation tended to result in messy drips, pen wipes were developed and came into widespread use along with the steel nib pens produced in Birmingham England in the very early nineteenth century.
 
A more humble early 19th century cloth pen wipe:
the pen nib is inserted between the layers of fabric for cleaning
 
Thankfully, our letter-writing ancestors were not content to simply use a scrap of fabric to clean their pens. Pen wipes were made in countless ingenious forms, from hand-sewn discs of cloth with embroidered embellishments, to fine figurative sterling silver examples. Usually measuring no more than 3 inches across, they make helpful and alluring writing mascots.
 
A sterling silver pig pen wipe with boar bristles, hallmarked Birmingham, 1912
 
Even today, a carefully chosen pen wipe can be a charming and functional addition to a handsome desk. I favor fountain pens for my correspondence, and have found that not only are my little pen wipes enjoyable to use, but they've become something of a record of the colored ink experiments that accompany my letter writing, like a well used artist's palette.
 
A recent commission at the bindery for a fountain pen enthusiast:
A set of stacking fountain pen trays and a matching chamois pen wipe
all made with French marbleized paper
A cold painted bronze dog pen wipe, Vienna ca. 1900
Another cold painted bronze example from Vienna, ca. 1900
A simple and handsome Sampson, Mordan & Co. Victorian pen wipe in sterling silver 
 
A 19th century tartanware pen wipe in the form of a knife box
  
The next time you find yourself scribbling on a scrap of paper to get the ink in your pen flowing, perhaps you'll be inspired by these stylish and functional objects produced by our very elegant predecessors. As William Morris said, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." Wise words, indeed.
 
 

12 comments:

  1. Hello Erika, That lizard pen-wipe is to die for, as are all of these examples. Pen-wipes were also a favorite craft item for hand-made presents, and some of these are charming. They were also a popular advertising give-away.

    The silver Sampson, Mordan example looks like a type still widely available in Taiwan. People here mostly use seals instead of signatures, with a pasty red ink instead of an American-type stamp pad, so the seals get clogged with ink, and a square brush like the one you show is used to clean them.
    --Road to Parnassus

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  2. Dear Jim,
    Thank you for your comment-- I agree with you: I'm seriously coveting that lizard as well! In my research I came across several Victorian pattern books for needlpoint and other hand-sewn pen wipes, and as I am a devoted needleworker, I'm tempted to give these patterns a try... If I get to this project, I'll be sure to post the results!

    I am so intrigued by the Taiwanese seal wipes/cleaners-- I'm going to do a search and see if I can find any images of what sounds like a fascinating group of objects. I'd love to have a monogrammed seal made and find a brush to go with it. I'll have to add this to my "saved searches" on eBay!!
    Thanks so much & best regards,
    Erika

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  3. Dear Erika,

    I have a feeling that the bronze lizard is going to garner the most votes, though I've always been attracted to tartanware (I could easily start another collection!). As Jim said, pen wipes made perfect handmade gifts, and I remember that my mother recalled making felt pen wipes as holiday gifts for her grandparents, when she was a child.

    Mark

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    1. Dear Mark,
      Thank you for your message-- I know just how you feel about tartanware: I have a few pieces and have to constantly restrain myself when I see new pieces at my favorite antique dealer's shop...

      How charming that your mother made felt pen wipes for her grandparents! A pen wipe is such a charming and useful object-- perfectly suited as a craft project for children (and adults) with busy hands and imaginations... Surely these became treasured items for your great grandparents, who would have been reminded of their beloved grandchild every time they sat down at their desks. Do you still have them? I hope so-- I can't imagine a more appreciative home for such a treasure!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  4. Dear Erika - for me it is the silver pig with boar bristles. I have never seen one as a pen wipe before, but I have seen silver pigs with velvet backs used for holding pins when sewing. You have found some lovely examples to show.
    I noticed that you used French marbleised paper for the recent commission, and wondered if you ever marbleise your own paper? It is such good fun to do, I keep intending to give it a try myself.

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    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your message-- I couldn't resist including that very "healthy" pig! He reminds me of a certain squirrel I know...

      As for the marbled paper, we've only used handmade French and Italian papers in our work at the bindery. I have to say, I'd love to try my hand at making my own, but I'm afraid of becoming obsessed with this beautiful craft! It has all of the dangerous elements for me: beautiful pigments, interesting historical tools, handmade papers, and a skilled hand to use them... Most intriguing! But no, for now I will resist for the good of the bindery. If you ever try it, please let me know how it goes--perhaps by then my willpower will have failed and I'll join you!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  5. Dear Erika,

    Having been inspired by your blog to buy myself an old ink pen and a bottle of ink (I am going to 'try it out' tomorrow) I love the idea of ornamental pen wipes.

    I quite like the bird's nest one in Viennese bronze. I think that that would like rather nice in a desk however I think that I really like the one that looks like a shoe brush. I'm not sure why as I always hated brushing my shoes but it has just caught my eye.

    Bye for now

    Kirk

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    1. Dear Kirk,

      I'm so pleased that you enjoyed seeing these small treasures-- I think you may have to keep an eye out for one as you begin your pen and ink experiments! I can imagine any of these handsome and useful companions sitting happily on your writing desk with your wonderful pincushion hedgehog! (By the way, many pen wipes were later converted to pincushions-- could it be possible that yours was such a one?) Although I am also drawn to the figurative examples, my own small pen wipe collection consists of only sterling and brass bowl-shaped pieces, more functional in nature like the shoe-brush one shown above: still charming and great fun to use.

      I do hope you enjoy your new pen and ink! In my humble opinion, the writing that results from lovely tools is more enjoyable for both the writer and the receiver...

      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  6. Hi, Erika - Thank you for introducing pen wipes to me. Such exquisite little treasures!! I will now have to hunt down a few....for the shop and myself :) I'm very fond of the animal forms. Are they very difficult to find? And pricey? Enjoyed this lovely post. Have a wonderful and warm Thanksgiving!
    Very best,
    Loi

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    1. Dear Loi,
      Thank you for your kind words-- I'm so glad that you enjoyed seeing these pieces! Like you, I love the figurative ones, although, sadly, I have none in my little collection yet. After discovering my first pen wipe in my favorite local antiques shop, I searched online (Google) and have found several more through eBay (UK), Etsy and other online dealers. They can cost anywhere from $200- $1000, depending on rarity, like all things! As I mentioned to Kirk, sometimes dealers convert them to pincushions, so keep an eye out for beautiful examples in that category, too. I'm sure you'll find some lovely examples for your home and shop-- I'd love to see what you choose! Please let me know if you'd like me to email you when I come across a special example-- it would be my pleasure!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  7. A great collection of pen wipes! I wonder whether the bristles worked better than the simple cloth. They look pretty rough, but I guess they weren't.

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  8. Dear Lito,
    Thank you for your kind words. I have three bristled pen wipes and a two cloth ones, and it seems to me that they have slightly different uses. The cloth is best for eliminating excess ink before beginning to write and for wiping the pen clean immediately after. The bristles are wonderful when (I confess) I've left the pen too long and the ink has dried... It flakes off beautifully and allows for prompt "redipping"! Perhaps the well-dressed desk requires one of each-- twice the fun, to my mind!
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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