The Atlantic brings us an interesting piece on… portable word processors, from the 17th century.
Writing boxes, popular from the 17th century, provided the same pleasure as today’s laptops and custom word processors: to make the experience of writing pleasurable.
Writing is a mobile art. People do it on laptops, tablets, and phones. They write—or type—while walking, waiting for a doctor appointment, commuting to work, eating dinner. Although writing’s mobility might seem a product of modern digital gadgetry, there’s nothing new about writing on the move. Digital tools are but the latest take on a long tradition of writing in transit.
These writing boxes, mind you, were in fact actual boxes; typically made of wood, light and portable but big enough to store writing materials like paper, inks and envelopes, these were sloped to provide you with the best writing angle on the go. Perhaps more than efficiency, they created a certain kind of glorious aura around the art of writing — which surely still holds up today, in different forms.
In 17th- and 18th-century Europe and America, storage boxes of all kinds proliferated: Bible boxes, bridle boxes, voting boxes, keepsake boxes for a baby’s first tooth and lock of hair, and photo boxes, among others. Writing boxes stored physical writing tools as well as ephemeral fruits of writing—traces of literacy, ritual, and memory.
I was baffled to learn that so many artists had them: Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. Alexander Pope even insisted that his own, personal writing box was to be placed on his bed before he woke up, so he could immediately start writing before he even got up and out of his bed.
These boxes were, then, a device that enabled the writing mood despite its surroundings; it wouldn’t matter if you were on your writing box on a bedroom, or a tent in the battlefield. Writing would just happen, in its own beautiful dedicated invisible bubble.
These were not just plain wood planks put together, oh, no. With time, these got to be personalised, highly decorated and fashionable portable items, even coming with “themes” to suit the personality of their owners and writers:
Mechanically, writing was still a complicated affair in the 1700s and 1800s. The writing box thus solved a practical problem. People needed a way to carry dip pens, pen nibs, and inkwells, as well as paper, stamps, and envelopes.
As practicality led to widespread use, writing boxes became decorative, too. Designed and built by skilled artisans and woodworkers, writing boxes were embellished with high-quality velvet interiors, brass details, leather slopes, engravings, and clever hidden drawers. Writing boxes were personal possessions as much as emblems of social position.
Online testimonials about writing boxes make plain the aesthetic, evocative power these objects accord to writers and writing. On an online forum
in 2012, one commenter posted, “I have at long last managed to get round to taking some photos of my victorian writing slope. It gives me such immense pleasure to write on it!”
So much to write about… a box. I wish I was writing this newsletter on one, too, but sadly, just my boring Macbook, which is neither sloped or made of wood. It also has no room for wax, inks, or even postcards. Let’s make writing boxes come back, please.