Inkwells are as old as the written word. The first inkwells were probably just fist-sized stones with depressions in them, offering scribes a natural container in which to mix powdered pigments with various types of solvents for their quills and other primitive dipping pens. As the art of writing advanced, soapstone, onyx, and marble were cut and carved into elaborate vessels for ink. Ceramics, glass, metal, shell, plastics, and even wood have all been pressed into service as inkwells.

Prior to the widespread use of fountain pens in the 1800s, people would have to carry ink with them if they wanted to write while on the road. Portable inkwells, sometimes called travel wells or travelers, were devised for this purpose. A variation on the travel well was the scribe case, which combined a container for ink with an attached holster for the pen.

Scribe cases were often made of cast brass that had been chased, incised, or enameled. Lids for the inkwell part of the case were usually hinged while the covers at the end of the pen holder were typically press-fitted.

Designers went to great lengths to prevent the ink inside their travel wells from leaking. Usually the well itself, which was often made of glass, was housed within a box to protect it from breaking. The seal for the well was also carefully engineered, sometimes combining a hinged lid with tabs that the lid would lock into. By the mid-1880s, certain types of travelers made from metal or a hardwood called gutta-percha could be screwed shut.

The things most people picture, though, when they think of inkwells are the decorative objects found on desks. Because the ink in these wells was not being transported about, decoration rather than engineering dominated these pieces. For example, the ceramic inkwells produced at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries ran from elaborately glazed and gilt Limoges, Meissen, and Noritake porcelain to bulky stoneware pieces. Wedgwood produced Jasperware inkwells, Gouda made tin-glazed ones, and Japanese inkwells imported to the United States between 1891 and 1921 were labeled Nippon.

For those who collect glass, Tiffany inkwells are particularly prized, although there are plenty of more affordable pieces in pressed, vaseline, and milk glass. Glass factories from France to Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic, produced Art Nouveau inkwells with frosted curving shapes or iridescent surfaces. Geometric designs were also popular, especially during the Art Deco era.

Metal, of course, was a favorite material, although sometimes bases made of brass, cast iron, or copper were designed to hold cut-glass wells. These inkwells often had places for a pen, or even two or three. Some inkwells were integrated in the bases of lamps, others incorporated calendars. And many were shaped like animals, including roosters, horses, dogs, and elephants.

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