Little is recorded of silver, used in England for writing, before the time of the Commonwealth (1649-1660). There are references to two standishes in the inventory of plate belonging to King Henry VIII dated 1520. One is of Spanish origin, the other probably English marked with a lion.

Sir Robert Cecil’s inventory dated 1612 lists silver plate at the houses of Theobalds and Hatfield. It groups “white plate commonly used in the house” into different categories including “silver for writing”. Sir Robert had two silver standishes, one weighing 56 ounces, but they have not survived.

Other inventories from the same period describe silver dust boxes, boxes to hold pens and seals for attaching seals to official documents, but we do not have examples to see.

The only known surviving hall-marked standish from before the Civil War is that of Sir John Noble made in 1630 It is 5 and a half inches high and holds 2 pens, an inkpot, a pounce pot and a box of sealing wafers.

Until the middle of the sixteenth century it was not considered proper for a noble or titled gentleman to write his own letters himself. The writing of documents and letters was delegated to resident or itinerant scriveners. Itinerant scribes carried with them their own inkhorn, quill box, sand box and knife, usually in a leather case. Few were wealthy enough to afford silver. There are references in the sixteenth century to the use of penners. These were tubular boxes some 5 to 6 inches long with compartments for ink powder and for short quills, often with a finial at one end bearing a personal seal. Some of these boxes were made of silver.

In his portrait of 1625 King Charles I is depicted using a silver penner which contained a penknife for sharpening quills. A few other penners from the seventeenth century still exist in silver collections, but none from earlier times (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 2

From the mid seventeenth century English standishes were shaped like a rectangular casket. The lid opened fully from hinges at the back or from hinges halfway across the top. Inside were several compartments, one for an inkpot, one for a pounce pot and one to hold wafers. Some had a long tray inside at the back, others stood raised with a shallow drawer underneath to hold quills and quill sharpeners. The trays were known as pen boxes. This basic style of standish became known as the Treasury pattern. This plain type continued to be used in offices until the nineteenth century. A full set of hallmarks were required on the casket. Each of the moveable parts needed only the maker’s mark and a silver mark (Figure 2).

By the end of the seventeenth century domestic standishes changed to the tray type. In its simplest form an oblong tray on four feet carried an inkpot and a pounce pot and a hand bell. The bell would call a servant to deliver the hand-written letter or note. The hand bell was sometimes placed over the wafer box (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Sealing wax was used to seal letters. Instead of using a table candlestick to melt the wax which had been customary, single small taper candlesticks came into use. The earliest known taperstick was made circa 1685. The taperstick became part of the inkstand. Then there was a need for an extinguisher to put out the taper after use, and the dedicated extinguisher was usually attached to the taperstick by a chain (Figure 4).

During the eighteenth century standishes often incorporated additional features. A third pot with a lid with holes was added to hold a quill immediately after use when the ink on it was wet. The tray might have a trough to hold quills and sealing wax. There could be a seal box, a quill case, a quill sharpener or penknife, and a container for lead shot used to remove thickened dried ink from quills. Large standishes became centrepieces for desks or tables and many were elaborately ornamented with flowers or figures.

Two changes were introduced to satisfy ladies who wished to lead fashion. One was to change the flat tray to a canoe shaped tray with highly curved ends which could be fitted with handles. The popularity of this change persisted into the beginning of the twentieth century (Figure 5). The second was not so successful. From 1770 to 1810 globe inkstands were made to be used in libraries. They were awkward to use and did not hold all the items necessary for writing letters, so they were dropped (Figure 6).

Figure 4
Figure 5

Such was the popularity and importance of owning a standish to inform others that members of your household could read and write that from about 1760 standishes were copied in Sheffield plate for those who could not afford silver. Sheffield plate cost less than half that of silver.

The term standish was used for an inkstand until approximately 1800. Matthew Boulton in 1772 was one of the first to use the term “inkstand “to distinguish standishes with cut glass containers with silver lids from older standishes with silver containers.

Glass inkwells and pounce bottles made of cut glass were introduced during King George III’s reign. Glass was either clear or sometimes Bristol blue. Square cut containers were fashionable. When King George IV came to the throne glass containers could be urn, vase, melon or circular in shape. Cut glass containers were secured in place on trays by guard rings or hand- pierced galleries. Silver container lids were hallmarked. These lids were loose until about 1815, after which they were hinged. In Victorian times travelling inkwells had cork stoppers and hinged lids which could be locked into place.

Figure 6

In the late 1700s and in the first half of the nineteenth century silver inkstands became cheaper. Large scale factory production of silver trays, lids for glass bottles and the use of flint glass instead of cut glass cut the cost of labour and of materials.

Inkstands remained popular during Queen Victoria’s reign. Master silversmiths competed against mass produced articles by making their own inkstands heavier and more ornate and flamboyant, along the lines of display or trophy silver.

Figure 7

Progress in allied fields resulted in inkstands becoming smaller again by the end of century. Wafers from wafer boxes were used until after 1845. After this date envelopes made by machine with adhesive to secure the flap down were introduced. Quill pens were replaced by the “drip pen” or “nib pen”, i. e. a pen with a steel nib first made in 1803 and mass produced in 1822. Blotting or bibulous paper made from rag paper replaced the gum sandarach kept in pounce pots to dry wet ink by the mid1800s. From mid Victorian times domestic inkstands often comprised only one or two silver mounted glass inkwells on a small tray (Figure 7 & 8).

Silver inkstands are rarely made now. Individual silver inkwells are still made and may have pride of place on a silver pen tray, but they are for show rather than use. A wide variety of inkstands from the nineteenth and early twentieth century are readily available for inspection and purchase but no longer used in daily life. Many old standishes have been broken up into individual pieces. Intact seventeenth and eighteenth century standishes are rare and are now collectors’ items (Figure 9).

The Silver Society is based in Sydney and has regular meetings in Melbourne. We meet six times a year to discuss an aspect of silver collecting and production. The Society also produces excellent newsletters that are emailed to financial members.

Figure 9
Figure 8

The Melbourne program for 2024 is as follows:
Tuesday 20 February:
Books for sale from the Silver Society library
Tuesday 16 April:
Favourite silver pieces in our collections: a show and tell
Tuesday 18 June:
The Flynn Brothers silversmiths.
Presenter silversmith Dan Flynn
Tuesday 20 August:
Fakes and forgeries.
Presenter Jolyon Warwick James
Tuesday 15 October:
Silversmith Stuart Devlin AO CMG
Silversmith & one-time Prime Warden Goldsmiths Hall
November 2024 TBC:
a “Silver Christmas Party” with afternoon tea at an historic Melbourne mansion

We meet early in the evening in an inner south-eastern suburbs hotel where we have privacy, meeting facilities and the opportunity to have a collegiate meal.

Some members have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of an aspect or aspects of silver manufacture and curation, others are very much in the learning stage and they are particularly welcome to join us.

Members are expected to contribute to the life of the Society by joining in and showing items that they may own and which would contribute to the discussion in hand.

Annual membership $70.00 (individual)

Please contact us if you are interested to attend a meeting:

Courtesy of the The Silver Society Newsletter

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