The 19th Century Writing Box

What a joy it is when beauty and function are combined!

On a recent research jaunt into the vaults of the interweb, I discovered what a remarkable collection of items were made to facilitate the Victorians’ love of writing. In particular I was fascinated by their equivalent of the laptop – the lap desk/box or portable escritoire.

The precursor to the writing box was the bible box. As these books were very costly, the box provided a safe way to transport them. Some had a slanted or angled top with a lower lip, meant to hold the Bible for reading, when the box was placed on a table; a type of portable lectern.

1718 Bible Box


Boxes for holding ink and pens had been in existence for some time but it was during the dying decades of the 18th century that they came into widespread use. Increased travel and war necessitated access to a stable surface to write upon with handy storage for pens, paper and ink. Army officers had their own boxes, using them both for army business and for writing home. Whether you were on a military campaign, writing to your nearest and dearest while on a prolonged sojourn at a country pile, or a young buck off on the Grand Tour, the portable desk became a staple travel accessory. They had to withstand the rough and tumble of strenuous journeys, sometimes strapped to the outside of a coach, exposed to all kinds of weather.

A huge and beautiful selection of all shapes and sizes, have survived and I have to admit to some serious envy.

Captain’s Box c. 1810


A Captain’s Writing box was a brass bound box, usually of mahogany. This sample is English, made around 1810. They were made in this shape to make travel easier but when opened contained a sloping writing surface. Compartments for ink, pens and paper where also provided.




Here is a more ornate example of Indian Sandal wood, trimmed in ivory.

19th Century

The boxes ranged from extremely plain in the early part of the 19th century to those which were more ornate as people exercised their personal taste. Many a famous letter, novel, postcard or dispatch was born on a lap desk. Many a love letter was locked away in a secret compartment too!



Early 19th century examples tended to have thick veneers of mahogany, rosewood, yew or fruitwoods with brass inlays, fine lines or floral swags. Some had fine mother of pearl inlay on the lids and marquetry of naturalistic, neo-classical or geometric designs.

Later examples could be made of mahogany or pine with a thin veneer in walnut, maple, chestnut or rosewood. More expensive boxes had thicker veneers. Brass bindings were glued and secured by small brass studs with the exterior and interior french polished and glossy and secret drawers and compartments were common.

Such a shame that the art of letter writing is disappearing – who wouldn’t want to use one of these?




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