A Newsletter for Lovers of Early Objects

FALL 2017

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The most popular section of Gulliver's Travels is always the Lilliputian one. We seem to love miniatures, perhaps because they make us feel so big and important! Miniature furniture is particularly appealing because the maker rarely makes the miniaturization 100% accurate. Take this chest of drawers, for example. It's less than half the size of a full scale one (15" w x 11-1/4" d x 18-1/4" h), but the applied moldings are full scale. Obviously, the joiner had full-size molding planes that he used for full-size chests of drawers, and equally obviously, he was danged if he was going to make a half-size molding plane just because some eccentric customer wanted a half-size chest of drawers. And he had to use full-size pulls for the same reason. But the combination of full- and half-size proportions ended up creating a charming little piece.

All three levels have different geometric patterns: simple on the middle drawer and more complex above and below. Look closely, and you'll see that the pattern on the bottom drawer is the exact reverse of that on the top, but distorted slightly to accommodate the deeper drawer. These early joiners were not just craftsmen, they were artists: they wanted to satisfy our aesthetic sense, as well as perform a needed function.

But what was that function? The drawers are too large for spices, but they could take accoutrements, such as buckles, pins and brooches in the top drawers, and sashes, belts or collars in the lower two. Or maybe it was made for a child.

At any rate, it's very rare, it's very beautiful -- and it's for sale. Go to our website for more details.



Four rose head nails and one flat head

A length is cut from the nail rod, heated in the forge and tapered. It is then wedged in the heading tool where four blows of the hammer create the rose head or a couple for the flat head.

Nailed It!

It can often be interesting to revisit minor topics that we've not thought about in years, but have just kinda taken for granted. OK, nails provide a case in point.

Rose head nails have always been admired, perhaps because they're so obviously hand-made. We're lucky here in Ipswich, the Saugus iron works (1645-1670) had a large nailers' shop, and was a mere half a day's sail from the Ipswich wharf. Consequently, our woodworkers had access to nails aplenty. Saugus also sold nail rod, iron rods about 1/4" square, from which local blacksmiths could make their own nails.

That was not the case further south. Nails were in short supply, and seemed to be more valuable than the houses they held together. In 1645, for instance, Virginia found it necessary to pass a statute forbidding settlers from burning houses to retrieve the nails. But sometimes the opposite was the case: In 1691 an unused courthouse in Kent County, Delaware, was ordered to be burned "to get the nayles." So it's hardly surprising to find a new settler, James Cooper, writing to a London merchant in 1684, "... send no window glass nor lead, but Iron is much wanted, and nayles very much ..."

"For want of a nail, the house was lost ..."

A 16th-century inkwell with tight lid.

Christine de Pizan writing c. 1400. Her inkwell has a tight lid and a small cylinder for pounce.

Our quill cutter

Pen and Ink

Literacy was hierarchically distributed in seventeenth-century society. Most middle- and upper-class men could read and write: most the women could read, but not all could write. But though many women did not write, they did make the ink, using oak galls, gum Arabic and copperas. One late medieval recipe reads:

To make three pintes of ink: Take galls and gum, two ounces of each, and three ounces of copperas. Crush the galls and soak them for three days. Then boil them in three quartes of rain water, or water from a still pool. When they have boiled enough and the water is almost half-boiled away (I.e., no more than three pintes are left), take it off the fire, add the copperas and gum, and stir it until it is cold. Then put it in a cold, damp place. After three weeks it spoils.

The resulting ink was a pale, almost transparent grey that became darker and more legible as it dried. The brown ink that we see today on early manuscripts has not faded from black: it has darkened from pale grey. Soot was sometimes added to allow the writer to actually see what he was writing.

Oak gall ink dried and spoiled quickly, so inkwells were lidded and could be screwed tightly shut. A screw-top inkwell is not, as is sometimes thought, a traveling inkwell, it is just an inkwell.

Quill pens were made from feathers plucked in springtime from the left wing of a living goose, or for the rich, a swan. In the spring, feathers were newly grown and at their strongest and feathers from the left wing curled the right way for right-handed scribes.

Carefully selected though the feathers were, their points still wore down and needed frequent sharpening. Hence the need for "pen knives" such as this one. A quill pen in full-time use by a scribe lasted a week at the most. Some (rather obsessive) collectors of early manuscripts derive great pleasure from examining their collection to see how often the scribe needed to sharpen his quill.

In their day, quill sharpeners must have been very common. They are now very rare. Obviously, they were thrown away around 1800 when the steel nib made quill pens obsolete. Lord Byron, for one, would have lamented their passing:

Oh! nature's noblest gift -- my gray-goose quill!
Slave of my thoughts, obedient to my will,
Torn from thy parent-bird to form a pen,
That mighty instrument of little men!

See the one that we have just acquired.