, a not-so-recent invention.
[Revised Sept 27, 2016.]
I don’t want to goose you with too many old-fashioned “inkhorn terms” [section 13], but last year I visited the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Saskatchewan where they recently acquired the Minden Glass Collection, which dates from 500 Before Zero to 1100 After Zero, and one piece in that collection especially caught my eye, an urn-shaped, emerald-green-glass inkwell.
The distinctive thing about this inkwell is that it is a very early example of what is now known as a funnel inkwell. That’s not an official name, just one used by ink bottle collectors and writing instrument researchers and historians. William E. Covill, in his 1971 book, Ink Bottles And Inkwells, has a chapter titled “Inkwells with Funnel-type Openings” on pp.315-323, with photos of 42 examples of this type of inkwell. Not all of them are dated, but the earliest dated examples, some versions with geometrically embossed sidewalls, are said to be from 1815-30. There are also a few examples with similar embossed sidewalls on the Corning Glass website. Here’s a nice cobalt blue example from 1820-50. [See more items below.] Covill writes that they are also referred to as conical, or depressed openings. He also says that they were made “over a long period of years, from the early 19th century well into the 20th”, and that they were popular because they were “not easily spilled when overturned”, and hence they were listed in catalogues as “Safety Inkstands”, and “Common Sense Inkstands”. The only problem with them is they are also not easily cleaned. Ed and Lucy Faulkner’s 2009 book Ink, 150 Years Of Bottles And Companies, 2nd edition, pp.224-5, shows a few similar geometric examples, this time dating from 1800-40. They do, however, show a rare glazed pottery version on p.232a. Leo J. Walter’s 1968 book, Walter’s Inkwells Of 1885, Book 1, p.48, reproduces an engraved illustration of an example from a stationers’ catalogue from that period with the caption “Safety Inkstand”. The catalogue for the large Charles G. Moore auction, 2-sessions in 1996 and 1997, of The Watt White Collection Of Important 19th Century Ink Bottles shows a large selection of these types of funnel inkwells and excise ink bottles in the illustrations of auction items numbered 1 to 36. The descriptions of the various items extend the date range variously to between 1775 and 1860, and some of the items are marked as “Ex. Wm. Covill Collection”.
All the above examples, however, are American. What is needed is some international flavor. In Michael Finlay’s 1990 book, Western Writing Implements, in the Age of the Quill Pen, p.146, illustration 202a shows an 18th-century leather penner. A penner is a portable container for the pocket that held a quill, and a tiny bottle of ink, and possibly other writing implements such as a penknife for mending the quill, and it looks like a cigar wallet for a single cigar. The tiny inkwell in this penner definitely has a funnel opening, which would probably have to be stoppered with a cork before being put away in the pocket. The other 16th-century inkwells on p.136, made of cuir bouilli and horn, seem to have funnel openings, but the 19th-century, glass excise and buttonhole inkwells on p.151, illustrations 216 and 217, meant to be worn in the “buttonhole” of an overcoat or jacket, or “on a suspension cord”, or in a vest pocket, definitely have “funnelled openings to prevent spillage”. The whole idea of a funnel inkwell might have come from pounce pots, or ink sanders, which usually have a concave cup on top to facilitate pouring the sand, or cuttlefish powder back into the container. Finlay shows some examples on pp.134-5. It just occurred to me that a small inkhorn inkwell could also be worn in a buttonhole. Finlay’s book has some inkhorns on p.136, and illustration 169 shows how they could be mounted on a desk top by being placed in holes, just like those in a school desk, and where they would be held safely and securely. I have also dealt with inkhorns here before in my blog post about the Carter’s trademark.
Now, here’s a funnel inkwell to blow all the others out of the international waters. It precedes the others by about 1500 years! The inkwell from the Minden collection is from Syria-Palestine, and it dates from the 1st to 2nd centuries after zero. In that case, what we need is a book titled Mid-eastern Writing Implements, in the Age of the Reed Pen. The museum accession record describes it as a “Footed, two-handled inkwell”, in other words urn-shaped. They also call it “trapezoidal-shaped”, but I’d call it cone-shaped. Same difference. It is said to have an “internal neck”, which is what I call a funnel neck, about 4 cm deep. The sloped, footed base is concave with a pontil mark where it was held by the glassblower during manufacture. It is also said to have a “flattened collar rim”. My guess is that the inkwell was made in at least two separate parts, not counting the two handles. The body of the well was made on one pontil rod, and the funnel was made on another separate pontil, possibly a pontil tube rather than a rod, and the two pieces were married together while the edges were still molten. The funnel was formed while pushing the second pontil inside the body of the well until the glass was stretched thin and cooled, and then the glass was burst off the pontil and the sharp edge was cleaned up. The rim was then flattened by pressing it against a flat surface to help bond the two parts. The “two opposing loop handles” were then applied to the shoulder of the bottle as molten glass blobs and pulled and stretched up and crimped down at the rim. The inkwell has some iridescence, and two fractures, but it’s intact, although it is partially covered with what looks like calcium and lime scale, or whitewash. It reminds me of the old rail road stock yards across rural Saskatchewan that were painted with whitewash. The white crumbs lying at the base of the little urn in the photo below are some of the scale deposits that have flaked off. Tracene Harvey, the director of the Museum of Antiquities, thinks that the white flakes are the result of the deterioration of the glass, rather than a scale deposit on the surface of the glass, but I don’t buy it. It almost looks like some sort of paint, or deposit, or encrustation.
Helanna Miazga, assistant curator at the Museum of Antiquities, is working on a description of the inkwell for a forthcoming publication on the Minden glass collection, and steered me to the website of the Corning Glass collection, and David Whitehouse’s catalogue raisonné of Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass. In volume 1, p.199, item #347 in the book, and 70.1.22 on the website, has a similar outward shape, but has a dome-topped opening instead of a funnel top. It is also dated to the Roman era, in the 1st to 2nd centuries after zero. On p.209 there is also item #360, 66.1.222 on the website, which is called a “Vessel With Lid” in the book, and is also said to be a possible inkwell, but the opening is obscured by the lid, with its elegant, little, swirled, triangular finial knob, so it’s impossible to tell whether it has a funnel opening. The Minden inkwell with its flattened rim might be missing a similar type of lid. Searching for the word inkwell in the Corning website, however, found a few items very similar to the Minden inkwell. Inkwells with accession numbers 76.1.375, and 2007.1.31, and 50.1.38 are all said to be Islamic and to date to the period 800 to 1100. The first one especially resembles the Minden inkwell, except for the lack of a footed base. And the last one looks like a scribe’s inkwell, or an excise inkwell. All three of them also have the same distinctive little handles, except that they all have four, not two. And here are two little long-lost urn cousins reunited after fifteen centuries.
The size of the opening in the first Roman inkwell in the Corning collection, item 70.1.22, is quite large, and would easily accommodate a reed pen, but the size of the opening in the Minden inkwell appears to be too small for a reed pen, and is just right for a quill pen. That places it in the age of the quill [section 2], which started in the 5th or 6th centuries. My suspicion is that the Minden inkwell dates to the Islamic era, sometime in the Islamic Golden Age from the 8th to the 13th centuries, and well within the age of the quill, which makes it precede the others by only a 1000 years! It was a time of great scientific, literary, and cultural flourishing, and a time of a lot of writing, and it was also the time when the very first fountain pen [section 3] was created.
Here are two other cobalt-blue-glass Roman inkwells with lids from the Art Institute of Chicago, accession number 1943.1166a-b, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.239, but both with clunkier, less-elegant finial knobs. Another one in aqua glass with a lid sold at a 2009 Christie’s auction. But the most interesting one is the smokey-green inkwell in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.194.119. The interesting feature that all these dome-topped, Roman inkwells share is the anti-drip lip around the shoulder, which stops the ink from running down the sides of the dome after some errant dipping. They still required this anti-drip lip because they were dome-
topped, and didn’t have funnel openings, except for the one from The Met. That one has the early beginnings of a funnel, but just an ur-funnel opening, not the full, deep funnel of the later Islamic inkwells. Another one at the Met, 17.194.124, has a reversed dome, or concave dish, which acts as a sort of makeshift, dish-shaped funnel, and makes another tentative step toward addressing the need for a full funnel opening. Seeing as they’re just two isolated examples, it’s not clear whether they could have exerted any influence on the style of the later Islamic examples.
Someone must have been first to have had the idea. Instead of a vessel with a neck pointing up, the neck was removed and replaced with a funnel pointing down. Someone must have had that eureka moment and been the first to think up a flared opening, or vortex. Instead of making an ink bottle with a spout pointing up, the glassblower made an inkwell with a funnel pointing down. The neck of the bottle was inverted and turned into a funnel. Instead of having a neck for pouring, it had a funnel for dipping. What a great concept.
Now, here’s another local inkwell, and it’s a double decker, or a double-double, as we say in Canada. It came to light locally in the bottle collection of Walter W. Brown, a bottle digger and collector living here in my province. It showed up in an untitled article in the newsletter of a local bottle collecting club, Parkland Bottle Collector, No. 12, December 1973, p.13. The signed illustration below was hand-drawn by Jan Ursulescu, also a bottle digger and collector living in this province, and the unsigned accompanying article calls it “an intriguing little pocket inkwell” that was made in two sections and “joined at the arrow”. It also notes that, “Once filled, this inkwell can only with difficulty be emptied or cleaned”, and that there is no comparable example like this one in Covill’s book. That was in 1973, just two years after the book was published. If a single funnel is hard to spill, then a double funnel would be almost impossible to spill. No cork, nor stopper, nor lid would be required at all. It was probably made in the 19th century in Britain, or somewhere on the continent, and was probably brought to the Prairies by a pioneer settler in the early 20th century. I wonder where this intriguing little funnel-funnel inkwell ended up.
A funnel inkwell is almost half way to becoming that topological oddity, the Klein bottle, a vessel with only one surface, so that it has no inside, nor outside. But it would make a perfectly unspillable scribe’s inkwell, or excise inkwell. You could carry it upside down safely, and flip it over for dipping into. The liquid would, of course, flow down into the loop to give you access for dipping. It’s the only inkwell that could be worn upside down without being sealed, and without fear of spilling. It’s upside down already, but it would have to be turned upside down again to dip into it. And as Heraclitus famously said, mutatis mutandis, or with all the relevant parts changed, “You can never dip a pen into the same ink twice”. That’s because the river of ink’s always flowing from the inkwell.