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The Instruments of Writing

I’ve just returned from a fantastic conference in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Women’s Writing Instruments in the Eighteenth Century.

We learned about the types of things that a woman would have at her desk when she sat down to write, including seals, wax, ink, quills, knives, scissors, and inkstands and the way many of those objects were manufactured to generate some kind of longing in the writer’s mind — pastoral images on desktops or heart-shaped ink-pots.

We also learned about the nature of letter writing in the eighteenth century, which was one of the ways women spent much of their time at their desks, and the habits of how paper was often used in these contexts. Albums, too, were discussed, books that are particularly interesting because they reveal historical practices of transcription but also social inscription (writing in each other’s books).

Finally, there were also papers on the gendered nature of automatic writing machines (automata who could write), where the boy machines were often the writers and the girl-bots either drew or played the piano, as well papers on stories about writing instruments, like the “Adventures of a Goose Quill” or Sophie von la Roche’s biography of her desk (that was me).

In all, what it showed was how the vast array of things that were utilized in the practice of writing helped shape how individuals, and in particular women, came to understand the meaning of reading and writing. Your desk, your ink-stand and its array of smaller things inside of it, your seal which you might attach to a belt or a purse, the paper you used and where it came from, and of course the books, portraits and miniatures that surrounded you — these were all part of the meaning-making that transpired at one’s desk.

The instruments that were used to express oneself or interpret the expressions of others are an integral part of the history of how objects lend meaning to the words they convey.