Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Interlude: Antiques in Falmouth

For as long as I can remember, antiques have been a part of my life; my husband describes (in a nice way) the house I grew up in as "a museum," since not only is it quite old (by US standards, that is), but it's also filled with the antiques that my parents have collected over the years. In many cases, that collecting occurred during their travels. Antiquing while traveling is fun because you are often exposed to completely new items that you don't see much elsewhere, all dependent on the activities that are (or were) popular in the region where you're shopping. For instance, antiques stores in Ohio often feature the crocks in which flour was shipped on the barges and boats that traveled the rivers and canals of 19th-century Ohio. In coastal Virginia, however, you tend to find a variety of bird decoys and other nautical and/or marine-oriented goods. Even among ubiquitous items (furniture, for instance), there are often strong regional trends in how they were made or what they were made of, which the discerning eye can begin to see and learn.

Antiquing abroad can add a whole new layer of diversity, particularly in a port town such as Falmouth. Many of the goods here originated elsewhere, or went from here to there and back again. Whatever the case, they often have quite a story to tell. I regularly pass several antiques shops on High Street during my daily walk back from school, and recently I finally saw a couple of items that I just couldn't ignore. The first--the item that originally caught my eye as I walked past the window--was this Edwardian "occasional" table:

(Our new "plant table." It's not yet in its final position, which is currently occupied by our deck table. As soon as it is warm enough to set the outdoor furniture on the balcony, the new table can take its permanent position looking over the harbor.)

We have been looking for a table to place in the window of our living room, to hold several small potted plants. This one is just the right size, and I liked its unusual octagonal shape and bubbly legs. When I first saw it, I figured it was just a regular old used table; I would never have guessed that it was nearly a hundred years old--it has weathered the time quite gracefully, though it is in need of a good polish.

After I'd been drawn in to the window display, I couldn't help but notice a rather lovely writing box (also called lap desk). My mother has always had a small antique lap desk that I was quite smitten with as a child, so this larger and more ornate version was difficult to resist. When I went in to inquire about the plant table, I also requested the low-down on the box. The store owner told me that it was made in the Georgian period, between 1780 and 1790, and had all its original bits--nothing was a replacement or a fix. He also told me that he was asking half of what he would ask if he were in London, because shoppers in Cornwall simply couldn't afford what the box was really worth. All of that sounded too good to be true, so I went home and did a little research.

It turns out that writing boxes initially rose to popularity in the military and amongst other men who traveled frequently. The particular box in question was made in the military style:

(The writing box, aka lap desk. It is most likely made of mahogany, which was the material of choice for early writing boxes. You can tell this because it is a hardwood, has a rich reddish brown color, and is patterned with many fine, close-grained dark lines.)

Notice the plain rectangular shape; the box also has drop-down handles on either side. These two features are important for dating: Later boxes sometimes came in different shapes, and the handles were often in a permanently-raised position. This box is not as ornate as some of the others I ran across online, which often came with brass bands around the top and sides of the box; these were used to increase sturdiness and help the boxes endure long and difficult journeys around the world. You'll notice, however, that there is a brass name-plate (reading "H. A. Thinner"), which again marks it to the late 18th century; as time went on, other metals were substituted for this purpose.

As I looked the box over, the shopkeeper said it was a shame that there was no key for the lock. Either he was acting, or he had never taken a very good look through the box: I found the key resting in one of the inside compartments, and it worked without any problems. This particular lock was not as ornate as some of the others I ran across, again supporting the theory that this box wasn't made for anyone too rich and powerful. However, the tenons were in a style that I found in other late 18th-century boxes; since later boxes often had different types of locks altogether, I took this as more proof that the box had been correctly dated to the 1780's.

When the box is opened, it reveals a slanted surface for writing. This one is covered by a layer of dark blue or purple baize, which apparently also supports the late-18th-century date-of-origin; many later boxes, especially those in the Victorian era, were made with embossed leather. In fact, in many boxes like this one, the original baize was replaced with leather during the Victorian era; although mine has some small holes, it is still in surprisingly good shape, and I am glad that nobody saw fit to tear it off and insert another material instead.

(Interior of the writing box. The lower flap is held down by a swiveling latch so that it won't flop about if you are crazy enough to try getting out your quill and writing a letter during a bumpy carriage ride.)

Under the writing surface, there are two storage compartments for paper and quills, as well as a drawer on the right side. In many fancier writing boxes, the drawer was used to store toiletries such as combs and razors; however, these were often set in a permanent insert that had bands and latches for holding the implements in place. I do not see any signs that such an insert was ever in place in this drawer. Additionally, many military boxes of this era had similar pull-out drawers in which to place documents. The finishing touch is the simple but effective mechanism for holding the drawer in place--a pin that fits through a hold in the writing desk surface and down into the lip of the drawer itself. That way, no matter how much the carriage is jostling or the ship is being battered by the waves, no important paperwork would go spilling out onto the floor.

(Side view of the box with the bottom compartment opened. Unless people wrote on very narrow paper back in the Georgian era, I assume they folded their spare paper in half or in thirds prior to storing it here.)

(The side drawer and the pin used to hold it into place; if you look carefully you can see the hole in the lip of the drawer where the pin fits. There is a small round depression in the facing half of the box, which fits perfectly around the head of the pin so that the two sides of the box are flush with one another when it is shut. Inside the drawer, I could see no stains or use patterns indicating that a toiletries-holder had ever once sat inside. In the far back of the drawer cavity, there is a little block of wood that presumably holds the drawer in place; however, as the cavity it self could serve the same purpose, I would love to know exactly why that little block is in there.)

At the top of the desk are two glass ink wells (made of thick, bubbly glass--again indicating they are original), a lidded compartment (in which I found the key), and a tray on which to rest quills. It took me a while to figure out how to get into the compartment under the tray, but then I realized there was a slanted shelf built in, so that if I pressed down on one side of the tray it tipped neatly and gently into the space below, allowing access to whatever was stored below (probably supplies for making ink and sand for preventing smearing). The tray was the one part that was painted rather than varnished; assuming it is not a replacement from a later era, I figure this is because the box's maker wanted to diminish unsightly staining from inky quills.

Of course, as is inevitably the case with something that was taken on trips (and, not to mention, was built over 200 years ago), there are a few minor injuries. However, almost all the boxes that I found online also possessed minor injuries (in fact, many of those injuries might even qualify as "major," not to mention that many of them had seen various types of restoration or part replacement). Regardless of these flaws, the other boxes were selling for more than three times what the Falmouth dealer was asking. As far as I could see, he was offering a terrific bargain. And when you're faced with that sort of bargain, and your 30th birthday is coming up, it's hard not to cave in and buy yourself an early present. So I did:

(The box up on its throne in the "study." One day I hope it will sit in a place where it can be more easily seen. Also, I would like to set it on a piece of furniture that cost more than one-tenth of its price; it seems a bit insulting to have it resting on my home-assembled Trago Mills shelf. Hopefully it's a humble box, despite all its likely world travels, and doesn't mind the placement.)

For more information on writing boxes, and to see some amazing images of other, fancier ones (with secret compartments and pop-up book stands!), go here.

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