Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, May 22, 2011

From the Age of Letters, My Recreated Traveling Porte Folio and Penner

Crowds Line-up During the Gold Rush, Eager for Their Mail
Image Courtesty The Museum of San Francisco

    In this day and age of emails and texting, it's hard to imagine a time when all letters were hand written with a pen and ink. During the19th-century, people loved to write letters. In California, in 1849, 18,000 to 45,000 letters arrived by steamer to San Francisco every month, not to mention the thousands that were sent back home. Today I feel like a dinosaur, since I can still remember composing letters in grade school in long-hand with a fountain pen !  Wow, was it really that long ago?

Miners "Feasting" on a Letter From Home
Image Courtesty The Oakland Museum

     The following projects involve recreating two mid 19th-century portable writing tools that were considered useful for keeping up your correspondence.

Traveling Porte Folio Illustration  From "The Workwoman's Guide"

My Replica Porte Folio in Closed Postion
Photos Lindy Miller 2011

    In an earlier post, I had mentioned "The Workwoman's Guide" as an incredible resource for recreating early 19th-century material culture. On page 208, Plate 24, there is an illustration (Fig 41) for a "Travelling Porte Folio". The accompaning text on pg. 215 states, "This is convenient for traveling, when there is not sufficient room for a desk; it is made of card or book board, and covered with black silk or paper. Under the part marked A, is a porte folio for paper, the two parts being connected together by means of a wide ribbon all around. The four flaps lay over and tie across with ribbon. On the part A. are places for sealing wax, pencil, pens, knife and paper knife, all in one, and at the corner a piece of ribbon sewed on in a circle, and made to draw up like a bag, to contain wafers."

My Replica in the Open Postion
Showing Tools, Wafers etc.

    I felt this was going to be a worthwhile project as long as I paid attention to the details of construction and used appropriate materials. Over the years I have observed many mid-century artifacts that used various printed or marbelized papers in their construction. For my porte folio, I opted for a nice period style overall geometric patterned paper for the outside covering. From the sample I had, my local print shop was kind enough to make up several sheets in red ink on yellow paper. I thought the inside should be less busy so I used my favorite unprinted robin's egg blue paper. For the cloth hinges connecting the cardboard panels, I chose a small check cotton. I think it gave the piece a nice honest home-made look. In order to secure the writting tools, I used a strip of cotton elastic, stitched to the board in loops.

     Finding all the right tools took some time. The hardest was the antique paper knife, which is intended to scape away mistakes written in ink. My only deviation from the original description was to add a small piece of gum-rubber eraser, tied to a length of cotton tape. I felt it was a nice compliment to the pencil that was mentioned in the original description. The goose quill pens, stripped of most of their feathering, were easy to acquire as was the plain cedar pencil. Figuring out what 'wafers' meant led to some interesting research. In the period I am working in, wafers were small, gummed discs of paper that were sometimes embossed with various designs. Basically, they served as an alternative to sealing wax. A man named Edward Law has done extensive study on what he calls "Adhesive Wafer Seals."and his research is available on the web.  I found some embossed paper that I painted red on top and then gum coated the underside. A good gumming medium is liquid hide glue, available at most hardware stores. After it dries, it is easily moistened back to a sticky state. With a 5/8" round punch centered on the embossed design,  I cut out a disc and voila, out popped my version of a wafer.

My Replica Penner in Opened Postion
and Some Mail I Created for Past Living History Events

     The next project was to recreate a portable inkwell. There were many styles during the timeperiod but I finally settled on what is commonly called a penner. The original version that I selected to copy is basically a protective slip-case for a small, corked, glass ink bottle. The ink bottle is usually accompanied by a small dip-pen. Many wonderful original examples from the collection of John C. Loring are available online for viewing. Just look for the category of "19th Century & Earlier Western Writing Instruments". For my re-creation, I used thin cardstock, layered and glued for the body. The ink bottle (a small vial), sits in a protective wood base with only the bottle's neck showing. The shoulder of the bottle helps keep it in place in the hollowed out wooden form. For the outside covering I used some " faux red morrocan" cloth that I had a large scrap of.

     I would recommend both of these fun projects to anybody who is interested as neither requires highly specialized skills and materials similar to what I used are readily available. After that, you might just have to write a letter or two. As my grade school teacher would say, keep practicing your penmanship !

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