Saturday, 20 October 2012

John Sheldon Escritoirs

It is fitting that John Sheldon, the Victorian pencil maker, toymaker and silversmith would live and flourish in the English city of Birmingham, the 19th century’s “workshop of the world", city of a thousand trades and centre of the industrial revolution. If other inventions (steam engine comes to mind) that took place in Birmingham were much more impressive and far reaching than Sheldon’s, his also made an impact in the development of the writing technologies of the time. Between 1841 and 1853 Sheldon registered a total of ten designs relating to writing equipment, among which the Unique Pocket Companion and the Pocket Escritoir.

John Sheldon escritoir. Photo provided by B. George
Photo provided by Brian George

Palimpsest became acquainted with the man and his work in the London Writing Equipment Society show 2012. Specimens of Sheldon’s inventions were displayed in a glass cabinet under the supervision of avid Sheldon collector, Brian George. Brian is extremely knowledgeable in all things Sheldon and has even written a book about the “Birmingham master of manufacture and innovation.”

Brian George's John Sheldon collection

Palimpsest was impressed with Sheldon’s escritoirs which took pride of place in George’s excellent collection. Escritoirs are miniature writing desks, described as Cabinets of the Million and Wonder of the Age, and contain all writing essentials a Victorian gentleman or lady would wish to have handy at any given moment during travelling or in the home. Sheldon offered six sizes -from 3’’ x 2½’’ to 6’’ x 4½’’ and a selection of finishes - plain burgundy, dark green morocco leather, japanned. These portable miniature desks contained up to 50 sheets of paper and envelopes, an almanac, blotting card, memo pad, wax lights, inkstand, sealing wax, 12-inch measuring tape, wax tapers, penholder with letter balance, steel pens, India rubber and wafers.

When sold, Brian George explains in his book, the Escritoir came with 9 steel pens, 50 gum medallions or wafers, 3 sticks of sealing wax, 2 wax tapers and 50 Wax Lights or Promethean Lights. The latter were candle-like contraptions which gave an instantaneous burst of flame when the acid contained in a tiny glass seal came into contact with the chemicals in its tightly wound paper covering (a nightmare scenario for today’s Health and Safety police). Escritoirs, thus provided the Victorian gentleman or lady not only with the means of writing but with instruments of illumination as well. They sold for 7s to 10s in 1843, that is, £33 to £47 in 2008 values. They must have been the latest word in portability and a must-have for any cultivated member of the prosperous middle classes of the Victorian times.

Brian and Shirley George and John Sheldon collection at the London WES show 2012.
John Sheldon manufacture and writing instruments.

All information on John Sheldon comes from Brian George’s book, John Sheldon, Toymaker, Pencil Maker & Silversmith. Many thanks to Brian George for photo of Sheldon and Sheldon ads.


  1. Dear Lito,
    Thank you for a wonderful post!! I would love to have one of these escritoires in my little collection-- so charming and well-designed. I'm in search of Mr. George's book as we speak. Someday, I'd like to try my hand at designing a travel escritoire with a blotter, stationery, diminiutive fountain pens and pencils, and compartments for stamps, seals, etc. If you have any recommendations on smallish modern writing instruments, I'd love to give this project a try!
    Again thanks and best regards,

  2. Erika, you'd be a perfect candidate for such a project. I'll bring you in contact with Brian so that you can get hold of his book.

  3. At least in my mind's eye, Palimpsest, I'm looking back to an era when writing was cumbersome, costly, and meaningful from an era in which writing is ubiquitous, cheap, charmless, and, too frequently, meaningless. Maybe I have a sour attitude today. Thanks for the post. Jack/USA

  4. Did John Sheldon develop pencils or other items that attached to chatelaines? Regards

  5. Hi Guys My name is Tammy and i think i have come across one of Johns Pens . could you please contact me

  6. Dear Lito I came across this site when checking some information on Brian George who died on Christmas Eve. He was a member of the Pen Museum, Birmingham, and I write a newsletter for the museum. What I would like to do with your permission is to include in the newsletter some of the items you have collected - quotes etc - as I think it would be of interest to the members and would be something different to include.

  7. Linda, I'm very sorry to hear of George's passing. I've sent you an email.