In ancient Egypt, a rich man would not write his own letters but would travel with a scribe who wrote his letters for him. The scribe used a crude pen that had to be dipped in ink; he carried it on a stone with a slight hollow. As more learned to write, the ink holders became fancier, and carved stones like jade or marble were used. Liquid ink, a mixture of the blackening and liquid, made a different type of inkwell necessary. A traveling man had a pen and ink in a leak-proof container made of ceramic, glass, shells, or later, metal or plastic.
The era of the inkwells that interests most collectors began in the 18th century. Elaborate ceramic containers to hold ink on a desk as part of a set in an inkstand were important accessories. Soon all inkwells were glass set in metal or other leak-proof containers that could screw or clamp shut.
One of the most unusual is the porcelain “snail,” a revolving, tilting inkwell. It looks like a snail shell on a metal frame standing on a saucer. The bottle revolves so the snail’s head tilts up, exposing the opening for the pen. There are even twin snail holders. When the fountain pen was invented by Lewis Waterman in 1880, the need for inkwells vanished. Then, in 1939, the ballpoint pen debuted. Few now use pen and ink, but collectors search for old inkwells. A snail inkwell sold at a Glass Works online bottle auction in New Jersey recently for $156. It was made of white porcelain and decorated with hand-painted multicolored flowers.
Q: As a young boy, my husband received a Popeye doorstop. He’s had it since about 1939. It says “1929, King Feature SYN” on it. Can you tell us anything about it and its worth? It’s certainly a keepsake!
A: Popeye first appeared in 1929 in a comic strip called “Thimble Theatre.” The character and the comic strip were created by Elzie Crisler Segar and distributed by King Features Syndicate. Popeye has appeared in comic books, cartoons, a full-length movie featuring Robin Williams as Popeye, on a postage stamp, and on toys and novelty items. The Popeye doorstop was made by Hubley Manufacturing Company, which was in business in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from 1894 to 1965. The date on your doorstop is the copyright date for the character, not the date it was made. Popeye collectibles are sought after and bring high prices. The value of your doorstop is about $2,000 if the paint is in good condition.