Apple’s iPad Roots in Victorian Manchester

18 Sep

Writing Box c1850. © 1998-2012 Ruby Lane Inc.

iPad © 2011 Evan-Amos

In the 21st century it seems the art of writing if not dead completely will soon be resigned to pages of history. Some even foresee the book will follow suit in the coming decades with the continuing and unrelenting rise of digitzation.

Certainly the digital natives; tech savvy children amongst us will have little knowledge of this long period in our history and in an age of mobile instantaneous, few will look to indulge beyond the most enquiring graphic designers, artists or those who received a calligraphy set as a Christmas or birthday present. 

Even digital immigrants have increasingly forsaken this once most personal form of communication.

Fine detail of the writing box on display. © 1998-2012 Ruby Lane Inc.

Whilst looking at the picture of the ornate and beautifully and skillfully crafted writing box or “Victorian laptop” (Catherine Golden 2010) dating to around the 1850s, made from Indian Calamander wood or Coromandel wood and decorated with ornate brass mounts, one can with a little imagination see the similarities with its modern 21st century counterpart, the iPad; communication and portability; high end craftsmanship and quality; beauty and design; functionality and practicality; attention to detail and mass production.

Similarly both importantly helped drive revolutions in how we communicate. Whilst the writing table enabled people to move to a place of their choice to find the best light in an age yet to see the full transformative powers of electricity. Additional privacy was also awarded. The iPad equally allowed these and much more, but essentially both helped to redefine how as a society we communicate.

Bob Cratchit as he appeared in hit US annimation series, Family GuyCC-BY-SA

The iPad and the writing desk over 150 earlier transformed the notion of mobile communication in ways never seen or imagined. In the Victorian age; no longer were you tethered to a writing desk like poor, abused Bob Cratchit from Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol. This was particular important as electrification had not reached many houses and heating was always an issue in time before central heating, energy efficient insulation and double glazing. Sadly however, this revolution would never have reached Bob Cratchit as Ebenezer Scrooge not only kept the coal to himself, he most certainly would have never ‘wasted’ money on a writing desk, just to make life a little easier for poor Bob.

Royal Mail Post Office Regulations handbill giving details of the Uniform Penny Post, dated January 7, 1840. © 2008 Ww2censor.

Increased literacy in the Victorian age partially helped drive the production of writing desks as did increased trade and the arrival of the universal postal service and the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 following parliamentary reform to the system.

Writing desks were even showcased at The Crystal Palace or The Great Exhibition of 1851 further driving the demand amongst the middle-classes.

The death of the writing desk would eventually come ironically from the very thing that helped make it popular. With improvements to heating and the electrification ; better lighting of homes, there was little need for portable writing tables, that for many would have provided a means of  ‘staying in touch’ without the need for feeling the chill or the restrictions of a fixed writing desk.

The writing box open. © 1998-2012 Ruby Lane Inc.

The writing box is split in two, with the domed lid opening to reveal a fitted compartment which may have been used for note or business cards, with original brass topped inkwells on either side. One of which would most likely likely have been for pounce, used to hasten the drying of the ink.

Open showing leather writing surface.© 1998-2012 Ruby Lane Inc.

Opening the writing box further reveals a removable tilting pen tray and leather writing surface or slope, edged and inlaid with a decorative gold motif, with a secret compartment underneath for quill pens and later metal pen nibs, letters and other writing material such as blotting paper, envelopes and sealing wax. It also as a satinwood lining.

The satinwood inlaid flap as a brass plaque signed by the manufacturer, Hall & Co. / 56 King St., Manchester, which stands for John Hall & Co who were reputable clock makers, watchmakers and jewellery craftsmen and were particularly well known for their gold and silver smith work in Manchester. 56 King Street is now home to exclusive cookware retailer Peter Maturi and Sons Ltd and continues the tradition for high end products that would have been very familiar to the John Hall and his customers over 150 years ago.

G. Betjemann & Sons makers mark. © 1998-2012 Ruby Lane Inc.

The lock is signed by famous locksmiths, G. Betjemann & Sons, Makers London, which stands for George Betjemann & Sons, whose premises were at 36-44 Pentonville Road, London. Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), Poet Laureate was a direct descendant of George Betjemann. Part of George Betjemann & Sons premises is now taken up by the Crafts Council.

The writing box measures 14 1/2″ wide x 10 1/2″ deep x 7 1/2″ to top of domed section. This is more likely to have been for a gentleman as a women’s writing desks were smaller (e.g. 10″ x 8″  x 4″) and were relatively more simple, yet retaining a elegance.

The writing box closed and locked. © 1998-2012 Ruby Lane Inc.


Golden, C. (2010). The Portable Writing desk — the Victorian laptop. Available: Last accessed 18th Sep 2012.


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