In the mid-19th century, no gentleman's study would be complete without a substantial and imposing wooden desk.
This would be covered with bespoke accoutrements needed for writing including a penholder to hold fountain pens, an inkwell, paperweights, letter openers, letter holders, a desk clock and an ink sander or sand box used to shake sand over wet ink to dry it.
Using sand was a messy business. With the invention of blotting paper sanders all but disappeared. Instead, an ink blotter in a frame was used to protect the desk from ink spills and to blot letters to dry the ink quickly. So how did the introduction of blotting paper come about?
A recent addition to the Whanganui Regional Museum collection is a pocket-sized booklet containing samples of assorted colours of Ford's Blotting Paper. The back of the booklet gives us a short history of the discovery and production of blotting paper.
In the 17th century, William Russell Slade of East Hagbourne in Berkshire, England, converted a water driven grain mill into a paper mill and made paper from rags.
The story is that one day a worker omitted to add essential size to the almost finished paper, resulting in what was regarded as waste. Size is a liquid applied to a surface such as canvas or paper to fill the pores of the fibres and seal the surface to make it less absorbent.
Someone used the waste to write a note and observed that the ink spread rapidly. William Slade realised that here was an opportunity to produce something commercial and of use to anyone who used a pen. He began to produce blotting paper on a large scale.
In 1858 Thomas Birch Ford, who married Mr Slade's niece, signed a 21-year lease for Shakely Mill and Overshot Mill in Loudwater, Buckinghamshire.
These paper factories, which had the advantage of being water powered, had steam powered rollers and dryers, thus increasing production. Ford began to produce blotting paper on a large scale for the international market, mainly in British colonies. The success of the paper ensured that it earned a reputation as the best blotting paper in the world.
Originally made in one shade of pink due to the red rags used, from which ordinary paper could not be produced, the company began to produce assorted colours.
Queen Victoria preferred to use pink and any piece on which her signature was blotted was carefully destroyed. The late King Edward VII preferred a thick white sheet of Ford's blotting paper. Buff was the preferred colour for businessmen as "it is easily distinguishable from the invoices and bills of lading and other paper weapons of the commercial warrior''. Green was produced for sunny climates where it was thought to be restful to the eye.
A range of mauves and purples were first produced when a mingling of red and blue rags produced pleasing new shades. Later, a rich purple shade was developed to meet the demands of feminine taste and a black shade was produced which would absorb ink without showing.
One of the many testimonials at the back of the booklet came from New Plymouth and reads, "Dear Sirs, I have much pleasure in stating that I have used Ford's Blotting Paper a great deal lately and have always found it of the best quality and the most durable."
Here is proof that blotting paper was used down in the Antipodes.
Ford's blotting paper is still available today. A search online reveals it is used, no longer for blotting ink, but to produce artworks, remove oil and sweat from the face and press flowers.
We no longer use paperweights or ink blotters. Instead we have tangled cords and computers. Disposable ballpoint pens have replaced fountain pens. It seems a shame that today's desks have evolved to be merely functional rather than functional and stylish.
• Kathy Greensides is collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.