Inkwells on Campus

Hey everyone, guess who’s back!  Yep, after six weeks of field school in Belize, I’m back in East Lansing, working with Campus Archaeology to unearth the past couple of hundred years of Michigan State University.  While I was away, the rest of the Campus Archaeology team worked hard at different sites on campus, including the area where Morrill Hall used to stand, the construction site at Landon hall and the West Circle sidewalks.  Plenty of the usual nails, ceramic pieces and, of course, dirt were found, but what really interested me was a glass inkwell that was uncovered.

Today, when we need to jot something down on paper, we grab a ballpoint pen or a mechanical pencil.  However, throughout the 1800s and even into the early 1900s, inkwells were the only way one could transfer thought onto paper (except for the typewriter, but that’s a whole different story).  Inkwells were made from an assortment of materials, including shell, pottery, wood, sandstone, porcelain, cast bronze, iron and brass.  Sometimes they were more utilitarian in make, or sometimes they were made with extreme ornamentation, depending on who owned the inkwell.  Those of a more aristocratic standing often had inkwells shaped as animals or other small statues.  Fun fact: inkwells were also often used as paper weights.

Inkwell found on MSU's campus
Inkwell found on MSU’s campus

The inkwell that we found was a simple small one, made from clear glass.  Over the years it has been broken, but we have at least two distinct pieces of it – the base and the top.  What would have sealed the inkwell is missing, but based on pictures of similar inkwells I found online, it is likely that this had a cork top that has gone missing over the years.  At the bottom of the base the glass is embossed with the words “Higgins Brooklyn NY.”  I googled this company to see if I could find out anything more about the bottle, and I learned that this inkwell was most likely manufactured sometime in the early 1900s.  This makes sense, because the university wasn’t founded until 1862, so the inkwell would have to be from sometime after the beginnings of the school and before inkwells were completely replaced by pens.  The plain, simple make of the inkwell is also consistent with universities from that time.  Just as the majority of college students today don’t have a lot of money to spend on extravagant purchases, many students in the late 1800s/early 1900s also didn’t have a lot of money to spend.  They wouldn’t have wasted their money on inkwells that were excessively and colorfully decorated.  Instead, they would have used cheaper inkwells – likely those made of clear glass.  This probably goes for the professors and administrators on campus, too.

While it may seem that an inkwell isn’t a huge or significant find on a college campus, we can still learn information from this artifact.  On the writing utensil timeline, there is an overlap between pens and inkwells.  The first fountain pen was made in the 1880s, but since we know that this inkwell is from the early 1900s, we can discern that students on the MSU campus were still using inkwells even after pens had been invented.  Again, this could be due to a financial reason; perhaps pens were more expensive than inkwells when they were first invented.  Even though all we have of this inkwell are two small pieces, barely six centimeters in diameter, it’s still as valuable to us as any other find would be.



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