Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Writing Away From Home, c1780

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Susan reporting,

I'm a wandering writer. I don't have a desktop computer, or even a desk, let alone an office. Perhaps because I scribbled away at my first books on legal pads on commuter trains and while waiting at kids' sports practices, I can (well, most of the time) write wherever and whenever. With a laptop computer, it's easy enough, and even if that's not with me, I always have my smartphone for notes and ideas.

It wasn't that way in 18thc America. The painting, left, is an illustration by Angelica Kauffman to one of the most popular novels of the 1780s: Emma Corbett, or, The Miseries of Civil War founded on Some Recent Circumstances which happened in America. The civil war in question was the American Revolution, and when Samuel Jackson Pratt published his novel in 1780, the "miseries" were real and current. Told in letters, the story concerns the tragedies faced by two families torn apart by the war - the first fictional work to describe both sides of the conflict.

Here one of the novel's young women, Louisa Hammond, is shown writing a letter outdoors. While this makes for an elegant illustration, it also demonstrates the challenges of writing away from home. Writing on a single sheet of paper and using her portfolio, balanced on her knee, as an impromptu desk, Louisa holds an open bottle of ink in one hand, ready to dip her feather pen repeatedly as needed. Writing with an open bottle of ink seems a perilous act in a white dress. If the faithful dog at Louisa's feet is suddenly startled, or a breeze catches her hat and startles her, then there's a good chance that ink is going to splatter across her embroidered apron.

But while Louisa Hammond is a fictitious character, real people found a way to write away from home, too. Most gentlemen who traveled frequently owned a portable desk. Basically a hinged wooden box, these desks were the predecessors of modern laptop. Designs varied to taste, but all have a surface covered in soft cloth (which made a quill pen move more easily over the page) for writing, plus compartments for storing bottles of ink, pens, paper, and other supplies. The desks folded and latched shut into a self-contained unit for carrying.

This desk belonged to Alexander Hamilton, a real-life officer (unlike Louisa Hammond's true love) in the Continental Army who did survive the American Revolution. It's currently on view at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, VA as part of their exhibition AfterWARd: The Revolutionary Veterans Who Built America, through November 27, 2017.

In the 1780s and after the war, Hamilton worked as a lawyer, frequently traveling by horseback and carriage for various cases around the state of New York. During this time, he also served as a representative to the Continental Congress and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, which meant more traveling between his home in New York City and, most often, Philadelphia - hundreds of miles on unpredictable roads, in good weather and bad.

Hamilton was a ferociously prolific writer, full of ideas, opinions, and arguments, and blessed with the gift for words to express them. In an era before phones, being able to communicate through letters was vital. Wherever Hamilton went, this desk usually accompanied him. Made of Spanish mahogany with brass hinges, the desk is battered and well-worn from use.

Tradition says that this was the desk on which Hamilton wrote the fifty-one essays that became his share of The Federalist Papers, and helped lead to the ratification of the Constitution. Striving to remove himself from the distractions of New York City in 1787, Hamilton and his wife Eliza traveled by packet up the Hudson River to Albany and The Pastures, the home of Eliza's family, the Schuylers. The length of the voyage was dependent on winds and currents, yet it must have given him uninterrupted days to think and write - something every writer craves.

Still, spoiled as I am by modern technology, I marvel at the idea of writing this way: drawing each letter, each word, with a quill pen in one hand and an ink bottle in the other, on a desk like this braced against your knees or a rickety ship-board bunk, and everything (including you) rocking and shifting as the packet tacked back and forth across the river....

Upper left: Louisa Hammond by Angelica Kauffman, c1780s, Fitzwilliam Museum Collection.
Right and lower left: Portable desk owned by Alexander Hamilton, American or English, late 18thc. Collection of Department of Special Collections, Burke Library, Hamilton College. Right photo courtesy of New-York Historical Society. Lower left photo ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.

3 comments:

Martha said...

Alexander Hamilton's desk is now on exhibit until November in "AfterWARd," the first special exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, in Yorktown, Virginia. Go to www.historyisfun.org fir more information.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Martha ~ Thank you SO MUCH for your comment! I'd meant to include the information about the Hamilton desk on display in Yorktown - that's where I saw it earlier this summer - but somehow...forgot. It's in the post now, with a link to the museum.

topazshell said...

I am still thinking about that opened bottle of ink and maybe a white dress. Can you imagine?

 
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