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Standish, or "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?"

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Have you ever heard of a standish? Besides the Pilgrim story of Miles Standish, I hadn't either. Long before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his epic poem about the Pilgrim love triangle between John Alden, Miles Standish, and Priscilla Mullins, the term "standish" meant something else entirely. Maybe you're more familiar with the term inkwell or inkstand? The Longmeadow Historical Society has several inkwells, including this somewhat beat-up pewter one:

Pewter Standish, 19xx-205

This homely, well-used object in the LHS collection was purported to belong to the Reverend Stephen Williams (1693-1782). Williams was Longmeadow's first minister, and served the town for 66 years. The Williams parsonage burned in 1846, and many objects belonging to him were saved and brought to the Storrs House, then the home of his granddaughter Sarah (see the History Note "Fire, Fire!" published on June 16, 2022). The items saved from the conflagration included furniture, diaries, textiles, snowshoes, and this inkstand.

The inkstand has touchmarks--impressed marks that identify the maker. I set out to identify the maker from the mark.

I had no luck with my meager collection of reference books. Next, I consulted the metals expert at a local museum. She was unable to find the mark in her references, and suggested we contact a notable pewter dealer from Connecticut. From there we were directed to the Pewter Society in England. This august organization, which often collaborates with the Pewter Collectors Club of America, promptly identified the mark as a product of Richard Hoare, who worked from Angel Alley, Bishopsgate, London from 1664, and probably died in 1704. They went on to explain that one such as ours with a rectangular box for pens is one of only 3 known to the Society! According to the History of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers of the City of London by Charles Welch, Richard Hoare was fined in 1672 for "makeing standishes 3 1/2 gr. worse than ffyne." Apparently, less than fine was evident from the color of the pewter alloy, which is usually made up of tin, copper, antimony, bismuth and sometimes lead.

Our example was so unusual that it was featured in an article from the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of the Pewter Society.

The Longmeadow Historical Society example has a pounce pot on one side and a ring to hold an inkpot on the other. The tube in the middle might have been used for a candle, pens (quills), a stick of wax, or a small roll of parchment paper. The pounce pot or sander would have been filled with a finely ground powder made of pumice, gum-sandarac resin, or the crushed bones of cuttlefish. Where would a Longmeadow minister get cuttlefish bones?

"Still Life" by Edward Collier, 1699

Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND

Tate Gallery. photo copyright Tate

A review of one of our account books in the Historical Society collection (Samuel Colton, BV5) revealed multiple purchases of "pennife," ink, and quires of paper (25 sheets).

Asa Colton, to a 1/4 quire paper and ink, and Edward Chandler to a 1/4 quire paper

Rev Mr. Stephen Williams to 1 pennife

Paper was labor-intensive to make, and therefor expensive. Lest you assume that the Reverend Williams was profligate in his use of paper while writing 11 volumes of diaries, look at the size of the writing from a 1714 sermon!

1714 sermon written by Stephen Williams,

Longmeadow Historical Society archives

So now that we had a maker who was working from 1664, could this standish have originally belonged to Stephen, or did it perhaps belong to his father John (1664-1729)? The Longmeadow Historical Society has several other Williams family objects that pre-date Stephen and probably belonged to his father, who was the minister in the town of Deerfield. We can imagine Stephen taking this standish, some quills trimmed with his penknife, and some small sheets of paper when he traveled with the soldiers during the French and Indian Wars. He kept a diary of these times, as well as the complete tenure of his ministry. Quill pens, usually made from the left wing feathers of geese or swans, did not come with sharpened points, or nibs. The users would employ their pen knife to trim the point to a shape and sharpness to their liking. When the point became dull, you could trim it again. And in spite of what we've all seen in old paintings, most of the feather would have been removed before being used as a pen!

“Oh, nature's noblest gift, my grey goose quill, Slave of my thoughts, obedient to my will, Torn from the parent bird to form a pen, That mighty instrument of little men.”

— Lord Byron (1788-1824)

-Contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member

Originally published September 1, 2022

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