Skip to Content

The Well-Appointed Antique Desk: 11 Essential Items

I’ve always been a sucker for stationary stores. So is my Mother. I grew up in a small town in northeast Ohio near Oberlin, where Oberlin College is. Mom and I made many trips up to Oberlin when I was growing up.

There’s a small art museum there and a beautiful park in the center. And, even way back in the 70s and 80s, there were a couple vintage clothing stores.

But the best place of all was the Oberlin College book and stationary store. I’d wander up and down the aisles of notebooks and blotters and folders, breathing in the smell of fresh paper for hours.

I’d sit on the floor in the corner examining every single notebook and testing out every pen.

Somewhere along the way, I became obsessed with antique desk accessories (I was a strange kid, what can I say). Mom and I would go to flea markets – and even the occasional antique store – in search of the perfect letter opener, ink well, or blotter.

Today the Internet makes it a lot easier to find such things, though I’m still kind of partial to the dig-through-a-pile-of-dusty-boxes method of uncovering treasures.

If you’re interested in outfitting your own antique desk, you’ll need the following items.

1. Letter Opener

Letter openers come in all sorts of styles. They can be made from wood, pewter, stainless steel, Bakelite, or ivory (among other things.)

Their main purpose is, of course, to open letters.

They evolved from paper knives, which were used for cutting pages of a new book when book presses were not yet fine-tuned enough to separate the pages for reading.

Letter openers are longer and blunter than paper knives.

2. Paper Cutter

If you find a set of antique desk accessories, it’ll often contain a short, sharp bladed tool as well, a paper cutter. These were used, as previously mentioned, to slice apart the pages of a new book.

Love antique desks? Have a look at the Wooten Desk and learn about its history.

3. A Wax Seal

Seals are used to make an impression in wax, clay, or paper. Their original purpose was to authenticate a document. They were also commonly used to seal envelopes.

If your letter arrived with the seal already broken, you knew someone else had opened it.

Most seals have the design cut below the flat surface, a process known as intaglio. In turn, the impressions made on the paper are in relief  (above the surface).

The design on the impression will be in reverse than what is on the seal itself – especially important to remember when text is included.

A more modern example of a seal, is the rubber stamp, though these are quite a bit more mundane as they are only 2-demensional rather that 3, like the seal and wax combination.

4. A Feather Quill

A quill pen is normally made from a molted feather of a large bird. Even today, hand cut goose quills are still the tool of choice for some professional calligraphers.

The strongest quills come from the flight feathers that are discarded from birds during their regular molt.

Quills are made from goose feathers, as well as crow, eagle, owl, hawk, and turkey feathers. Some of the most expensive quills were made from swan feathers.

You can find a vintage set of desk accessories for sale on places like EBay and Etsy. Often, the pieces will be trimmed with mother of pearl and/or Bakelite.

And, if you’re lucky, they’ll still be in their own velvet carrying case.

5. Inkwell

Inkwells come in all shapes and sizes and can be very elaborate. They can be made of brass, porcelain, silver, glass, or pewter.

Here’s a cool brass one for sale on Etsy.

There were even travelling inkwells that came with a screw lid so you could carry your supply of ink with you on your journey.

6. Letter Holder

There are some really beautiful antique letter holders out there. They are most often made of some kind of metal and sport intricate cut designs.

People don’t send letters like they used to anymore, which may be why there are so many holders drifting around the internet and antique stores.

7. Desk Lamp

No old-timey desk is complete without a cool vintage desk lamp. I’ve always been partial to the banker light style.

A banker’s light will have the bulb situated side ways, rather than up and down, and a long half tube like shade in metal or glass.

The shade swivels on both ends so you can direct the flow of light.

There are also a plethora of antique gooseneck lamp styles to choose from. Most every proper antique light features a brass pull chain to turn it on and off.

8. Globe

If you have room on your antique desk, an old desktop globe is an excellent edition. They come with stands made of wood or metal. And they’re perfect for dreaming up your next adventure.

9. Notebook and Blotter

Notebooks and blotters are essential items to complete your antique desk set up. Here’s a really cool antique leather desk set for sale.

Blotters are essentially a frame for sheets of paper and most usually sit in the center of a desk.

You can also find blotter and notebook sets that come with a few different notebook holder sizes.

10. Postal Scale

An old postal scale is always a great edition to an old-timey desk. Plus, they’re useful, even today.

Really old ones like this one come with brass weights. Weights can be flat or bell shaped. The scale itself is often on a wood base.

11. An Old Fashioned Letter

Now that you have your desk properly outfitted, sit down, take up your quill, and write an old fashioned letter to someone you care about who lives far away and you don’t get to see very often. Or write a letter to yourself, possibly as part of your regular journaling habit.

It seems the only things that arrive in the mail these days are catalogs, advertisements, and notices from the IRS.

Just think how you’ll make someone’s day by sending a hand written personal note through the post, just like they used to do in days of yore….