Monday, April 5, 2010

Writing Tables

Wednesday viij. February 1586/87. "...out to the stationer to have some notebooks made and then to Mr. Adams to have two sets of writing tables made, one with an almanac and the other without, both to have leather covers, and the covers to be made so they might keep out the damp better than that I did have of him last year..."

In this passage from his journal, Luke goes to the stationer and orders up some additional notebooks for his journal, accounts and other notes. He then goes to Franke Adams, one of several manufacturers in London in this period, and has him make some “writing tables.” He is not buying furniture, rather he is buying what was at the time (1587) fairly new technology for writing. The “tables” were coated paper/card stock that might be written on with ink, black lead (graphite) or silverpoint and then cleaned off and used again and again. Luke might write his journal entries directly into a notebook, but more often he would use the tables as a temporary scratch pad and then make a fair copy later in his notebooks.

Peter Stallybrass has written an excellent article on the subject which appeared in the Shakespeare Quarterly. The writing tables were quite small, about the size of a deck of cards, like the example at Houghton Library of Harvard University. They were bound with a multi-year almanac, perfect for the businessman on the go, and made up of paper/card stock coated with gesso and shellac. I would expect that the stock itself would need to be substantial because gesso is by its nature very prone to cracking and flaking on a flexible surface, but that might not be the case. I expect also it would want to have quite a high glue content to really bind it all together. The tables came with erasing instructions in some of the earlier editions and the owner is warned not to allow the just cleaned tables to rest against each other when they are wet, suggesting a tendency towards stickiness.

I plan to conduct some experiments to determine the composition of the coating and I will be writing to Professor Stallybrass for any advice he might have on their construction. I will also need to get over to Houghton and take a look at the example there. Then I will have to make some and see how they actually work.

Stallybrass, Peter; Chartier, Roger; Mowery, j. Franklin; Wolfe, Heather. “Hamlets Tables and the Technology of Writing in Renaissance England,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 379-419.


  1. From my understanding, gesso can have many addititves, like fish glue, that may make it more or less flexible and prone to cracking.

    This is absolutely fascinating stuff!

  2. Thank you! This is why I want to run some experiments. They were also coated with shellac which would act as a binder but again would be brittle. I really need to hie myself over to Houghton someday soon and take a look at that one that is there.