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Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print
Erasable Writing

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Erasable Writing

From Classical Antiquity, the commonest form of writing was on an erasable surface made of wax, using a metal stylus rather than pen and ink. While paper made a permanent writing surface both cheaper and more readily available, the inconvenience of quill and ink led to the search for new and improved kinds of erasable surfaces on which one could write with an inkless stylus.

Girolamo Ruscelli. The Secretes of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont. London, 1580 (Detail)

Writing tables. London, 1604.

Frank Adams. Writing tables. London, 1584

Writing tables bound in finely worked silver filigree. Manuscript, late 17th century

(left) The Secrets of the Reverend Master Alexis of Piemont  was an international bestseller in the Renaissance. It included a recipe for making an erasable surface on which one can write with a stylus (“the pointe of a wire”). Styluses leave only a faint trace on regular paper or parchment, but leave a clear dark line when used on paper or parchment coated in gesso and glue or other special coatings.

(middle, left) "Writing tables" or "table-books" were usually composed of a printed almanac bound together with erasable leaves. Ink, metalpoint (stylus), and graphite could easily erased from these leaves with a moist sponge. The gesso-glue coating on the tables shown here has begun to crumble, but they still reveal a recipe for curing "glanders," a horse disease. Writing tables were widely used by merchants and shopkeepers.


(middle, right) Erasable tables had been imported to England in sizable numbers from the early fifteenth century. But in the 1570s, Frank Adams began making such tables in London. By the early seventeenth century, they were so popular that they were incorporated by the Stationers’ Company as part of the English Stock, which was composed only of the most profitable books.


(right) These writing tables are bound in a silver filigree pattern of a Jesse tree. The silver stylus, too crude to be the original one, served as a writing implement when the tables were open and a latching device when they were closed. The erasable leaves are interleaved with regular paper. On one, a note in ink reveals a woman’s intrigue with an unusually large writing implement: “Alicia Gardiner wrote with Pen, made of an Eagle’s Quill. Sunday the 9th August 1724.” Pens were typically made from goose quills.


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