Portable Desks

When we travel these days, we pack a myriad of electronic devices to enable us to always be in touch with friends and family, store photos of places we have been and short videos of our travels. Phones, laptops and tablets are the way we communicate and share now.

For Victorians travelling abroad, things were not quite that easy. Writing letters, sending postcards and drawings by post were the only ways to share their travelling experiences. To facilitate this, they would travel with wooden writing boxes, generally known as portable desks, but also called lap desks or writing slopes. These boxes held all the accoutrements needed for writing.

3. Campaign box

Campaign Box with a secret drawer. WRM Ref: 1948.20

While there are records of writing boxes being used by travelling monks, the most well-known were used by officers in the British Army in the eighteenth century. These were known as campaign boxes. They had to be sturdy to withstand travelling over rough roads for long distances. They were banded with brass corners for extra protection and had steel screws to strengthen the joints. The boxes would open to reveal a leather or baize-covered double section on which to lay out all that was needed to write. Smaller compartments would hold quill pens, ink bottles, sand (for drying ink), sealing wax and a larger section for a pen rest.

Some also featured a secret drawer hidden in the bottom of the box. This was opened by removing a small discrete rod sunk into the side panel, which normally held the drawer closed. Other more elaborate hidden drawers were accessed by removing certain sections and releasing a hidden spring. These drawers were used for private or illicit correspondence, eyeglasses, snuff boxes, medicines or valuables.

1. Porcupine desk

A portable desk covered with porcupine quills. WRM Ref: 1962.178.4

As the British ventured to Europe on their Grand Tour journeys, the writing box became more widely used. Wealthy travellers would commission bespoke designs, inlaid with marquetry or ivory, and personalised with initials or monograms. Less commonly, dual purpose boxes were made, incorporating the writing function with perhaps a sewing box or a gentleman’s shaving tools.

The Whanganui Regional Museum has a collection of portable desks made from different species of wood. One of the more unusual has porcupine quills covering its outer surface and edges of inlaid ivory dots. Inside the lid is a hexagonal motif with twelve triangular sections of different wood species and an ivory circle with an elephant motif. The rest of the inside is elaborately decorated with swirls and flowers of inlaid ivory dots.

2. Interior porcupine desk

The interior of the porcupine quill portable desk. WRM Ref: 1962.178.4

There is also a heavy wooden campaign box which has interior compartments and a pull-out drawer at one end held shut by a brass rod sunk into a side panel. One side has a hinge which, when raised, holds the lid open at different angles. This was once the property of Mr E Hardcastle, Resident Magistrate in Whanganui, 1879.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the centuries is that we still wish to keep in touch and share our experiences with friends and family. Although we can now communicate in the blink of an eye, the beauty and the practicality of portable desks make us think about a return to the gentle art of sending letters and postcards. Are we missing the tactile satisfaction of opening and reading a letter, of selecting just the right postcard to send to a friend, of using our imagination to describe our experiences when we travel; or will pen and paper eventually become a thing of the past?


Kathy Greensides is collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum

Dear Santa…

Christmas has been and gone but many children will already be planning their wish list for later this year.  Reaching for a tablet or smartphone they could sneakily message Saint Nick another gift for their wish list, while a frustrated parent threatens to email Father Christmas and tell him to cancel the toys because of too many tantrums.

2. Santa Claus's visit

 Postcard of a child waiting for Santa Claus to fulfil her wish list, while her father offers advice about not being too greedy, presumably. WRM ref: 1978.77.5 73c

In today’s world of digital communication, it is quick and easy to get an instant message to Santa through any of the websites the Google elves offer. But what about the hand-written and illustrated letters that used to be sent by post?

The following report appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle on Wednesday 24 December 1952:

 “Father Christmas, No.1 Cloud, Iceland”, so the address proclaimed. The blue envelope with its tuppence-ha’penny stamp rested in the trained hand of the postal sorter. All round him stretched the pigeon-holed sorting bays of the overseas mail floor at London’s General Post Office.

“Well, well,” said the sorter, turning to his companion, “Christmas must be closer than I thought. Here’s the first of the Father Christmas mail. A good one, too.” He put it aside and returned to his stack of letters with a shake of his head, a smile and a thought of Christmas and the children.

That was way back in September. But as the mail sorter said, it meant that Christmas was on the way.

1. Christmas toys

 Postcard of a child’s Christmas wish – fruit, biscuits and toys. WRM ref: 1978.77.5 34b

The letter, with its fairy tale address and childish scrawl, was the first of about six thousand of its kind to pass through London General. They came in from overseas as well as from all around Britain. It is a law of the Post Office that a letter must get as near to its destination as possible. And a request to “Santa Claus, Snow Cottage, Iceland”, which might have been posted in Fiji, comes first to London on its way to Iceland.

The Post Office in Iceland, unable to find Santa, who is probably out on his rounds in any case, holds the letter for a time and then it … well, who but Santa is entitled to read the Christmas wish of a child?

There are very few exceptions to this rule of forwarding Father Christmas’ mail. One is when a child’s letter is addressed simply to “Father Christmas” or “Father Christmas, Fairyland”, or “Toyland”, or when the letter is sent to “Santa Claus, the North Pole.” In these cases the letters are held at their office of origin.

3. Tickner envelope

 Hand-decorated envelope with a festive theme, from the Tickner Envelope Collection. WRM ref: 1989.15.3

Father Christmas has many homes, judging by the variety of addresses where children hope to find him. There was one to “Father Christmas, Reindeer Hotel, Iceland” and yet another with the direction “The North Pole, Arctic Ocean, Siberia”. One child tried to reach him through “Fairy Land, Iceland, England”.

Let’s just hope that Santa’s email account has a good spam filter and plenty of storage.

The Tickner Envelopes

R A Tickner was a great correspondent. He was also handy with a pen and ink. In 1919 he was writing regularly from Hornchurch in Essex, England, to members of the Downes family living in Helmore Street, Whanganui. Tickner later married the sister of Sydney Herbert Downes and Thomas William Downes, the well-known Whanganui author, artist and historian. By the early 1920s, Tickner was writing to his family back in Hornchurch, so we can date his migration to New Zealand fairly accurately. This information can be gleaned from the date stamps and addresses on the envelopes.

3. Tickner Envelopes Montage

 Montage of the Tickner Envelope Collection. Ref: 1989.15.

Why is this at all interesting? It is because Tickner decorated, in great detail, the envelopes that contained his letters, sent between Hornchurch and Whanganui. His drawings depicted temporary events or fashionable styles, a lot of it tongue-in-cheek. His elaborately drawn and inked envelopes were gathered up by the extended family in both Hornchurch and Whanganui, and mounted in three frames. They were donated to the Museum by the daughters of Mr and Mrs Sydney Downes.

Letter writing was an important part of the social structure of the day. Families were on the move to find work and houses, in both Europe and America, and many other parts of the world. Long distance telephone calls were very costly, so trunk calls and telegrams were used only in dire emergencies. Letters kept families and friend in touch.

2. Tickner Envelope Xmas Pudding

Decorating envelopes had become something of a folk art tradition by the 1930s and 1940s, in the United States. Its roots, however, go back to the 1840s in England when postage stamps and envelopes were first used. A prepaid postal wrapper decorated with a coloured printed image was the forerunner of the modern envelope. And it became fashionable to hand-decorate plain envelopes with flowers or animals or woodland scenes.

In the 1860s, the American Civil War gave rise to another sort of printed decorated envelope. Both Confederates and Unionists employed fairly unsubtle propaganda to eulogise their causes or point out the duties of fighting men or merely wave the flag, all on the front of commercially produced envelopes.

1. Tickner Envelope Roman Guards

Current affairs and popular culture influenced many envelope decorations. During World War II, for example, many USA servicemen decorated their envelopes with comic training camp scenes, often targeting officers or NCOs, the food or the latrines. The mid-1970s saw a new outbreak of decorated envelopes in the USA. The envelopes themselves might be made of  silk or satin or patchwork cotton pieces, or denim or oilskin, and then were decorated with feathers, photographs, plastic cut-outs, embroidery, newspaper cuttings and occasionally, even sweets. Whatever the era, or the fashion, decorated envelopes became part of popular culture of their day and were collected by aficionados, just as stamps or postcards were collected, and just as the Tickner envelopes were.


Libby Sharpe is the senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Wish you were here: Postcards and Postcard Albums

“Tom Thumb” No inscription or date

“Tom Thumb” No inscription or date

In the days before memes and instant messaging, postcards were a popular way to stay in contact. We still use them today, collecting them as souvenirs of places we’ve visited or things we’ve seen, and sending them to friends and family to make them jealous of our travels.

“A Jolly Xmas from Inglewood” Sent to Aunty Gladys from Mona on 2 December 1910

“A Jolly Xmas from Inglewood” Sent to Aunty Gladys from Mona on 2 December 1910

Postcards have been in use since the mid-1800s.They were designed as small letter cards, just big enough to carry a message without requiring an envelope, which reduced the postal fee. They became popular due to their convenience and cost effectiveness, and once they were able to be printed with a wide variety of images their popularity increased.

“The Weather Prophet” Sent to ‘Beaver Brad’ from Zillah O’Leary on 19 December 1908

“The Weather Prophet” Sent to ‘Beaver Brad’ from Zillah O’Leary on 19 December 1908

Postcards hit their height of popularity in the Edwardian era. In a time without telephones, urgency of contact was a priority and in Britain the post was delivered up to six times a day.  Postcards were used to send messages between friends, order deliveries to home or business, ask a favour, and even assist in courtships. You could write a postcard to a friend in the morning inviting them to dinner, and rest safe in the knowledge they would attend or send a return postcard with an apology before the table was set. It could be considered the equivalent of texting today.

“Best Christmas Wishes” Sent to Dear Mona from Mum (Zillah), undated

“Best Christmas Wishes” Sent to Dear Mona from Mum (Zillah), undated

Postcards started out as bland rectangular cards, with nothing permitted on the front except the address of the recipient. There was some concern that putting the address on the same side as the message would encourage mail sorters to read them. The rules gradually relaxed and the strict official cards evolved into the pictorial postcards mail items we know today – the front emblazoned with an image, poem, or witty comic, and the reverse split with the message on one side and the address on the other.

“The Glad Eye” sent to ‘Miss so and so’ from ‘so and so’; undated

“The Glad Eye” sent to ‘Miss so and so’ from ‘so and so’; undated

But it is not just the sending of the postcard that is important, but the receiving. And it was quite common for postcards to be collected and sorted into albums for posterity. Series of cards were created and the collector aimed to complete the set; different countries, different subjects, even celebrities. At one stage it was fashionable to print news stories on the cards; and some would be printed and ready for sale within hours of a news event occurring.

“The Christian Congregation in Jagadhri” No inscription or date

“The Christian Congregation in Jagadhri” No inscription or date

Postcards were often sent for the sole purpose of collecting, and many a collection would feature a card with the message “for your collection” or similar on the reverse, or even blank as it had been bought for the collection specifically, rather than the post box.

“To Be Delivered” No inscription or date

“To Be Delivered” No inscription or date

The Whanganui Regional Museum holds several postcard albums, one of which came from the Freeman Estate. The postcards were collected and put into the album by Miss Mona Gladys Freeman, originally of Marton, then of Niblett Street in Whanganui. Mona was born on 22 January 1899 to parents John James and Zillah Ann Freeman and was quite young when she collected the cards, which were sent in the early 1900s. The album holds 313 postcards, some of which are visible here.

“Greetings From CHRISTCHURCH” Inscribed: Dear Miss Freeman, I have been longing and waiting for an introduction to you for some time now.  How about you meeting me tomorrow evening say about 7.30pm on the second step of W. Post-office. I think we know each other well enough and I see you every morning coming to work. Do come, Your most Ardent Admirer C.G.B. Do come dear darling”. Undated.

“Greetings From CHRISTCHURCH” Inscribed: Dear Miss Freeman, I have been longing and waiting for an introduction to you for some time now. How about you meeting me tomorrow evening say about 7.30pm on the second step of W. Post-office. I think we know each other well enough and I see you every morning coming to work. Do come, Your most Ardent Admirer C.G.B. Do come dear darling”. Undated.

Free Post

Every now and then we uncover a  hidden gem in the collection.  A bit of philatelic sleuthing has recently lead us to incover a fascinating story behind a rather ordinary envelope.

The official On Her Majesty’s Service envelope is addressed to Major Durie of the Wanganui Militia.  It bears the stamp “FREE WANGANUI” and is the only one of its kind found to date.


The British Post Office initially provided the town with the date stamp bearing the name PETRE, and even after it was officially changed to WANGANUI in 1854, due to budgetary constraints it took another eight years for the new stamps to be issued and used. This envelope is dated 1862, the year the new stamps came into effect, and is a unique example of a free-post stamp being issued to a second class post office.

There we have it – one of a kind, in Whanganui!