Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Lawyer with Quill at his Desk

The portrait of an attorney, above, is by Jacob Maentel, a noted antebellum American folk artist. The details illustrate a crucial aspect of an early American lawyer's office: document production. First, we may note the two shelves of law books, including several folio volumes on their sides. These are most likely imported English or European law texts since American law books of the period, with very few exceptions, were issued in quarto or octavo and not the larger, more expensive folio format. The lawyer stands at his desk, as was not uncommon, but we also see the hgh stool which he--or his clerk--would have used if the document was long. Finally, the lawyer is using a sharpened quill pen. Steel nibbed pens did not become common until the second half of the nineteenth century. One might also note that in the United States Supreme Court today, quill pens are furnished to the lawyers, although these tend to be taken away as prized mementos rather than put to practical use.
The portrayal of the lawyer standing at his desk penning a document is typical of "occupational" portraits of the period, although in reality it was usually a clerk or professional scrivener who would have copied most documents.