New Hampshire Glossary: Pounce

Photograph of a Pounce Box, circa 1789-1793, used by Paine Wingage (1739-1838) of Stratham NH. Gift of Dana Wingate Baker. New Hampshire Historical Society Online Catalog. Used with Permission.

Wafers stain’d with motley hue,
Ye low, black, white, red, and blue;
Wax that holds the strongest paper,
Wax to burn in rolls or taper;
Folding knives to fit your hand,
Rulers, pounce and shining sand…” Excerpt of advertisement poem from New-Hampshire Spy newspaper, 17 June 1788, Portsmouth NH, page 64.

I was recently browsing the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Collection Catalog (online) when I came across an interesting photograph of an artifact– a “Pounce Box.” It was a surprising find for me, in that I had no idea of what it was, or how it was used.

Called a ‘Pounce Box,’ ‘Pounce Pot,’ ‘Sprinkler.’ or ‘Sander’ the item is a small container sometimes shaped like a rectangle (i.e. box-like) Other pounce boxes are barrel-shaped, and yet still others are similar to a salt or pepper shaker) with a perforated end (ie has small holes). The container on the NHS’s web site  itself was made of ivory, though others I’ve seen are made of a variety of other materials including turned wood, porcelain, pewter, ceramic, tin, bronze, brass, or silver.

To use, the pounce box was filled with ‘pounce,’ — a fine powder, such as pulverized gum sandarac (a white or yellow resin of the Tetraclunis articulate tree, preferred) or cuttle-shell, i.e. cuttlebone.  The powder was sprinkled and applied on the surface of parchment before setting ink to paper. It was used to prevent the ink from spreading in writing over an erasure or on un-sized paper.

The book, ‘First Century of National Existence; the United States as they were and are,’ by James Thacher Hodge, 1874, on page 361 states the necessities of writers: “X things a penman should have near at hand–Paper, pounce, pen, ink, knife, hone, rule, plummet, wax, sand.”  For those interested in the history of this word, The New English Dictionary Vol VII, contributors James, Murray, Henry Bradley, 1909 page 1202 provides an excellent description of early use of this term to describe a writing powder.

In pre-American Revolution newspapers pounce was advertised along with blank books of either parchment, vellum or calf-skin, fine writing paper, quills, ink powder, pounce, sealing wax, wafers, black lead pencils silvered with caps and cases, and other writing necessities.

In May of 1767 the New-Hampshire Gazette advertised the sale of Pounce Boxes (along with many other things) by John Edwards bookbinder and stationer from Boston had a shop opposite Corner to Major Hale on Queen Street in Portsmouth (NH). In December of the same year (1767) William Appleton informs his customers of his shop at the Sign of the Bible and Crown in Queen Street Portsmouth, offering a collection of books and stationery, including writing necessities and pounce. (New Hampshire Gazette Nov 27, 1767 Portsmouth NH).  In March of 1771, John Sparkhawk advertised his shop opposite Messr’s Williams and Standwoods Shop in Queen Street, with a variety of books and writing implements.

As late as 1865 pounce was still in use, advertised in the Independent Democrat, of 6 Apr 1865 in Concord NH when the Office of the A.A. Provost Marshal General, State of NH advertised a request for proposals to provide stationary to various offices in his department and the volunteer recruiting Service of NH.

The 20th century, when alternative writing implements became the norm, sounded the death toll for the frequent use of pounce.  It continues to be used today by artists and calligraphers.


Tin Pounce Box – legend has it, George Washington used it.

Paper, Ink, Sand, Pounce. Blog story by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

Scribal Materials and Tools–Sand Myth or Real

The History of Pencils

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

This entry was posted in History, New Hampshire Glossary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to New Hampshire Glossary: Pounce

  1. Amy says:

    I’ve never heard of this! I always learn such interesting things on your blog, Janice.

Leave a Reply