A famous Victorian
Florence Nightingale is one of the best known historical figures from the Victorian period. Born into a wealthy family, she resisted the traditional role of wife and mother in order to forge a career in nursing. Her most famous achievements developed from her work to improve conditions for wounded and sick soldiers during the Crimean War, when she took 38 women volunteer nurses to work in the military hospital at Scutari on the Black Sea. On her return to Britain Nightingale continued to work on improving nursing and health care provision. In 1860 she established the world’s first professional school of nursing at St Thomas’ Hospital in London which continues to teach nurses and midwives as part of King’s College London. Every year International Nurses Day is celebrated on 12 May, Nightingale’s birthday.
The writing case
This writing case is an example of the public appreciation of Florence Nightingale’s achievements expressed at a local level by the inhabitants of the parish of Lea, Holloway and Crich in Derbyshire where the Nightingale family had a summer residence. It was presented to her on 8 August 1856 after her return from the Crimea.
The case is lacquered and decorated with still-life paintings of fruit, a landscape background and borders of floral patterns. It has two lids. The smaller one at the back opens to reveal an ink bottle, a velvet-lined rack to hold pens and two other compartments, perhaps for stamps, nibs, sealing wax or blotting powder. The larger lid, which has two flaps, opens forwards, providing access to the space where paper and envelopes were kept, and then one flap folds back to create a velvet-lined writing slope.
Writing cases became very popular in the first quarter of the 1800s with an increase in literacy among the middle classes and the use of the letter as a means of communication. Their popularity grew still further with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 which resulted in an increase in the number of letters posted in the United Kingdom from 76 million in 1839 to 347 million in 1850. The portability of the cases gave them distinct advantages over fixed writing desks. In homes that had limited sources of light and heat, the owner could move the case to where writing conditions were best. They could also be packed in luggage if the owner was travelling.
Cases were designed differently for women and for men and for the rich and not so rich. This case, with its high level of decoration and velvet interior, is typical of a wealthy woman’s case. Men’s cases were generally bigger and simpler, with a plain wooden finish, and tended to be lined in leather. Exotic woods and brass fittings were used for more expensive cases.
Florence Nightingale as writer
Florence Nightingale used writing as a way to gather support for her work, to record and explain it and to promote her ideas. During the time she was working in the Crimea she communicated with influential individuals back in Britain, describing the appalling state of the military hospitals. In the Victorian period newspapers were the main carriers of local, national and world news and Florence used a letter to the Times newspaper as a means of putting pressure on government. She excelled in the visual presentation of information and statistical graphics and was one if the first people to make use of the pie chart as a means of conveying data. In 1859 she published her book Notes on Nursing which became a core training text and is still in print today. On her death she left behind more than 200 volumes of her writings, including drafts, letters, reports and even scraps of papers.
Information on the Crimean War and the Victorian period from the Florence Nightingale Museum.
Article from BBC History
Nightingale as a social reformer
The historical argument regarding Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole
National Archives lesson
With links to pages about Mary Seacole and Elizabeth Davis.
BBC History: article on Victorian medicine
BBC History: women’s work in Victorian times
Education resource on the Penny Black stamp
From the British Postal Museum and Archive.