Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Virginia and Nicholas Philip Trist; by descent to Edmund Jefferson Burke; by gift to Charles M. Storey; by gift to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1958
Accession Number: 1958-44-4
Historical Notes: Jefferson purchased the etui for these pocket-size drawing instruments in 1806 from the Philadelphia silversmith John Letelier.1 Pocket cases, also known as gentlemen's traveling cases or "etuis," were common in Jefferson's time. The contents of holders varied according to an individual's needs, and it was not uncommon to purchase the contents and case separately.2 Jefferson probably ordered the case to accommodate instruments that he had purchased two decades earlier from the mathematical instrument maker Peter Dollond in London. On March 29, 1786, Jefferson noted that he paid Dollond for "pocket dividers drawpen &c. silver £2-2."3 He may have added the silver rule to the cases in 1808, when he recorded purchasing one for seventy-five cents.4
Jefferson's set enabled him to make measured or free-hand drawings while he traveled, possibly using a portable drawing board.5 Descriptive sketches often accompanied Jefferson's explanations of mechanical devices, but he also drew objects and sites that simply caught his attention. For example, hasty sketches of buildings, furniture, stoves, wheelbarrows, castle ruins, and maps punctuated Jefferson's diary of his travels in the Netherlands and Rhine Valley.6
While only pen, ink, and paper are necessary for sketching, measured drawings require more particular tools, such as a rule, a tracer, and dividers. Jefferson used a tracer, a blunt tapered instrument, to create score marks on paper that could be filled in later with ink or graphite.7 Dividers were used for marking off distances, taking measurements off scale rules, or transferring dimensions from one drawing to another.8
3. Jefferson, March 29, 1786, in MB, 1:616. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4. Jefferson, July 18, 1808, in MB, 2:1228. Transcription available at Founders Online.
5. A portable drawing board and seat are listed on an invoice to Jefferson from William and Samuel Jones, London instrument makers. William Jones to Jefferson, July 23, 1805, Bixby Collection, Missouri Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.
6. Notes of a Tour Through Holland and the Rhine Valley, March 3-April 23, 1788, in PTJ, 13:8-36. Transcription available at Founders Online.