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Drawing Instruments with Silver Case

Drawing Instruments with Silver Case. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

Artist/Maker: Case: John Letelier (active c. 1790-1810); intruments: possibly Peter (1730-1820) and John Dollond (d. 1804)[1]

Created: case: c. 1806; instruments: possibly 1786

Origin/Purchase: case: Washington, D.C.; instruments: London

Materials: silver, glass, brass nib

Dimensions: case: 8.9 x 3 x 1.6 (3 1/2 x 1 3/16 x 5/8 in.); dividers: L: 7.6 (3 in.); penholder including tip: L: 7.5 (2 15/16 in.); rule: L open: 15.2 (6 in.), L closed: 7.9 (3 1/8 in.); bottle: L: 5.6 (2 1/4 in.), D (at base): 1.0 (3/8 in.)

Location: Monticello's Visitor Center

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Virginia and 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.[2] 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.[3] Jefferson probably ordered the case to accommodate instruments that he had purchased two decades earlier from the mathematical instrument maker Peter Dolland in London. On March 29, 1786, Jefferson noted that he paid Dolland for a silver "drawpen, pocket divider, etc."[4] He may have added the silver rule to the cases in 1808, when he recorded purchasing one for seventy-five cents.[5]

Jefferson's set enabled him to make measured or free-hand drawings while he traveled, possibly using a portable drawing board.[6] 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.[7]

While only pen, ink, and paper are necessary for sketching, measured drawings require more particular tools, such as a rule, 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.[8] Dividers were used for marking off distances, taking measurements off scale rules, or transferring dimensions from one drawing to another.[9]


  1. This article is based on Stein, Worlds, 370.
  2. Thomas Jefferson, November 6, 1806, in MB, 2:1192. The case bears Letelier's mark.
  3. Maya Hambly, Drawing Instruments 1580-1980 (London: Sotheby's Publications, 1988), 154, 185.
  4. Jefferson, March 29, 1786, in MB, 1:616.
  5. Jefferson, July 18, 1808, in ibid., 2:1228.
  6. A portable drawing board and scale are listed on William and Samule Jones invoice to Jefferson, July 23, 1806, Missouri Historical Society.
  7. Jefferson, notes of a tour through Holland and the Rhine Valley, March 3 to April 23, 1788, in PTJ, 13:8-36.
  8. Charles Brownell, ed. The Making of Virginia Architecture (Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1992), 150-162.
  9. Hambly, 69, 84.


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