I wanted to share some of the resources I’ve been using to research the old steel pen makers and their pens. I’ll start with one of the most important for the golden age of the steel pen, 1870-1920.
The American Stationer
The American Stationer was a trade publication for the New York stationery and fancy goods trade. It was published weekly on newsprint from 1873 to at least 1928.
Many of the volumes and issues are available online. The best compilation of the issues and links to them is found on David Nishamura’s wonderful Vintage Pens Blog. David’s blog post has good information about how to use the online versions. I also have found the Internet Archive versions to be the best. Unfortunately, the HathiTrust versions are often missing pages, and/or have pages mixed up in their order.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this journal for research into early pens and writing supplies. The journal is filled with advertisements, industry gossip and news, and sometimes even prices.
The best way to use them is to begin by searching in each volume. This is done differently for each version but it’s possible because there is some basic OCR-scanned text in the background. The searchable text is somewhat hit-and-miss and will miss key instances of your searched text, but it’s a great way to catch a lot.
The only thorough way to find everything is the brute force method of going through each issue page by page. For this, I recommend downloading the pdf versions. If you download every volume from the earliest of 1878, up through 1910, it takes about 7GB of space. I’m in the process of downloading each volume and then splitting them into individual issue pdf docs. This makes it quite fast to run through an issue as smaller pdf docs are faster than larger ones.
There is not a lot of overt information in The American Stationer. There’s the occasional short piece of news regarding one of the big manufacturers, or the announcement of the introduction of a new pen style, but most of the valuable information you can glean comes from the advertisements. What they can tell you are things like when someone moves addresses, or when they are advertising a new pen. You also want to look for when someone advertises, and when they don’t. It won’t give you a definitive statement, but it gives an indication, a hint for what might be going on.
As an example, I’ve not been able to find any documentation about when Leon Isaacs & Co was sold to Turner & Harrison. But, thanks to the American Stationer, I can narrow it down to 1899. There are mentions of Leon Isaacs and it’s principles advertising and out on sales trips up to 1898. Then in 1900, Turner & Harrison advertises Leon Isaacs’ Glucinum Pens as their primary line of pens.
It’s these small hints, gathered together, compared and collated, that start to put together the history of the steel pen industry in the US.
Plus, it’s fun to see all of the advertisements for things like pens, pencils, and even the occasional Milton Bradley game.
As a reminder, here again is the link to the most complete list of online issues of The American Stationer.