I want to start to add some history topics to the blog now that I’ve got some of the basics down. For my first topic I’m going to lay out a general scheme I have for dividing up the history of the steel pen, specifically from an American perspective as that is my focus.
The first period is what I’m calling Prehistory because it’s a time where we have hints and tantalizing clues to the existence of metallic writing implements, but not a lot of details, nor really any solid names of artisans. There are several sources who have gathered together a great many references to metal pens going back quite a long way (at least Roman and possibly earlier).
Many of the earliest references are most likely to metal styli for making marks in wax, or to replace a reed pen. The first likely metallic pens similar to what we are used to, were made after the quill became the standard writing implement in the 15th-century. After that, we read of examples appearing here and there, usually as a one-off, or limited production and made of precious metals, like silver and gold.
The Prehistoric era lasts just into the 18th-century. At this point we enter The Craft Era.
The Craft Era.
This is the time when you start to have named makers creating steel pens by hand. These early craftsmen were either jewelers or blacksmiths, artisans used to working metal and with access to the tools of metal-work. This period lasts from the mid-late 18th-century, up until about 1823 or so.
This period sees the first people known to make a living by just making pens, as well as the earliest accounts of making pens using some of the technology (like the screw press) later used to industrialize pen production. We see the first record of a three-slit pen (main and two shoulder slits) for increased flexibility. We also see the introduction of the slip nib, a separate, disposable nib slipped into a holder. But these innovations are not always what you would expect, or have heard of in earlier histories.
The Early Years
After about 1823, the industrialization of pen making begins in earnest. Most of the activity and innovation is coming from Britain, predominantly around Birmingham, but also some in London and elsewhere. We also have some early factories being set up on the Continent.
The Americans see that there is money to be made in this new industry and begin to set up factories for making their own pens, usually versions of the British pens which were becoming quite popular. The first American steel pen companies are formed.
The Golden Age
The Golden Age of American Steel Pens begins in 1860 and lasts up until around 1930. These 70 years see a flourishing and expansion of American steel pen manufacturing. A host of companies, big and small are formed, merged, split, and eventually settle into a handful of very large companies making millions of pens a year. At the beginning of this period the manufacturing process has been pretty much settled and it stays pretty much that way until up around 1900, or a little later when higher labor costs begin to drive innovation and increased mechanization for American makers.
This was also the golden age of pen advertising, and marketing. Pen makers split their lines into hundreds of styles, different brands, and tiers of quality, and with the advent of custom imprints, every stationer, business or wholesaler could have their own line of pens. You can still find thousands of different names imprinted on pens, ranging from massive railroads to school districts, state governments and even small stationery stores in rural cities.
This period ends with the strong rise of the cheap fountain pen, especially as fountain pens began to find entry into schools and became ubiquitous in offices.
The Decline lasts from around 1930 until the early 1950’s which is when we see the two largest makers of steel pens, Esterbrook and Turner & Harrison stop making dip pens. Esterbrook continued on with their recent line of fountain pens, but Turner & Harrison completely dissolve their company in 1952, marking the end of a major era in Philadelphia pen making.
The Lean Years
From the 1950’s until actually quite recently, steel pens were still produced but only on a very small scale, and predominantly for decorative writing, i.e. calligraphy, or for drawing. Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in calligraphy, especially the styles made with pointed steel pens. As interest grows, the price of the vintage pens of the best quality for decorative writing has skyrocketed, leading some current makers to try and meet that demand with better quality control on their existing lines, and the re-introduction of the classic styles which today bring the highest prices for vintage nibs.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. Will the current interest in Maker Culture continue? Will “Modern Calligraphy” continue to be popular? Only time will tell.