Charles Cushing Wright was born in Damariscotta, Maine in 1796. His early life was a story of hardship (orphaned!, abandoned!), drama (poisoning! oppression!) and hard work to overcome a lack of formal education or familial support worthy of a 19th-century novel.
The greatly shortened version is that he initially studied under a silver smith in Utica, in up-state New York, decided he would teach himself engraving, moved first to Savannah and then left for Charleston, S. C. after the great Savannah fire destroyed his workshop. In Charleston he met his wife, Lavinia Dorothy Simons. In 1820 they were married and in 1823 they moved to New York City.*
Once in the city he partnered with another talented engraver, Asher Durand, and Durand’s older brother to form Durand and Wright. Working together for four years, from 1823-1827 they became important bank note engravers.
Wright was a talented medalist (sculptor of medals and medallions), engraver and a die-sinker, the person who carves the dies used to make coins. Some consider him the premier American medalist as all of his training was in the US or self-taught. This 1848 medal commemorating Zachery Taylor’s victory over the Mexicans at Buena Vista is a good example of his work.
Wright was also active in the artistic community in New York City. He and Durand, along with Samuel F.B. Morse (of Morse Code fame), Rembradt Peale, Thomas Cole, and others were in the group of young and talented artists who broke away from the American Academy of Fine Arts to eventually form the National Academy of Design, an influential honorary society of artists that is active to this day as the National Academy Museum and School.
Through his work with the Academy he became friends with the well-known chemist James Mapes (father of the author Mary Mapes Dodge). Through Mapes, Wright came to know another chemist who had turned into an ink manufacturer, Thaddeus Davids. Davids had been making ink since 1825 and continued until 1889.
Davids introduced Wright to the prosperous stationer David Felt. (see my post on the 1830’s when Felt had a short-run try at making his own steel pens under the name of Stationer’s Hall Pens.) For a time Wright was given a space in Felt’s workshops at 34 Wall St. to engrave seals for wealthy clients and make engraved plates to make custom labels. The fancier the engraving on a label, the harder it was to counterfeit. Monograms and seals were all the rage at the time, and Wright’s work was well-received.
1840 ad for David Felt advertising Wright’s medallion stamps.
In 1842, James Mapes’ son, Charles Mapes, joined with Charles Wright and Joseph C. Barnet and together they formed a company for making steel pens. It is not unlikely that they may have started with David Felt’s old pen making equipment as we no longer find references to Stationer Hall pens by that point, and there’s no record of Felt selling his equipment before this time. I’m sure however they started, with Wright’s abilities as a die sinker and engraver, they soon made their own dies and they began making pens under the name of C. C. Wright & Co.
C. C. Wright pens were well-received and consistently won top place in the American Institute’s fairs in New York City. (with poor Josiah Hayden’s pens coming in second every year they competed together)
They soon were offering a wide variety of pen shapes and types with over a dozen offered in 1844. They seem to have targeted especially businesses (like banking), and schools.
His ads are often filled with testimonials about the quality of his pens from newspapers to whom he would send samples, from famous penmanship teachers, and from business folks.
And in 1842, the same year they started making pens, C. C. Wright & Co. submitted a proposal to provide pens to the Treasury Department. Some of the references they used to get the attention of the Treasury Dept. included Judge Tallmudge, the city Recorder at the time, and “Professor [James] Mapes” who was to be in Washington DC and was going to drop off a few samples. The other references were W[illiam]. H. Cary & Co, importers of fancy goods, and Russell, Mattison and Taylor, one of the largest button manufacturers in NYC.
In the proposal to the Treasury, they offered the following pens at the following prices. Pens on cards were provided at a dozen per card, a dozen cards per gross.
1. Imitation of the Perrian Pen – $2.75/gross
2. Columbian Eagle Pen – $3.00/gross
3. National Pen – $2.00/gross
4. Naval Pen – $2.00/gross
5. Elastic Pen – $1.80/gross
6. Knickerbocker Pen – $1.75/gross
7. Merchant’s Pen – $1.60/gross
1. School Pens – 75 cents/gross
2. Fine office pens, No. 1 – 87 ½ cents/gross
3. Fine office pens No. 2 – 75 cents/gross
4. Columbian Eagle Pens with holders – $2.50/gross
5. Imitation of Misely’s Pen (possibly Mosely’s pen?) – 50 cents/gross [link]
6. (late Hotchkiss and Co’s) pen – 87 ½ cents/gross
Holders and Handles were also to be provided. At $1.75 and $1.60 per gross respectively.
Wright continued to do engraving and medallions while also making money from his pens. An example from this time is this wonderful advertising note for his pens. (That’s Lafayette on the right) (image courtesy of the New York Historical Society)*
In early 1847 Charles Wright sold his business for a “tidy sum” which allowed him to focus full-time on his medals and other engraving projects.
Unfortunately, Charles Wright died in 1854 at the relatively young age of 59.
There are three major questions still to be answered related to Wright’s time as a pen maker:
- Where did he get the tools for making pens? The story that’s been passed down says that while at David Felt’s he saw first-hand the difficulties Felt had in importing British pens. I suspect it was more that he saw a wide variety of pens and realized that with the right tooling it was fairly easy to make pens, and his knowledge of steel and its properties could come in handy. At the time there, again, weren’t many American manufactures. Atwood was out before 1841, and Hayden was just getting started, as was Mark Levy and Rhodes & Sons. Felt could haven advised him that this was a way to make some money, which Wright was in need of.
- To whom did Wright sell the pen making equipment and the business? I doubt the machines just disappeared. If he sold the business for a “tidy sum” then someone bought the assets and most likely began making pens. A likely candidate has yet to materialize out of a few possible options.
- What did a C.C. Wright pens look like? Obviously some were imitations of other pens, but none have been found as far as I can tell. If anyone finds one or a picture of one, let me know. More people than just I would be interested.
The 1840’s are shaping up to be an interesting decade. You start to have more serious artisans and industrialists trying their hand at pen making. It’s no long the inventor like Atwood, or stationer seeing if it’s cheaper to make than to buy, like Felt.
This sets us up for a whole different breed of professional pen makers to come along in the 1850’s and 1860’s.
* Many thanks go to Neil Musante, whose article in the Summer, 2014 issue of the MCA Advisory, the magazine for the Medal Collectors of America, was a source of tremendous help in the writing of this post, as was the personal correspondence with Mr. Musante who was generosity itself with his knowledge and help. Also, credit to the New York Historical Society who owns the amazing advertising note above.
5 Replies to “Pen History, 1840’s: C. C. Wright & Co.”
I am a direct descendant of Charles Cushing Wright and would enjoy seeing any of his items that are at the NY Historical Society and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have visited the Numismatic Museum in NYC and observed several items. Please advise whom I should contact if my wish is possible.
Thank you for your time!