Pen History: The 1840’s, from the perspective of the 1850’s.

I’ve been covering the history of steel pens up to the 1840’s based as much as possible on the primary sources I’ve been able to find. Up to the 1850’s, the industry had been too new for anyone to indulge in a retrospective. That changed with a new company who wanted to create an identity that placed themselves in opposition to all who had come before.  This was the Washington Medallion Pen Company.

I found this earliest attempt at taking a broader look at history of the US steel pen industry is found in an article in the United States Magazine issue for April of 1857 describing the factory of the Washington Medallion Pen Company.

We’ll be looking at the whole article in another post, and we’ll be talking about the Washington Medallion Pen Company in much greater length elsewhere. At this point I want to look at the following selection from the article and we’ll see if we can trace it step-by-step. It’s important to remember that the author was not trying to paint an accurate, historical view of past pen makers, but was instead helping to build a narrative of the WMPC as something radically new in both its product as well as its success.

Here’s the whole section. After, I’ll take each piece and see what we can find out from it.

About the year 1840, steel pens having become in considerable demand in this country, and the fact of their almost universal adoption being already apparent, the cupidity of certain parties was excited, and they resolved to present steel pens of home manufacture for the public favor. The first effort was by a company in Massachusetts, who perfected some fair specimens for that early day; but, owning to inexperience and the absence of proper tools, tool makers, and a knowledge of slitting, tempering and finishing, their products lacked uniformity of quality; thus the enterprise failed. Soon after, two or three of the principle dealers in stationery in this city experimented in steel pen manufacture. We remember one of them who commenced operations in Brooklyn, and who, after expending some $15,000, followed in the wake of the Eastern Company. Another erected his works in New Jersey, and for some months battled manfully for success; finally he “felt” he must follow his illustrious predecessors. The late C.C. Wright, long known as a prominent engraver and die-sinker, made a most strenuous effort to permanently establish this manufacture. Through his influence, aided by J. C. Barnett, since well known as the treasurer of Burton’s Theater, a company was formed and a capital amounting to $200,000 expended. A large factory was erected on Fifth street, in this city, the most approved machinery and fixtures procured, operations commenced, and ten or twelve varieties of pens produced, many of them of excellent quality; yet, notwithstanding the impetus with which the affair was started, it met with no better success than those before mentioned. We learn of no attempts to resuscitate the business until 1852, when some Birmingham men, who claimed to be experts, induced certain capitalists in New Jersey to “try their money” in the operation. One after the other, two or three companies expended large amounts, each with no better pecuniary results than had been before arrived at.

If you’ve been following the history so far, some of these references should be fairly obvious, but I’m going to look at them one-by-one.

Analysis

About the year 1840, steel pens having become in considerable demand in this country, and the fact of their almost universal adoption being already apparent, the cupidity of certain parties was excited, and they resolved to present steel pens of home manufacture for the public favor.

As I mentioned in my original article on the 1840’s, the British had dominated the pen industry in the 1820’s and 1830’s, and it was in the 1840’s when Americans made a serious effort at manufacturing steel pens. I also mentioned the rising nativist movement of the time, stressing the importance of us buying and supporting American manufacturers.


 

The first effort was by a company in Massachusetts, who perfected some fair specimens for that early day; but, owning to inexperience and the absence of proper tools, tool makers, and a knowledge of slitting, tempering and finishing, their products lacked uniformity of quality; thus the enterprise failed.

This is obviously referring to Josiah Hayden. If you remember, he was trying to set up a steel pen factory out in Western Massachusetts. As far as I’ve been able to find out, he founded the manufactory with all American labor. He brought in mechanics and tool makers from elsewhere in Massachusetts, and from as far away as Connecticut, but as far as I can tell, he was relying on their past experience making steel buttons or cotton mills, or other general manufacturing. There are some similarities between making metal buttons (Hayden’s former product) and steel pens, and with Yankee ingenuity and inventiveness, they were able to figure out how to produce a decent product. The quality was good enough to win silver medals at the American Institute fairs, but then the competition was not very steep. Hayden didn’t last long making steel pens before he sold the business and went on to making gold pens, which was much more of a hand-operation and not as reliant on specialized machinery, dies and knowledge of steel tempering.


 

Soon after, two or three of the principle dealers in stationery in this city experimented in steel pen manufacture. We remember one of them who commenced operations in Brooklyn, and who, after expending some $15,000, followed in the wake of the Eastern Company. Another erected his works in New Jersey, and for some months battled manfully for success; finally he “felt” he must follow his illustrious predecessors.

This is an interesting section. Obviously the second is a reference to David Felt. Felt founded Feltville in New Jeresey as his factory town. Now, Felt was making pens as early as the 1830’s, so he doesn’t fit neatly into the “About the year 1840” narrative, but I’m not counting on this source to give me the most accurate dating.

The real mystery is the reference to the first stationer. The only stationer who I know who had works in Brooklyn, besides Felt, was Herts & Sons. They had their stationery factory in Brooklyn, and Spooner, a stationer in Brooklyn, was one of their main dealers.

1845 Herts sons alpha

It’s interesting that he doesn’t make any mention of Herts’ English antecedents, which may be a mark against Herts being the subject. This only really becomes significant within the context of Washington Medallion’s marketing campaign, which we’ll look at elsewhere, which strongly focused on the fact that these are American Pens, made by Americans, for Americans.


 

The late C.C. Wright, long known as a prominent engraver and die-sinker, made a most strenuous effort to permanently establish this manufacture. Through his influence, aided by J. C. Barnett, since well known as the treasurer of Burton’s Theater, a company was formed and a capital amounting to $200,000 expended. A large factory was erected on Fifth street, in this city, the most approved machinery and fixtures procured, operations commenced, and ten or twelve varieties of pens produced, many of them of excellent quality; yet, notwithstanding the impetus with which the affair was started, it met with no better success than those before mentioned.

We looked at C. C. Wright in some detail. The interesting information here was further identifying J.C. Barnett as the treasurer of Burton’s Theater. Burton’s Theater was one of the first Broadway theaters. The purpose of this section of the magazine article is to compare the operations of Washington Medallion favorably versus the prior efforts at pen making, so all former makers must, at some point, fail. The information we have from C. C. Wright experts, based on the accounts of his life from his grandson, is that C. C. Wright made his money making pens and then sold the business because he had made enough to spend the rest of his life doing what he really wanted to do, engraving and medal making. The truth may never be known, but it may be somewhere between the all good and all failure stories. At least they admit the pens were of high quality.


 

We learn of no attempts to resuscitate the business until 1852, when some Birmingham men, who claimed to be experts, induced certain capitalists in New Jersey to “try their money” in the operation. One after the other, two or three companies expended large amounts, each with no better pecuniary results than had been before arrived at.

This concluding passage is interesting in a couple of ways. One is that I have no solid idea who he’s talking about. Since this is written in 1857, he’s only talking about a five-year period in which two or three companies tried to start, spending lots of money, and failed. That seems rather a shortened time frame. If these really happened then they may have started and closed rather rapidly and left no real trail for me to find.

 

The other interesting point is the fact that the author talks of “Birmingham men” coming in to provide expertise. This is interesting, because this is precisely the pattern we’re going to see in the next two decades, the 1850’s and 1860’s, where it’s transplanted Birmingham men, trained in the main British pen factories, who kick off the first real, sustained wave of successful steel pen businesses in the US. And the first is, ironically enough, the subject of this article, the Washington Medallion Pen Company.

 

 

 

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