The Early Years: 1855-1859
In 1855, a group of merchants and investors in New York City incorporated to form the American Steel Pen Manufacturing Company.
I’ve seen one example of their pens. It takes a standard form found in British pens of the time known as an Albata Pen. The pen itself, despite its rather poor condition, shows evidence of quality workmanship, like a double, or parallel grind.
On April 15, 1856, the Secretary of the company, Albert Granger, was granted a design patent (Design Patent, April 15, 1856, D000780) for a pen that included a medallion of George Washington on the body of the pen. They named it the Washington Medallion Pen. They began to produce and sell this pen immediately.
I’ve found no evidence that the American Steel Pen Manufacturing Company sold any other pens once they developed the Washington Medallion Pen. And there is evidence that they dropped all former designs to produce only this new one for the rest of their history.
In an article in the April, 1857 issue of United States Magazine titled “How Steel Pens are Made: A visit to the manufactory of the Washington Medallion Steel Pen Company” which we have already seen contains a history of pens before the 1850’s, and to which we will come back for a more detailed examination in a later post, it mentions that the Washington Medallion Pen Company is a company who eschews the “variety” offered by other companies and instead adopts “the principle that variety is not a necessity with the consumer – but, on the contrary, uniformity in excellence and designation would more certainly meet the great public desire…” In other words, we’re only going to make one type of pen, and make it with the very highest quality workmanship and consistency.
On the 10th of February, 1857, the Washington Medallion Pen Company was incorporated under the laws of the city, county and state of New York. It was subject to the control of the owners of the American Steel Pen Manufacturing Company.
In 1857, the company went on an advertising spree. One of the things that makes Washington Medallion different from the earlier pen makers is that they actively marketed to a national audience. We find ads in places like New Orleans (above), as well as (all from 1857):
Wilmington, North Carolina
Washington, D. C.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (a relatively remote market, still considered part of “The West” at that point, at least from a New Yorker’s viewpoint)
Hartford, CT (this one’s interesting because it dismisses all of the marketing hype you are seeing from British pens who are starting to claim all kinds of novel coatings to help reduce rusting)
And in the nationally distributed North American Review magazine.
and yes, that’s newly elected President James Buchanan writing from his home in Wheatland, Pennsylvania just after he was elected President, and only a couple of months before taking office in March of 1857.
Washington Medallion and a Nativist Agenda
There is one common element you find in all of the ads: the stress on Washington Medallion Pens being made in America and the importance of using American Pens for American uses.
Leaving aside the patently false claim that it’s the only pen made in America at the time (let alone the claim in the first ad above that it was the “first steel pen manufactory“), Washington Medallion made as a centerpiece of their marketing and identity that they are an American pen, made in America, by Americans. This reflects the strong nativist movement that grew in the 1840’s-50’s that is most often noted for it’s reaction against immigration, but also resulted in a push to buy American products over foreign imports.
It’s interesting to see the company often quote statistics of how much American money is being sent to Britain to buy British pens. President Buchanan is only responding to a strong pro-American sentiment when he finds it instructive that we’re sending $1,000,000 a year to Britain. And, it’s curious to note how the claim grew from $500,000 a year in the early 1857 ads, to $1,000,000 by the late 1857 ads. Did they get better data, or was a half-million not quite enough, but a nice, round million-dollars was more striking?
There’s no way I’ve found to confirm or dispute this amount, and considering the validity of their other claim to being the sole pen made in America (Myer Phineas was making his pens just blocks away from Washington Medallion), I’m not inclined to completely believe their numbers at face value. Regardless of the actual total, it was true that British pens dominated the market and no American pen had been able to successfully compete on a large scale before.
In the United States Magazine article mentioned above, after portraying the history of steel pen production in America as a failure to that point (1857), it then states,
During the last two years not only has the acme of excellence been produced in the manufacture of American steel pens, but their decided superiority is rapidly checking importations, thus distributing among our own people over one million dollars per annum that formerly went abroad.
The next section, telling the origin story for the company, is worth quoting in full to give you an idea of the tone of heroic narrative they seemed to favor when telling their story.
This national triumph has been accomplished by a number of able and spirited individuals, who associated themselves together, according to the General Manufacturing Law of New York, under the title of “The Washington Medallion Pen Company.” They commenced operations by erecting a substantial factory on Thirty-seventh street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, in this city. After securing “competent artisans,” they, at an early day, discovered the rock on which all their predecessors were wrecked – adherence to English styles and trade-marks – which necessitated a competition in the market at the prices at which English pens were offered; presenting no new feature to the consumers, they could not attract the notice of the people or engage the interests of the merchants. To sail clear of this rock the efforts of this Company were directed. Adopting the principle that variety is not a necessity with the consumer – but, on the contrary, uniformity in excellence and designation would more certainly meet the great public desire – it instituted thorough experiments with all known styles of steel pens, and made several entirely new shapes, with the view to ascertain what shape would produce the most natural and generally agreeable action. With this view, and after fully six months devoted to experiments, they perfected a pen of unrivaled shape and excellence – to protect which from infringement they adopted as a trademark a medallion head of Washington; this is secured by letters patent, and is stamped on every pen. Thus fully comprehending the underlying principles of this important branch of manufactures, and boldly striking out a new path in accordance with them, this Company has firmly planted this new interest on American soil.
Let’s unpack some of this.
The site of their factory at 136 W. 37th St. is long gone, but we do know the names of two of those “competent artisans” mentioned in the article. George Harrison and George Bradford first appear in N.Y. directories in 1856 living together in the same boarding house just blocks from the factory at 141 W. 36th. Initially they’re identified as “toolmaker” but by the next year they’re listed as “pen maker.”
They can’t have been in the states for very long because in the 1851 British census we find them still in Birmingham.
George Bradford, 22, living with his widowed father, George. The senior George’s trade is listed as “penholder maker” and George Jr. and his older brother John are identified as “pen tool makers.” He lived at 48 William St. in Birmingham with his father and 6 other siblings.
The most likely candidate for our George Harrison in the 1851 English census is the son of Joseph Harrison (retired silver maker) and Mary. They all live at 66 Garrison Lane, Aston, Birmingham. At age 22 he is listed as a toolmaker along with his two brothers in the same trade.
How Harrison and Bradford arrived in the US is still a mystery. Whether they took ship in hopes of finding their fortune, or if they were recruited by one of the principles of the company to come to America and help them start a new pen company, we may never know. We do know that Albert Eastman, the President of the new American Steel Pen company, was also involved in importing silks and other fancy goods. Most of the fancy goods sold in the US of the time were made in England, so it’s not unreasonable to think that either he visited there, or had extensive contacts in the country to effect this recruitment. Until we can find a record of immigration, it will be difficult to determine when and how they arrived in the US.
[Edit: since the original publication of this entry, I’ve come across a citation from an 1863 encyclopedia entry discussing female employment in the steel pen industry, which states that Washington Medallion brought women from England who had worked in the steel pen industry there, presumably in Birmingham, to work in their factory. If they went to the trouble of bringing skilled workers, it’s almost certain they also brought the skilled tool makers as well. I propose that this strengthens the argument that Harrison and Bradford were brought to the US, rather than came on their own and stumbled upon Washington Medallion.]
Why would they leave Britain and come to the US? We get a glimpse of the Birmingham steel industry in an article from just a few years later in Cornish’s Stranger’s Guide Through Birmingham. In it, the author writes, under the heading of “Miscellaneous Manufactures in Metals” :
Steel Pens. – This trade has its origin here about 1829, the first pens being made by Mr. Joseph Gillott, [ed.: notice how even as early as 1860’s the history of the pen industry is focusing on only the big names, and forgetting the real pioneers] whose name has since become so closely identified with the trade. Mr. Gillott’s manufactory (Graham Street) is open to visitors on application. There are twelve steel pen makers in Birmingham. Messrs. Hinks and Wells, Buckingham Street; Mr. Mason, Lancaster Street; Mr. Mitchell, Newhall Street, and Cumberland Street; and Mr. Brandauer, New John Street West, being amongst the principal. The number of men employed in the trade is 360, and of women and girls 2,050, besides whom a large number of box-makers, &c., are constantly engaged. The quantity of steel used weekly for the production of pens is about ten tons, and the number of pens made weekly, 98,000 gross, i.e., that is 1,176,000 dozen, or 14,112,000 separate pens. Thus, in one year, pens enough are made in Birmingham almost to supply one pen to every existing member of the human race. The prices range from 12s to 1 1/2d. per gross. To quote a recent writer (from whom most of these facts are taken) when it is remembered that each gross requires 144 pieces of steel to go through at least twelve processes, the fact that 144 pens can be sold for 1 1/2 d. is a singular example of the results attainable by the division of labour and the perfection of mechanical skill.”
Birmingham was the epicenter of the largest manufacturers of pens in the world, but that also meant there were a lot of young men being trained in the specialized trade, with, most likely, not enough job openings for a well-trained tool maker. We know, from the biography of another steel pen maker from Birmingham who came to America just a few years later, John Turner, that after his apprenticeship in the English manufactories, he went overseas to France to learn how they made pens there.
Other countries who were just starting to get their pen industries off the ground would have been tempting locations to try your luck and see if you could make it big in a new market. America, with its large population, high literacy rate, who was hungry for British pens, was ripe for a new pen manufacturer run under English methods and using the latest tools and techniques from Birmingham. Harrison and Bradford were just the men to help.
And why would Granger, et. al. go all the way to England to find someone to help them make pens? The answer lies in the same article from the United States Magazine. Of course, it’s highly likely that Harrison and Bradford had some say in the following description of the importance of the tool maker in the pen industry.
“Upon the make and prefect truthfulness of the tools depend the quality of the pens. The tools are manufactured on the premises by artists who are known as pen-tool makers. These tool makers rank in Birmingham as the best machanics [sic] in England, and command higher wages than any other mechanics in that country. They are the chiefs of their shops – all the work being performed under their charge and responsibility.”
Thus is how Harrison & Bradford are seen, at least by themselves, but it’s not far from the truth. Past pen-making enterprises were less able to get the right level of flexibility and finish to allow them to compete with the British pens. But all of them had relied on American tools and American tool makers. Washington Medallion showed the value of bringing British tool makers from Birmingham, and making the tools here, in the British style. This is a pattern followed a few years later by Richard Esterbrook.
By 1859, you no longer find Washington Medallion directly advertising. Stationers will still advertise them, but you find no more advertisements until 1860.
1860 is a crucial year for the Washington Medallion Pen Company, as we will see in our next post.