I’ve already referenced an article in United States Magazine, from April of 1857 several times. Like here, here, and here. The full title of the article is “How Steel Pens are Made: A visit to the manufactory of the Washington Medallion Steel Pen Company.”
I’ve already discussed the importance of the Washington Medallion Steel Pen Company in other posts on this site. (follow the “here” links in the paragraph above) Now I’d like to look more closely at this very early and important explanation of how pens were made by the Washington Medallion Pen Company in 1857 and how their methods fit into the larger world of pen manufacturing of the time.
Up to the 1850’s we have no clear description of how US pen manufacturers created their steel pens. The closest we have is a line in the story of Charles Atwood where it’s mentioned that he had no idea how pens were made so he developed his own method, probably with the help of his inventor wife.
By the 1840’s, British pens were quite common, especially in the big cities, and the new American makers may have had some idea of how the British made pens at an industrial scale, but its most likely that the American makers created their own processes and tools. It’s also clear that they never were able to reach the same scale of manufacturing as their British counterparts from the same period.
So, where did Washington Medallion learn to make pens, and how does their method compare to contemporary British manufacturing techniques?
The British Influence
One of the things Washington Medallion did differently than its predecessors was to bring skilled workers from Britain to build and run its pen factory rather than rely on reverse engineering or figuring out a their own way to make pens. We’ve read already about George Harrison and George Bradford, two Birmingham-trained tool makers, who ran the factory and presumably set up the machinery and processes for making pens.
It seems these two young men weren’t the only workers they brought from England. In an 1863 compilation of women at work, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopedia of Women’s Work by Virginia Penny, it mentions:
An attempt has been made to manufacture steel pens in this country, but, I think, as yet without success. The makers of the Washington medallion pen had some girls to come from England to work for them, but found they could not keep up the factory, because of the prices they had to pay for labor. [ed. see this post for what else was going on] The duty on steel pens is thirty per cent., yet they can be imported for less than it would cost to make them here.
The pen manufacturing process in England was very reliant upon women for much of the actual cutting, shaping and grinding work, while men were concentrated in the dirty and dangerous work with furnaces and polishing.
This process described in the article, including the role of women in the manufacturing, is almost exactly the same as we accounts from the large pen factories of Birmingham from about the same period and continuing up at least through the 1890’s.
We can read similar descriptions, if not at the same level of detail, in publications from 1859, 1870, and an article in Scientific American from 1866. The Scientific American article states:
We believe there are but few manufactories in this country, that of the Washington Medallion Pen Company, and that of the Estabrook[sic], in Philadelphia, being among the largest.
The next really detailed description comes from our old friend Henry Bore, whose “The Story of the Invention and Manufacture of Steel Pens” is a treasure chest filled with gems. Even though it was published in 1890, more than 30 years after this article on Washington Medallion, the manufacturing processes, described on pages 37-49 are almost identical.
Let’s take a look at the process as described in the article in United States Magazine. I’ll point out any differences found in Henry Bore’s later account.
I’ve also included illustrations from both United States Magazine (1857) and Bore (1890).
How Pens are Made in 1857 (and 1890)
Sheets of Steel
Sheets of fine steel are heated to soften the steel and make it easier to work with. This heating can leave a scale on the surface. Before rolling to thickness, the sheets must be “pickled” in an acid bath to remove the scale. After pickling the steel is polished by being tumbled in a barrel that includes pebbles and water. This polishes off the scale and leaves a smooth, grey finish.
The steel is then rolled to the appropriate thickness. At Washington Medallion, because they only manufactured one style of pen, this was easy. In a factory like Gillott’s, where many, many different styles were produced, there were many different possible thicknesses depending on what was going to be made.
So, from a crusty, black bar, we now have smooth, shiny ribbons of steel ready to be made into pens.
From here, most of the work is done by women. This was considered a good job for a young woman. It was relatively clean, safe, was done mostly sitting down and since all the workers were women, (again relatively) free from bad influences. In descriptions if the next steps, it’s often emphasized that women were most often used because of their “quick, dexterous fingers” were well suited to manipulating these small nibs.
The work is admirably fitted for females, as it is light and wholesome, and requires that delicate manipulation and attention for which the sex is remarkable.
This is not to say the work was without danger. As you’ll read, there were a lot of heavy machines stamping with great force very close to unprotected fingers. Accidents did happen, but this was a time before industrial safety was a general concern, and since the women themselves were able to control the fall of the hammer, it was safer than many other factories in which women worked at the time, like the spinning and textile factories.
The bright steel ribbons are brought to a line of women sitting at presses. The presses are used to cut out the pen shapes from the ribbon, with great care to ensure as little waste as possible since the waste steel was worth about 1/5 the value of new.
At Washington Medallion they use screw and lever presses. With a “smart pull at the lever” the die is brought down with sufficient force to punch the pen out of the sheet. In Bore’s description, years later, they’re still using lever-operated screw presses.
A skilled operator at Washington Medallion could produce 300 gross, 43,200, blanks in a day. In an 1870 article on Birmingham, they give the same number for a skilled operator.
Piercing, Annealing, and Stamping
In Bore’s description he says the pens are moved right to stamping where the name and any embossing is stamped into the pen. This is done with a foot-pedal-operated press that drops a very heavy weight onto a shaped bed.
In Washington Medallion, the pens first went to piercing where the hole is cut at the top of where the slit will be. After piercing, the pens are placed in a muffler, or a heated iron box in which they place the pens with a source of carbon and heated for 24 hours. After allowing them to cool, the pens have completely lost their temper and are soft for the stamping.
Bore helps us understand this deviation in the order of the process.
If the mark [for stamping] is unusually large, the marking process is deferred until after the pen has been pierced, in order that the blank my be annealed (or softened) which takes the impression more readily than hard steel.
If we remember what the Washington Medallion Pen looks like, we can readily see that it would fall into this category of “unusually large” stamp, especially the large embossed medallion.
Bore points out that the holes, often decorative in shape, require very delicate punches and dies which are the result of some of the most precise tool work.
Raising or Shaping
The next step is to give the flat pen blank it’s shape. In the case of the Washington Medallion pen, this is a complex mix of concave and convex curves. Again, this operation is done by the women using screw presses. One can imaging the rapid moving of pens into position, the fall the press, the ejection of the raised pen and the insertion of a new blank as a fairly smooth and continuous process.
The pens are placed back in iron boxes and heated in the muffler until they reach the right temperature for the degree of hardness desired. This is a delicate operation and a highly skilled one. The pens are in a rotating barrel or box, similar to a coffee roaster, with an open end. During the heating, the master workman is constantly checking the color of the pens, occasionally pulling a pen out with a long steel spoon.
When they reach the right temperature they are cooled quickly. At Washington Medallion it only says they lay them out on a tray and cooled as quickly as possible. Bore mentions a more involved process that involves dumping them in oil and then removing the oil as much as possible by being rotated in a perforated cylinder and then dumped in a vat of boiling soda water.
They are then heated again to a very specific temperature to remove the brittleness and give the elasticity desired. This tempering also requires great skill and experience to get the right tempering.
Scouring in Washington Medallion’s factory was done by placing the blackened, rough pens into rotating barrels of sand. In Birmingham, they are first dipped in sulfuric acid and then rotated in barrels with water and pebbles made from annealing pots broken and ground up to a fine gravel.
After scouring for some hours they are polished “white and clear” and ready for grinding. Because the British pens were scoured with water, they had to go through a separate drying step that involved an additional barrel with sawdust.
Grinding was an important step, and for both Washington Medallion and for the British pens some years later, each pen went through at least two grindings: parallel and perpendicular to the axis of the pens. To see what a grind looks like, see my short post on grinding.
Both groups used a wooden wheel charged with emery and a method of holding the nib (pincers or pliers) as the nib would get hot from the quick grinding. The motion was rapid and precise and women could go through a lot of pens in a short time.
Slitting was the most important and most delicate operation that called for the most precise machinery.
Slitting was accomplished by presses with a cutter of the utmost sharpness and hardness. Bore described them as having the sharpness of a razor. In both accounts the cutter is comprised of two edges, one on top and one underneath. These have to come together perfectly in order to have a clean cut. And the pen has to be positioned perfectly, especially if you consider the sharp point of the nib, which the slit has to bisect evenly.
Polishing, Coloring, Varnishing
Slitting leaves a small burr and so the nib needs a final polishing. Washington Medallion used boxwood sawdust in a revolving drum. Gore says that first they start with “pounded pot” for 5 or 6 hours and then finished with sawdust.
After polishing, the pens are a bright silver-steel. To bring the bronze or other colors you see in vintage pens they would then place the pens back in the tempering barrels and heated again, but for only a very short time, just enough to change the color to the right one for that pen design.
After the pens are the right color they’re coated in a varnish to inhibit rust. The formula is “peculiar to the establishment” for Washington Medallion, or just plain shellac with alcohol (“methylated spirits”) for the British pens.
After the pens are coated they have to dry. At Washington Medallion, they dry the pens in the open air. Since they are prone to sticking, “the workmen exhibit no little dexterity while tossing and moving them about…” Bore describes a process where the pens are first rotated in wire baskets to air dry and then scattered on iron trays and heated in an oven to evenly distribute the shellac and leave a glossy appearance.
Inspection and Boxing
The final stages are to inspect the pens and box them. In the magazine article, it says that Washington Medallion put its pens through a thorough inspection including testing the temper and pressing against the thumbnail to check the slit. According to the article, they scrapped all rejects. It also points out that “other manufacturers sell their second at about twenty-five percent less than the usual prices…” This is a practice that continued into the 20th-century. I have a couple of boxes of these seconds from a variety of manufacturers that seem to date to about the 1930’s.
As for the British, Bore only says that once the rejects have been sorted out the ones that are accepted are boxed.
Washington Medallion boxed their pens in a unique way that was defended in their various trademark lawsuits. The pens were first packed in small boxes of a dozen. Twelve of these were then packed into a larger box of a full gross.
The British pens, because they were shipped to many different countries, and were of various styles and imprints, were packed in boxes of different designs and numbers, depending on the destination country.
The British Influence: Part Two
We mentioned above George Harrison and George Bradford as tool makers from Birmingham brought by Washington Medallion to run the factory. Not surprising, the article in United States Magazine, all about a tour of the factory, mentions the very important role of tool makers. Gosh, I wonder if Harrison and Bradford were anywhere near the author during the tour?
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. They are necessarily constantly on the watch lest the tools get dull, or break, or in some way become imperfect, and require repairing or making anew – for it must be remembered that it is steel tools cutting steel, not steel tools cutting wood, cloth, or leather. Hence it is that the art is a difficult one. And without that which we pay for liberty – eternal vigilance – the steel pen cannot be made perfect, as a set of tools perfect in the morning may be doing imperfect work before noon. Another necessity of this peculiar business is that it requires for its successful prosecution a constant supervising throughout the various trades, that work may pass regularly through all the numerous processes, from the “cutting out’ of the “blank” to the inspection, assorting and boxing. The least neglect on the part of a general superintendent and the wheels get clogged, and the system deranged, and ruin soon ensues.
The evidence points to the truth of the importance of the tool maker. We can see that by noting which manufacturers had the benefit of trained pen tool makers and what happened to those men.
During the 1870’s there are five successful pen companies in the United States: Washington Medallion, Harrison & Bradford, Esterbrook, Warrington & Co., and Turner & Harrison. Each has a common thread: British skilled tool makers.
Washington Medallion: We’ve seen how George Harrison and George Bradford, trained tool makers from Birmingham, helped get this company off the ground.
Harrison & Bradford: George Harrison and George Bradford, after Washington Medallion stopped producing for a short time founded their own company which lasted until 1882.
Esterbrook: The stories of Esterbrook’s founding all tell of Richard Esterbrook bringing a group of Birmingham-trained pen makers to found the company. Richard Esterbrook Jr. himself may have gone through an apprenticeship with the Birmingham pen manufacturers. (see note below)* In addition, I’ve been able to identify with strong confidence one of these Birmingham-trained tool makers as John Turner. (a fuller account to follow in a future post)
Warrington & Co.: A Philadelphia maker of small, metallic mountings, Samuel Warrington, filed a patent for a new design of pen, and hired John Turner from Esterbrook to set up and run his new company in 1865. After a series of disastrous fires in just a couple of years, Turner was able to buy out Warrington and partners, and use the machinery and tools to found…
Turner & Harrison: Founded by John Turner in 1875 by joining up with George Harrison to buy out the remains of the Warrington & Co.’s Continental Steel Pen Works. Turner & Harrison will have a reputation for, and a strong commitment to, quality manufacturing for its whole history. During its entire existence, from its founding in 1875 until it closed its doors in 1952, it was run for only two years by someone who hadn’t started out making pens and tools on the factory floor. This recognition of the importance of knowing how pens are made and what it takes to run an effective manufacturing operation, was a major component of the company’s commitment to quality and thus its success.
From Washington Medallion Pen Company and Esterbrook sprung not only Harrison & Bradford, Warrington, and Turner & Harrison, but also Miller Brothers steel pens. In 1882, George Bradford sold what was left of Harrison & Bradford, after George Harrison left for Tuner & Harrison and Bradford’s solo effort didn’t prosper, to a prominent cutlery manufacturer in Connecticut, Miller Brothers Cutlery. Bradford formed and ran their pen Department until his death. Miller Brothers Steel Pens became another major manufacturer of pens in the US.
These British-trained tool makers were instrumental for finally bringing a large-scale and successful steel pen industry to the United States. They laid the foundation for almost all successful pen manufacturers in the US in the decades to come.
*I tracked down the deed of sale from when Richard Esterbrook Sr. finally sold his stationer’s shop in Liskard, Cornwall in 1866. Included alongside the deed is a note some anonymous clerk added probably sometime in the early 20th-century. (1930’s? 1940’s?)
“Richard junior was apprenticed to a well known pen and nib manufacturer and eventually emigrated to America and set up business on his own account ….with great success.. The firm he founded, still in existence, the Esterbrook Corporation, is a firm of international repute but particularly in the USA of the standing of the Parker Pen and Shaffer Pen companies.”
The dates for an apprenticeship aren’t right for this to be Richard Esterbrook “The Founder”, often called “Sr.” but does make sense for Richard Esterbrook “The Son” often called “Jr.” (there were quite a few Richard Esterbrooks, and the one who is often called “Sr.” or “The Founder” was actually the second of that name, but his son was most often called “Jr.” and never Richard the Third.)