For those of you interested in sources that talk about the history of the steel dip pen, I thought I’d share the main ones I’ve found. If anyone knows of others, I’d love to hear about them.
There are three books on the history of the steel (dip) pen that I know of that have been published.
1. Henry Bore, The Story of the Invention and Manufacture of Steel Pens, 1886.
2. A. A. S. Charles, The Steel Pen Trade: 1930-1980, 1980.
3. Brian Jones (editor), People, Pens, and Production: In Birmingham’s Pen Trade, 2013.
There is a fourth book that touches on it as well:
4. John Thackray Bunce, Josiah Mason : a biography : with sketches of the history of the steel-pen and electro-plating trades, 1882.
All of these focus pretty much exclusively on the British steel pen industry.
There are also several articles I’ve found that touch upon the subject as well, with a few that have some minimal information on the US pen trade. None are complete or completely accurate.
- Boston Mechanic, and Journal of the Useful Arts and Sciences, “August Notes,” August, 1835
- The Saturday Magazine, History of Writing Materials: Part 2, The Steel Pen, Feb. 17 1838.
- United States Magazine, “Writing Pens: How Steel Pens are Made”, April 1857 (detailed description of how Washington Medallion Pens were made)
- American Journal of Education, “XIII Specimen Notes of Lessons”, 1861
- Birmingham Daily Post, “Steel Pens”, June 26, 1869. In this short letter to the editor, the writer says that the history of the steel pen has already been lost and calls upon readers who were part of the early years to contribute stories. This leads to a series of letters with more or less true accounts of the years from 1800-1830. Bore relies heavily on these letters as well as other accounts to finally grant the laurel for first use of screw presses to manufacture pens on an industrial scale to John Mitchell.
There are others out there up to today, but they are usually short snippets that are derived from the above sources, or constructed out of pure speculation, rumor and fancy. By the 1880’s, so much of the narrative had been decided on and it almost never varies through the years. It was when I began to search out old newspaper advertisements that I realized that there was a whole other world of early manufacturers whose stories were lost by even a few decades after they were active.
The story you hear most often is that there may have been a pen or two here and there in the 18th-century, but it was in 1822 with the advent of the steel pen industry in Birmingham that you have the first professional pen makers.
And for America, after the 1835 Boston Mechanic short article listed above, Peregrine Williamson was quickly forgotten. The article in 1835 even implies that he’s already forgotten by then, buried under the flood of cheap British pens coming into America, capitalizing on Williamson’s three-slit idea. The article begins, “It may be news to some of our readers that the inventor of steel pens is an American, and a well-known resident of our city, – Mr. Peregrine Williamson.” Of course Peregrine didn’t invent the steel pen either, but his contribution was already fading from memory.
In the 1838 Saturday Magazine article mentioned above, it’s all British pens, which is understandable, I guess, it being a British magazine. And already, the British pen manufacturers, according to the article, were making 200,000,000 pens a year. No one in America was making anything even close when compared to the scale of Birmingham.
The American Journal of Education article mentioned above (really a lesson to be copied) on “Modern pens” is a bit misleading since, despite its name, it was actually published in London, so it’s not surprising the brief discussion begins with Wise and ends with Gillott with nothing American in between. At least they remembered Wise. As the century progresses, Wise is also forgotten, even by most British writers, and it all begins with Perry and then Gillott. (poor Josiah Mason was most influential but is still mostly forgotten in casual accounts of the history)
And no one, to this day, has written a real history of the American steel pen industry, until I decided I was crazy enough to attempt it.