Steel pens come in many different shapes. There is no single source for “official” names for the various shapes. Some names are explicitly given by manufacturers and seem to be standard, like the Falcon and the Shoulder pen, but most are not explicit and almost none are consistent.
American pens also tended to come in fewer shapes than you find in Europe. Even that limited range of shapes was narrowed down by the turn of the century. After WWI, when manufacturers were required to reduce their product lines to only a few pens, even fewer different shapes were brought back after the war. By the 1920’s the number of pen shapes generally made in the United States was greatly reduced.
As part of my capturing an inventory of my collection of pens, I have gathered together a list of shapes and descriptions that are useful to me. The names come from either standard names used in the industry, my attempt at a descriptive name, or it is named after a standard pen that seem to exemplify this shape, such as the Inflexible or the Colorado.
These tend to be rather broad categories. Many of these shapes have various sub-types under them. The most common shape, the Straight pen, can be found in variations such as the wide and shallow, the long and thin, the short and delicate, and others. Pinched Spoon pens, as well, tend to have quite a range of shapes to the pinched transition section between heel and body. Some are smooth, others faceted or decorated in one way or another, but all share the same, basic shape.
Other shapes are differentiated by degrees of one characteristic or another. The three stubs, short, medium and long, merely designate the three general sizes of straight-boded stub pens. These three designations work because manufacturers tended to make all of their straight-bodied stubs in one of these three sizes. Beaked pens and Bank pens are pretty closely related and only differ in the ratio of tines to body.
This is neither an exhaustive nor authoritative list, but one that I’ve put together to try and give names to the shapes of my pens. I’m sure as I progress in my detailed cataloging I will add to, or tweak this list. As flawed as it is, right now this is the best (and only) list I’ve found out there that tries to describe and standardize the main shapes of steel pens.
I’m sure that some disagree with some of my names and even my categorization. I’m also sure I’ll find examples that either don’t fit or are in between one or another shapes. That’s OK. This is a work in progress and I will be adding to, and modifying this list as I go along. It’s also far too limited for the wildly divergent shapes you find in England, France, Italy and German manufacturers. Should my collection begin to really to expand into those areas, I will have to expand my list of shapes.
If you find a shape that is specifically mentioned in a source and I call it something else, let me know and share the source. I may incorporate it or even revise my name. If you’d like to add to this list, especially for those pens not normally made in the US, feel free to let me know.
I introduced the anatomy of a steel pen in more detail in another post, but I think it’s worthwhile including the annotated picture from that post here as well.
The descriptions of the shapes rely heavily on several main parts to the pen. There is the Heel, the Body and the Shoulders. This diagram does not include a transition section that some shapes have between the heel and the body. These transitions generally narrow between the heel and the body, but some, like the Crown shape actually increase in width.
When I talk about “up” or “down” assume the pen is placed vertically with the heel pointing down and the tip pointing up. The “line” or “axis” of the pen is the imaginary line drawn from the bottom of the heel to tip of the tines.
Normal heel, large, embossed design, generally floral, leading to a long, tapering body.
A long, straight pen with longer tines than normal, but not as long as a Beaked pen. Though the Bank pen is sometimes classified as a Beaked pen, I think there’s enough of a difference between the very common “Bank” pen shape and the longer tines of the rest of the beaked pens that I call out the Bank as a separate shape.
Pen where the heel is a complete tube and the body of the pen is shaped as normal. The body can come in various forms.
Generally a straight bodied pen with extra-long tines. Tines are much longer in relation to the body than even Bank pens.
Similar to a taper shape, but very shoulder-heavy, and a flat profile, as seen on the various Colorado pens from Esterbrook and others.
Same shape as a Barrel Pen but much smaller, thinner and a much finer point.
Normal heel that transitions into a series of strips connecting the heel to the body of the pen. These strips are bent outwards in a rounded shape to make a sort of basket that resembles a crown.
A straight-bodied pen with notches cut out of the edges just below the shoulders.
A pen that draws two lines simultaneously. There are two sets of tines.
A straight-bodied pen with a cut-out across the body of the pen perpendicular to the line of the pen.
Normal heel, then flared transition with embossed “shoulders” “cut-out” sides moving up to a shoulder and taper to longer tines.
A stub pen in the shape of a Falcon pen.
Leaf-shaped pen but the body of the pen is flattened rather than rounded. There may or may not be a transition section between heel and body. Probably the best known pen of this shape is the Waverley Pen by Macniven and Cameron.
Similar to a spear, but the top of the body is flattened and sometimes curved.
Shaped like a pointing index finger.
Related to a pinched spoon, but with a distinctive sharp dip and ridge as seen in the Esterbrook Inflexible pen, and others.
Similar to a spoon, but the body is bottom heavy with a deep curve at the bottom but quickly narrowing at the top. The body has a rounded profile.
A longer , straight-bodied stub.
A medium-length straight stub.
Oblique pens different from regular pens in that they move the angle of writing away from the angle of the pen. There are at least four different ways of accomplishing this with the pen nib alone. You can also use a special oblique holder that holds a normal pen at this oblique angle.
An oblique pen shaped like a straight-sided pen that has been bent into an oblique, zig-zag shape.
An oblique pen in the general shape of the original Mordant patent. The body is broad and generally leaf-shaped with a generous swell near the heel and tapering to a point quickly.
Similar to a Mordant or Elbow Oblique in that the body of the pen is bent towards the oblique angle. But unlike the other two, a separate body shape begins after the bend.
Similar to the other oblique pens, the purpose of this pen shape is to point the tips toward the right degree of slant even if the hand is pointed to a steeper angle. Unlike the other two forms of Oblique pen, this only points the tips, rather than the body of the pen.
Examples of the four types of Oblique Pen
A normal heel, then the beginning of the body is pinched in and down to make a center ridge that extends up to the main body, which is generally smaller and then tapered or rounded towards the tip.
A spoon pen with a transition section between the heel and the body of the pen. This transition can be smooth, faceted or even decorated.
Normal heel, round body with small, triangular point sticking out
Folded sheet of steel or brass to create a v-shaped profile.
A straight-bodied pen with a small raised line perpendicular to the line of the pen, generally right above the imprint and before the hole. Almost all of these shape pens are called “School” pens. The Gillott 404 is one of the most famous.
Normal heel, often there’s a transition section, then a slight, straight widening that ends in a wider shoulder. The key is that the widening from transition to shoulder is straight, not curved.
Stub pen with a shorter, straight body
Normal heel then an abrupt, sharp, 90 or near-90-degree transition to create a wider, deeper, straight body to the shoulders. These are usually long pens.
Normal heel, very narrow and long body coming to a sharp point with no shoulders. There may be a transition section between heel and body, but it stays within a narrow profile.
Wide at the bottom of the body, gentle and smooth narrowing to the tip. Abrupt transition from heel to widest part of the body.
Straight sides and even width along the length from heel to shoulders.
Straight-sided pen narrow at the heel and wide at the shoulders. The taper is straight from heel to shoulder.
I have three steel pens. One of them is marked 149 Pacific Railroad, one is marked 145 Pacific Railroad but the number is imprinted upside down to most manufacturers, and one is marked 0149 Monarch Railroad, which is also imprinted upside down. None of these are names of actual railroads that I’ve been able to find.
We know that there were pens marked as “railroad” which had nothing to do with actual railroads, like the Esterbrook Standard Railroad, which was made by Esterbrook but sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company.
All three of the “Railroad” nibs under discussion are extremely similar. They are a wider-bodied straight pen, medium flexibility and with three just slightly different grinds.
To confuse matters even more, both Esterbrook as well as Turner & Harrison made a 149 Pacific Railroad pen. Neither, that I’ve been able to find, made a 145 Pacific Railroad pen.
After Gillott sued Esterbrook in 1872 pen makers, especially Esterbrook, were careful to not copy the name and especially the number of another pen maker if there was any chance that the two pens could be mistaken for each other. How to explain this, then?
One possibility to explain why one didn’t object to the other making a pen with the same name and number is that both Esterbrook and Turner & Harrison were copying a pen from someone else who had already gone out of business and so would not be in a position to sue.
This practice is not unknown. We know, for example, that Esterbrook produced a copy of a popular pen from a company that had gone out of business, namely the 505 Harrison and Bradford’s Bookkeeper’s Pen. (picture below is from the 1883 catalog) They made this for a very short time after Harrison and Bradford went out of business in 1881. So, it’s possible that both were producing a popular pen from someone else after that company had gone out of business.
I looked for evidence of Pacific Railroad pens as a separate brand. Unfortunately, what evidence I’ve found is not conclusive, and doesn’t make sense based on Esterbrook making the pen in 1883.
Of course, that doesn’t explain the 145 Pacific Railroad pen. Nor the 0149 Monarch Railroad.
So, if anyone has one of these pens, has a reference to a non-Esterbrook or non-T&H Pacific Railroad (149, 145, or anything else), or anything related, I would love to see it to try and solve this mystery.
My steel pen history is now beginning to enter the golden age of US steel pens. We’re now into the 1860’s-1870’s when we see a transition from the first industrial steel pen makers to a wider market and a variety of manufacturers. For this episode, we’re taking as our starting point 1864.
In 1864, in Camden, New Jersey, Esterbrook was starting to really take off, and up in New York City, Washington Medallion Pen Company was involved in a protracted legal battle over trademark with two of their ex-employees George Harrison and George Bradford. Harrison and Bradford had just started their own pen company, and were starting to make their own pens using the old Washington Medallion machinery. Also in New York City, Myer Phineas was still making pens at 33 Maiden Lane. Despite this new (and old) crop of pen manufacturers, all indications are that most pens sold in the US were still British pens, mainly Gillott and Perry.
We can surmise this both by the requests for bids being submitted by various federal, state and local government agencies to be supplied for stationery, as well as the complaints about how much Americans were spending on “foreign” pens. These requests for quotes were published in newspapers, and they may well indicate the general availability and desirability of American vs. British Pens. Without taking a scientific survey, it’s pretty clear the number of British pens requested almost always outnumber the American pens, often by a lot. Plus, we still have plenty of complaining in the advertisements for American pens about how Americans should “buy American” rather than British or French.
Philadelphia in 1864 was an industrial town. Steel, chemicals and dyes, tools, and other products were made in abundance. Skilled mechanics and especially those who could make precision machine tools and complex presses and dies were fairly common, both because of the presence of the various industries, and also because of the presence of the mint in Philadelphia. The role of the coin press in the development of the steel pen manufacturing process is a story yet to be told.
One of the other big industries in Philly was umbrella and parasol manufacturing. (approaching Paris in the number produced every year) One of the reasons for this was the presence of a firm called George W. Carr & Co.. The company run by Carr and his partner, and brother-in-law, Samuel Warrington, was the largest manufacturer of whalebone and rattan (used in the ribs of the umbrella) in the US.
There is also an extensive establishment in the city for the manufacture of Whalebone and Rattan, and is said to be the only factory in the country where Whalebone is prepared for all purposes to which it is adapted, viz.: Umbrellas, Parasols, Whips, Canes, Dresses, Hoops, Bonnets, Hats, Hair Pins, &c. This manufactory, of which the proprietors are George W. Carr and Samuel Warrington, trading under the firm-style of George W. Carr & Co., was established in 1842. The machinery and fixtures are principally original, and said to be unknown to other manufacturers. Steam, supplied by a twelve-horse engine, is used in all the various processes of Boiling, Dyeing, Drying, and Heating
By 1862, Carr had expanded into making the new steel frames for umbrellas and parasols in addition to continuing to manufacture whalebone and rattan.
In 1863 Carr & Co expanded their metallic products by beginning to manufacture small, metallic, mountings, primarily used for umbrellas, in the same location as the whalebone and rattan factory. Samuel was put in charge of the metallic mountings business.
Around 1864 this same Samuel Warrington designed a new style of steel pen and he received a patent for it in 1866.
The patent is for a pen that has “softness” without being too flexible in the tines. In other words, the pen would flex in the middle without spreading the tines “to such an extent as to produce too heavy a line.” This type of design I call a “spring crimp” because it has a crimp in the middle of the pen to give spring to the body without affecting the spread of the tines. Washington Medallion’s pen was another such design, and most manufacturers produced something similar.
In addition to filing for a patent, Warrington wanted to manufacturer his pen, and so in 1865 he founded Warrington & Co. and hired the experienced pen maker John Turner from across the river in Camden, New Jersey to head up this pen-making enterprise.
We last saw John Turner over in Camden helping Richard Esterbrook start up his factory there. Turner had been one of the skilled British tool makers Esterbrook had brought to America around 1860 to set up the new factory in the Birmingham style.
Warrington was presumably able to lure him over to Philadelphia with the promise of leading the new company and being able to set it up as he saw fit. Rather than being a senior tool maker at Esterbrook, he became the head of the brand new Continental Steel Pen Works of Warrington & Company. The factory was located on the northwest corner of 12th and Buttonwood streets in Philadelphia.
Warrington had taken on two other partners for this venture besides John Turner: Joseph Truman, & Edward Smith. It’s not clear who these other two gentlemen were. There is a mention of a Joseph Trueman (with an “e”) in earlier directories, listed as an Engineer, but neither he nor Edward Smith are found in either Camden or Philadelphia before this. As they seem to appear out of nowhere and disappear after the company is dissolved, they remain a mystery. The other partner, John Turner, is better known because of his continued prominence in the pen industry until his death in 1904, as I’ll discuss elsewhere. Before we see where he’s going with Warrington, let’s learn a little about where he came from.
John Turner was born in Birmingham, England around 1823. Sometime around 1836, when he was 13 or so, he was apprenticed to one of the brand new pen works appearing almost daily in Birmingham. According to later accounts, after his apprenticeship he went to France to better learn French pen making, before returning to Birmingham where he married his wife Eliza.
At some point, probably about 1858 or 59, he is recruited by Richard Esterbrook to come to the US. In 1860, John arrives in New York, and presumably Eliza arrives not long after, along with an adopted daughter, possibly a niece on Eliza’s side, named Rosina. They first live in Camden, with John working at Esterbrook, but in 1865 he takes control of the new Warrington & Co. and by 1867 they had moved to Philadelphia.
During the time Turner ran Warrington & Co. from 1865 until 1875 the company found both success as well as set-backs, including two fires and the death of the owner.
In addition to the fires, in 1872, Samuel Warrington dies. In 1873, after Warrington’s death and the second fire, the company changes its name to The Warrington Steel Pen Company. In that year as well, the company, along with the rest of the nation, was plunged into a depression by the Panic of 1873. Following all of this, “excitement,” in 1875 John Turner purchased the factory, presumably machinery and all, and joined with his new partner, George Harrison (of Washington Medallion and then Harrison and Bradford) to found Turner & Harrison in the very same location at 12th & Buttonwood.
Turner & Harrison would go on to become one of the top pen manufacturers in the US and would continue making steel pens in Philadelphia until they closed their doors in 1952, but that’s a story for another time.
The “Other” Warrington Pens
The Warrington Steel Pen Company name was then picked up by a nephew of Samuel Warrington’s, Theodore Lippencott Warrington, aka Theo L. Warrington.
Theo L. Warrington, as he was listed in the advertisements, was born in Camden, NJ and worked for his father, James Franklin “King of the Commission Merchants” Warrington when he was a young man. James owned a produce market buying and selling exotic produce, like peanuts and tropical fruits off the ships coming in to Camden’s ports from places like Cuba and Florida. Theodore began by working for his father, but then tried his hand at teaching for a short time, before joining another Camden native, William H. Ryno, to open their own produce market called Ryno & Warrington from around 1874-75. In 1875 Theo acquired the Warrington Steel Pen Co. name and became partners with William Pedrick, forming Pedrick and Warrington.
William Pedrick had his own stationery store before joining with Warrington. Pedrick & Williamson was a modest stationery story located at 1218 Buttonwood, just a half-block from the Warrington & Co’s. factory at the corner of Buttonwood and 12th. By 1874 Pedrick was running the store by himself and lived at the shop in the new location of 107 North 5th Street. In 1875 they joined to form Pedrick and Warrington to both make pens under the Warrington name, as well as sell stationery from their expanded shop and manufactory at 105 and 107 N. 5th Street.
By 1881 Pedrick was out of the picture and it was just Theo’s name associated with The Warrington Steel Pen Co.
Theo Warrington made pens up through 1885 when he seems to have gotten out of the pen and stationery business. By 1901 he’s become an electrician in his long-time home of Camden, NJ. Theodore passes away in 1920 at the age of 69 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Camden, NJ.
Post Script: Colorado Nibs
The only example of an existing Warrington & Co. nib I know of is not from Samuel Warrington’s original patent, but instead is a pen in my personal collection marked “Warrington & Co’s Colorado.”
The interesting thing about this nib is that it is pretty much exactly like the Colorado nibs produced by Warrington’s neighbor across the river, the Esterbrook Steel Pen Company.
These pens are often advertised as “indestructible” because they don’t corrode in ink, and, supposedly, you can bend them back into shape should you accidentally drop it. Esterbrook even produced a version with the name “Indestructible.” And in this ad from 1868, Warrington promotes their “Indestructible” pens and differentiates them from their steel pens. This tells me that they were most likely producing more than just one style of brass pen.
Esterbrook also produced a whole series of these brass pens. Most of them were in the Colorado pen series, from the Colorado No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 304 Colorado No. 2, and several others using the same shape but with different names, like the Indestructible, and the larger version, the Arlington. But the most common was the Colorado No. 2.
All of the Colorado pens, whether Esterbrook or Warrington, are made of a brass alloy and are imitative of gold pens in their shape and looks. The name may come from the large gold deposits first discovered in Colorado in 1859 and which continued to pump large amounts of gold eastward for years after.
The question is, which came first, the Warrington Colorado, or the Esterbrook Colorado series? Did John Turner lift the design from his time at Esterbrook, or did Esterbrook take the design from Warrington? I have found one reference to Esterbrook making Colorado pens during the same time as Warrington was in business. And we know that Warrington shared the building at 12th and Buttonwood with the Dearborn & Co. Brass foundry. Unfortunately, the earliest actual list of pens made by Esterbrook is from 1876, and we have no list other than the ads of what pens Warrington made, so right now there is no evidence for who made what first.
Here’s an 1877 ad that introduces their new “Indestructible” pen. The reference to “curb stone salesmen” means door-to-door salesmen.
So, who copied from who? Were both of these copies of someone else? It’s a question we may never be able to answer.
Post Script #2: Another Warrington Pen
Thanks to fellow collector David Berlin, I have a picture of another Warrington & Co’s pen. This one is an oblique using the Mordan design.
Anyone else have one? Would love to gather pictures of more examples should any exist.
The earliest form of dip pens for which we have a description was the barrel pen. By the 1830’s this form had dropped out of favor for what we know today, which was originally called the slip pen.
In my latest post, I take a quick look at these two forms. We get a glimpse of possible beginnings of the slip pen and we range widely over early steel pens, the last gasp of quill pens as they react to these new metallic substitutes, and how gold pens learned a thing or two from the older barrel pens.
Nibs come in various shapes and sizes, but the general shape most people are familiar with was originally known as the “slip pen.” This is the individual pen that slips into a holder. This is the shape we’re all familiar with.
But the dip pen did not always take this form. The earliest known steel pens for which we have a description, instead seemed to take a form known as a barrel pen.
A barrel pen looks like someone stuck a slip pen onto a longer tube of metal. Like these modern versions made in the early 20th-century.
You can see that these came with their own wooden holder, onto which you slipped the whole pen. What may not be quite as obvious is that these are one solid piece of steel.
It is easily understandable that this shape would be an early one. It’s essentially the bottom end of a quill, which is essentially a tube with a writing end cut into the bottom.
Interestingly enough, the first slip pens we know of were actually individual pens cut from a whole quill. This basically allowed you to get multiple pen points from a single quill, and if they could be pre-cut, then when that point wore out, you could replace it with a new one. This became the model of steel pens as well as soon as they moved out of the workshop and began to be cheaply made at an industrial scale.
Joseph Bramah was not the first to make these replaceable quill pen points, but he was the most widely known inventor to come up with both a hand press to cut multiple points from a single quills, and a holder to hold them.
I have found and early reference to a New Yorker, Mr Stansbury, who came up with a way to cut quills into individual “pens” that were held in a holder. This reference was dated to five years before Bramah files his patent. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson from his friend Charles Willson Peale, dated 22 July 1804, Peale mentions that “I have fortunately found an ingenious invention of Mr. Stansbury Junr. of New York for making several pens of a single quill…” Peale suggests Jefferson try out this quill points in his polygraph, as soon as Peale can make some brass tubes (holders) for the quills that will fit the machine in question.
The steel pens that were being made around this time, though, were still barrel pens. One of the earliest steel pen makers was a man named Samuel Harrison. He was a maker of split rings (think of those key rings made of a single ribbon of steel wrapped into a circle overlapping itself) in Birmingham, England. He also made pens for his friend, and famous chemist, Joseph Priestly. These early metal pens were made by bending a sheet of thin steel into a tube, and then cutting away the metal to form a nib. Harrison used the seam where the two ends came together as the slit in the pen.
Another early maker, Daniel Fellow, a blacksmith from Sedgley, began making pens in the 1780’s. His technique was similar, but he created the split with chisels.
Notice the ad says that the pen is “properly mounted.” This means that the pens came pre-mounted on a holder, as were some in the early days. These were still luxury items, so I’m sure the holders were very nicely made, but were still a small portion of the total cost of the pen.
These barrel pens were also made in the US in these early days. The first professional steel pen maker in the US was Peregrine Williamson, starting in about 1806 in Baltimore. His pens were very popular at the time, and attracted the attention of President Thomas Jefferson, who became a customer.
His pens were also barrel pens. He sold them loose, with a holder, or “properly” mounted. He sold some of the loose nibs to Thomas Jefferson for use in his “polygraph” mentioned above, and also some mounted in a fancy pen/pencil combo complete with perpetual calendar at one end.
Here’s the only image we have of his pens. It’s from a newspaper ad in 1809.
Notice the similarity in shape to the modern barrel pens shown above.
Early slip pens were invented in Birmingham in the 1820’s-30’s as the industrial production of steel pens began to be figured out. They require less work, and less material when good steel was still relatively expensive.
Gold pens were made as slip pens, but because they are also more prone to bending and other damage, you often see them mounted in a brass, gilt or other tube which fits onto the end of a holder, in the same manner as the barrel pens.
This is a Dawson, Warren & Hyde pen from the 1850’s. You can see the wooden holder has a brass cap that receives the end of the tube into which the gold pen is inserted. The gold wash on the tube was very thin and has mostly rubbed off.
This gold pen, made by Piquette in Detroit also in the late 1840’s to 1850’s, is also mounted in a tube which would have fit on a holder like the pen above. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the holder is missing.
The barrel pen continued to be made into the 20th-century, almost exclusively by the British manufacturers. They were not very common, or widely made, but they can still be found now and again. They remind us of the very earliest days of steel pens and what they once looked like.
I haven’t added much of late because I’m going through a rather intense self-study refresher course in the Industrial Revolution, both in Britain and in the US.
There were really two industrial revolutions or two phases of the same revolution. The first occurred primarily in Britain and really caught hold in the 18-teens to the 1840’s. The second happened in both Britain and the US and began in the 1850’s and really took off through the end of the century.
So many things changed about work, about how people lived, about materials and technology during these upheavals. There’s a very good reason they’re labeled “Revolutions.” I’m working at placing the steel pen industry within these two periods. It’s clear that the British steel pen industry was a product of the first phase of the industrial revolution. It benefited from advances in abundant and cheap steel of high quality, the greater availability of quality machine tools, and the innovations in assembly lines and management that occurred at this time.
In the US, the early pen makers seem to still be working in the workshop model of the previous century, until we get to the 1850’s. Some of the early makers, like Myer Phineas, and Mark Levy are complete mysteries. I suspect they may have used a kind of hybrid workshop, assembly line approach. I think this because we do know they produced relatively large numbers of pens of various types, but they hadn’t yet adopted the manufacturing practices of the British factories. A workshop large enough would most likely have incorporated some of the practices already being adopted in manufacturing in the US at the time. But this is just speculation.
The first pen makers who we know used true, industrial processes were Washington Medallion, Harrison & Bradford and Esterbrook. This is directly a result of bringing trained British pen makers over to implement the British model here in America. This would be a recurring model for many new industries in the US. Many of the early industries were at least inspired by, if not wholesale stolen from, their British predecessors.
I’m not sure how far I’ll take this because there is so much into which one can immerse oneself. Labor practices, including women in the workforce, workforce organization, is one area ripe for investigation. Tariffs and protectionist policies and their influence on the growth of the US steel pen industry is another. And there are many more.
I just wanted to put it out there why it’s been so quiet. It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped the research, it just means the research is beginning to become richer and there is so much more to find.
Esterbrook was a significant force in the steel pen industry world-wide, and it dominated all other American steel pen companies from not long after its founding until the death of the American steel pen trade in the 1950’s.
The beginnings of the company have been shrouded in mystery and myth for quite a long time. With the help of some wonderfully generous people, especially Frances, the Family History Research volunteer at the Liskeard and District Museums, I’ve been able to understand, and hopefully convey, some sense of the ground from which sprung this influential company led by an influential family. (who had a rather unusual taste in names)
The article covers the ground from Cornwall and Richard Esterbrook Senior’s birth, up until the company re-formed in 1866.
Richard Esterbrook was born in 1780 in Liskeard, Cornwall. In 1809, he married Anna Olver, also from Liskeard and they had their first child, Martha, in 1810, followed by their son Richard Esterbrook in 1813.
Richard was ranked as a “yeomen,” meaning he was a small landholder or working man. On his son Richard Esterbrook’s baptism certificate, he is recorded as a patten maker, but he’s mainly listed in various directories of Cornwall over the years as a baker and confectioner. (a Patten is a type of shoe)
Richard Esterbrook was a devout member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) until his death in 1846, and is buried in the Society of Friends graveyard in Liskeard.
This story is not about him. It is actually about his son, Richard Esterbrook, and his grandson, Richard Esterbrook, and even his great grandson, Richard Esterbrook.
The devout Richard Esterbrook buried in Liskeard will not come back into this story, but will instead be relegated to non-existence, at least when it comes to names. His famous son, Richard Esterbrook is most often mentioned without a suffix, and his son, Richard Esterbrook, is most often mentioned as “Junior,” which leaves poor old Liskeard Richard Esterbrook forgotten. From here on, we will talk about the second Richard Esterbrook as “Richard Esterbrook Sr.” or just “Senior,” and his son as “Richard Esterbrook Jr.” or “Junior.”
Now we have that thoroughly confused, we’ll start the story back in Liskeard, Cornwall where the eldest Richard is still a baker.
In the 1830 Directory of Cornwall, Liskeard is described as
A Market and borough town, and parish, in the hundred of West, is 225 miles from London, 49 from Exeter, and 32 from Truro. The town is situated partly on rocky hills, and partly in a bottom; is one of considerable antiquity, and had a strong castle, where the dukes of Cornwall kept their court. Its ancient name was Lis Kerrett – derived, as is supposed, from two old Cornish words, signifying a fortified place. …
The principle business of Liskeard is connected with the tin, lead and copper mines in the neighborhood; serges and blankets are manufactured in the town, to a small extent; there are also several tanneries and rope walks, and the wool trade is an improving branch. …
In the town are places of worship for the methodists and quakers, and some small schools, in which children are instructed gratuitously; also a grammer-school, supported mainly by the members for the borough. The town is supplied with water from an admirable spring; and the neighborhood furnishes examples of what are supposed to be druidical remains. The market-day is Saturday, and there are six fairs held annually, viz. February 18th, March 25th, Holy Thursday, August 15th, Oct. 2nd, and Dec. 9th. The number of inhabitants in the borough and parish of Liskeard, according to the last returus, was 3,519.
In 1836, Richard Sr. (the son) was married to Mary Rachel Date, the daughter of another devout Quaker family from over in Tideford, just 8 miles away. By the time of the 1839 directory of Cornwall, at 26 years of age we find Richard Sr. already running a small bookstore, stationery and print shop located on Pike Street on Tavern Hill in Liskeard. He is also an agent for Globe Insurance Company of London, and the family also lives on Pike Street, possibly above the store. (Pike Street is a short street of shops on the ground floor and living spaces above)
In 1839 Sr. already has a small family with his young son, Richard Esterbrook Jr. who was born in 1836, just over 8 months after his marriage, and a daughter, Mary Anna, born in 1838.
Here is the bookshop and stationery store at 20 Pike St. in Liskeard, Cornwall. On the left (picture courtesy of the Liskeard and District Museum) as it looked in c.1910 after being purchased by W.H. Smith, a national chain of stationers, and on the right as it looked mid-2018 as a travel agency. There’s a small, one-story living quarters above.
In the 1851 census of England, we find 14-year-old Richard Jr. attending school in Falmouth, residing with the family of the School Master, Squire Lovell. Richard Sr. is still running his shop in Liskeard.
By 1856 Richard Sr. is no longer listed in the directories as a common shop keeper but is listed in the section titled “Gentry and Clergy” and is recorded as living at Dean Terrace. His stationery business is still running, and he’s moved up the social strata, possibly because of his business success, and/or, even more likely, his standing as a senior minister in the Society of Friends.
We also find in 1856 that 20-year-old Richard Jr. is back in Liskeard and listed as “Manager of Gas Works.” This position did not seem to last long because within the next year or two he was gone and a period of great change for the whole family takes place.
The details of this next five years get a bit fuzzy. They are highlighted here and there with markers of clear evidence, and filled in the rest of the way with some stories passed down through histories from the family and from the company, and spiced with a bit of conjecture built out of a combination of the two. I would love it if others could help me fill in some of the gaps with real information. If you have such info, contact me via the Contact link on this site. It will hopefully be clear in the next section when we have good evidence and when we don’t.
Esterbrooks in the New World
Sometime between 1856 and 1858 it seems that Richard Jr. left Cornwall and emigrated to Canada. He somehow convinced his father to join him sometime later. There are stories that say Jr. came to the US and tried to make steel pens but failed, or that he came to sell items, of which steel pens from Britain were included, and seeing a practically virgin territory with little native capacity for making good steel pens, he contacted his father to come and take advantage of this great opportunity.
Regardless of the motivation, we have a record of Richard Esterbrook Sr. arriving in New York City by ship in Sept. 1859, but he is not accompanied by his family. This is because they most likely were already in Canada and he was returning from a trip back to England. By 1859 Richard Sr. and his wife and daughter had already been living in Toronto long enough that the Toronto Meeting of Friends were able to write to the Norwich (Ontario) Meeting of Friends and recommend Richard to them. Toronto informed Norwich that Richard Esterbrook Sr., his wife Mary and his daughter Mary Anna were moving to Galt, Ontario “in the compass of yours…” It also goes on to say, “The residence of our Friends in your land is likely to be temporary only, but they request it. We send you a certificate agreeable to good order…”
Fortunately for us, Quakers had a practice when moving from one congregation of Friends to another, to bring with them, or have sent ahead, a written Certificate of Removal. This let the new group know that this stranger was of good moral standing, a devout member of the Society, and free of debts. Also fortunate for us, the Quakers in Ontario also kept meticulous records of their meetings. Even more fortunate, these records are digitized, searchable, and images are available online at ancestry.com.
From these records we can trace Richard Sr., his wife Mary and their daughter Mary Anna from Toronto to Galt, Ontario, and then from Galt to Camden, New Jersey. We also find out that Richard Jr. may have spent some time in the area as he was also under the purview of the Norwich Meeting. We know this because it is to them he directs his resignation from the Society of Friends in 1861. A committee in Norwich was formed to investigate and meet with Junior, and they finally accepted his decision early in 1862.
In 1861, Richard Sr., along with his wife and daughter, are granted certificates of removal recommending them to their new congregation in the Friends Meeting of Haddonfield, New Jersey, one of the oldest Quaker communities in the United States.
In many histories of the company, 1858 is given as the date for the founding of R. Esterbrook & Co., but it is more likely that this is the date in which Richard Jr. began to try and make pens on his own. Many stories talk about Junior attempting to make pens, and being unsuccessful, convinces his father to come to the US and help him start a new company. I’ve also run across a story that Jr. tried making pens in Canada first, and his father suggested Philadelphia as a better location because of its already extensive steel and manufacturing base. I’m sure the strong Quaker community there was at least an added bonus if not a major factor in choosing that location.
Regardless, when or where the 1858 date comes from, by 1860 Senior and Junior were putting together a company with offices in Philadelphia, and, by 1861, a factory in Camden. In a certificate announcing the re-formation of the company in 1866, which we’ll talk about further down, it mentions:
The business of Steel-Pen Manufacturing was commenced by them [Sr. and Jr.] in this country [USA] in the year 1860, the United States being almost wholly supplied to that time with Pens of foreign manufacture.
This phrase “in this country” seems to support the theory that perhaps Jr. was trying to make pens in Canada in 1858, only moving to the US by 1860. We do know that by 1861 both Sr. and Jr. appear in Philadelphia/Camden directories as living in New Jersey.
As an odd side note, we also find almost the whole family, Sr., Jr., and Mary, but without Mary Anna, counted in the 1861 Canadian Census as being in Montreal. The Census lists Richard Esterbrook and Richard Esterbrook Jr. as “Manufacturers,” and their residence is given as Philadelphia.
They’re enumerated on a page with another large family whose father is also listed as a “Friend” under his religion. Could they have been staying with a fellow Friend while traveling or visiting and been caught up in the census count? It’s possible. It’s also interesting that they list Philadelphia as their residence. If they ever actually lived in Philadelphia it wasn’t for long because by 1862 they were living across the river from Philly in Camden. And before that they were still in Canada. The last oddity about this record is that Jr. is listed as Married, but he didn’t get married until the next year. It goes to show that you can’t always trust census takers to get it 100% correct.
Esterbrook & Co.: First Iteration
Richard Sr. set up the first Richard Esterbrook & Co. in 1860, as mentioned above, with warehouses and offices at 403 Arch St. in Philadelphia, and the factory and headquarters across the river in Camden, NJ, along Cooper St., in the former water pumping station. His first partners in the pen business were Joel Cadbury Jr., and William Bromsgrove.
Joel Cadbury Jr. was the son of a prominent Philadelphia merchant who owned a dry goods store at 252 Franklin. Joel Sr. was also on the board of a local canal company and his brother ran a pharmacy in the same store on Franklin. The Cadburys were also Quakers in good standing and long residents of the city. They were logical partners for Esterbrook because they had connections, access to money, and extensive knowledge of the local business community.
William Bromsgrove, on the other hand, was also a foreigner, like the Esterbrooks. He came from Birmingham where we first encounter him as a young man boarding in the house of a tool maker in 1841. By 1845, though, the directory of Birmingham lists him as a “steel pen manufacturer, [at] 13 & 14 Cumberland St.” He’s also listed alongside his presumed partner Alex Cope as actual steel pen manufacturers with Gillott, Hinks & Wells, John and William Mitchell and the other manufacturers both famous and forgotten.
The next year, in 1846, he is also listed as a Steel Pen Maker on the baptism record of his daughter Emily.
This was a time when pen makers popped up and disappeared regularly in Birmingham. The big names of Gillott and Mitchell and Mason were only starting to be recognized as major players. Bromsgrove and Cope seem to have been one of these small manufacturers who never made it big and they disappeared after just a year or two.
What Bromsgrove did between 1846 and his joining Richard Esterbrook in 1860 is not currently known. It’s probably a good guess that he continued working in the steel pen industry, most likely for someone else if his firm didn’t quite succeed on its own. What we do know is that we next encounter him in Camden as part of Esterbrook & Co.
Richard Esterbrook and the Birmingham Men
An important part of the often-told Esterbrook origin story involves Richard Sr. bringing several Birmingham pen makers to the US to set up their factory along the current British lines. In none of the accounts are these men named, and their number varies from the vague “few” to five or as many as seven.
I believe James Bromsgrove can definitely be counted among these Birmingham men. How can we find the others? One way is to look in directories of Camden at the time of the founding of the factory. We first encounter possible candidates in the directory compiled in 1862. There is an Edmund Smith listed as “penmaker” at 120 Elm Street, and a John Turner, “steel pen manufacturer” at 133 Birch.
Edmund Smith remains a mystery despite my many efforts. Directories of the time were not terribly consistent with their entries, so it’s not clear from “penmaker” what kind of pens he made. There is a Thomas Farnham listed in the same directory, but he’s specifically a “gold pen maker.” It could also be that Edmund Smith was really Edward Smith who shows up a few years later as a partner in a new steel pen company in Philadelphia headed by the same John Turner. More investigation is needed.
John Turner, on the other hand, is a much clearer case. We know more about John Turner because after Esterbrook he goes on to run two other steel pen companies, including the major steel pen manufacturer, Turner & Harrison.
In a 1901 biographical sketch of Turner, it mentions that he came to the US from Britain in 1860 “as one of a small party of skilled pen makers to start the first pen factory in this country.” (Geyer’s Stationer, 4 April 1901, page 12) There is only one factory that fits this description, the Esterbrook factory in Camden, and at the right time we find him living just a couple of blocks from the Esterbrook factory, listed as a “steel pen manufacturer” in a city with only one steel pen factory. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to tie the two together.
John Turner was born in Birmingham in 1823, making him ten-years younger than Esterbrook Senior. Turner was apprenticed to Gillott around 1836 to learn the pen trade. Sometime after his apprenticeship as a tool maker, he left for France for a spell to learn how they made pens there. He eventually returned to Birmingham where he married his wife Eliza. He arrives in New York by himself in 1860 on the ship Persia. Some time after this he must have sent for his wife and their adopted daughter Rosina as they are listed in the 1870 Census for Philadelphia.
John Turner helped Esterbrook start up the factory and get it running, but in 1865, he was offered the position of president and the responsibilities to start up and run a new steel pen company being founded across the river in Philadelphia called Warrington & Co.
Samuel Warrington was a manufacturer of small metallic mountings in Philadelphia. He created a new design of steel pen and was granted a patent for it in 1866.
In 1865 Samuel founded Warrington & Co. and its Continental Steel Pen Works at 12th & Buttonwood to manufacture this pen. He invited John Turner to be partner and president and run the works while Samuel kept his other factory running. The other partners were Joseph Truman and Edward Smith. (possibly the “Edmund Smith” from Camden)
John Turner’s and Warrington’s stories will be told more fully in a separate article.
Esterbrook & Co.: Second Iteration
Despite Turner’s leaving, Esterbrook seems to find a solid footing and early success. In 1862 his pens are being sold far and wide. Here’s an ad from a stationer in Detroit from 26 Nov. 1862 in the Detroit Free Press.
His pens are even making it into occupied portions of the Confederacy. Just one year after the successful recapture of Vicksburg, Mississippi by the Union forces, Richard Esterbrook’s New Jersey-made pens are being sold there.
By the end of the war, in 1865, we find ads for Esterbrook pens from Kansas to Nashville, Mississippi to Vermont.
In 1866, Richard Sr. decides to dissolve the original partnership, buy out the old partners, and form a new corporation with just himself and Richard Esterbrook Junior as partners.
1866 is also when Richard Esterbrook Sr. finally sells his home and stationery shop in Liskeard. He had maintained ties back to Liskeard while starting up his business in Camden. He even voted in the local Cornwall elections of 1861 and 1863/64, still listing Dean Terrace as his address. But 1866 seems to be the year he decided to make a clean break and commit to his new country and his growing company.
Much can be speculated as to the cause and timing. One reason that may have contributed to this is that just the year before, in 1865, Richard Jr.’s first wife Jeanette had died giving birth to their daughter of the same name. Junior was now left with a young son (named Richard Esterbrook, naturally) and a new-born daughter. He had also moved to Long Island from New Jersey the year before in order to better look after the New York office, and now was in need of family and a support system more than ever.
Right about this time is when Esterbrook finally closed the Philadelphia offices for good, and soon after the announced reformation of the company, they moved the business offices full-time to New York City. By the next year (1867) they had moved from their old offices at 42 John St. to 51 John Street.
After the dissolution of the original partnership, Joel Cadbury goes on to run a very successful brass plumbing parts supply company in Philadelphia. James Bromsgrove retires back to England where he stays for a while. In the 1871 census, we find he and his wife in London, and he’s listed as a “retired clerk.” According to his obituary, in 1881 he emigrates to New Zealand where he lives out the remainder of his days. He’s buried in Auckland.
John Turner goes on to run Warrington & Co. until 1870 when he and another Birmingham pen maker, also brought over to start up another pen company, George Harrison (see the articles on WashingtonMedallion Pen Company), form Turner & Harrison, which continues to produce steel pens until its dissolution in 1952, but that’s another story.
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.
Early on in this journey I wrote about Peregrine Williamson, the first identified steel pen maker in the US. He was an inventor, businessman, innovator. I mentioned an 1808 advertisement in which he included an endorsement from President Thomas Jefferson.
I recently came upon the full set of Jefferson’s papers and was lucky enough to find a set of correspondence between the two. I’ve posted a second part to Peregrine Williamson’s story with each of these letters and some commentary on each.