The 149 Pacific Railroad Mystery

I have a mystery.

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.

149 Pacific Railroad all three-3

149 Pacific Railroad all three-4

 

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.

149 Pacific Railroad Pen Catalog comparison

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.

1883 Esterbrook Harrison and Bradford 505 pen

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.

1884 Pacific Railroad Pen ad
The State of Nevada advertising for office supplies proposals in 1884. Sometimes these lists contained brands they had purchased in the past, but were no longer available. Was that the case here?

 

1895 ad for Pacific Railroad Pen no maker
An 1895 ad for Pacific Railroad pens but no “Esterbrook” or “Turner & Harrison” designated.
1902 Pacific Railroad Pens ad
1902 ad for unbranded pens, including the Pacific Railroad pen, listed like it’s a standard pen shape like Falcon and Bank.

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.

Warrington & Co.: 1865-1885

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.

1865 Esterbrook NY ad
1865 Esterbrook ad from Charleston, SC.

Into this environment of new pen companies, we are about to see Philadelphia finally emerge as one of the dominant centers for steel pen production. Esterbrook had operated out of Philly, with at least a warehouse there until 1866, but had quickly moved pen production just across the river to Camden in 1861. It wasn’t until 1865 that Philadelphia was to get its first, industrial-scale steel pen factory, and it was far from the last.

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.

In the 1857 publication Philadelphia and its Manufacturers, the company is described thus:

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.

1499078464623072026-00056645

 

1499078464623072026-00056645

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.

Washington Medallion pen engraving25pct

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 1869, a fire started in a warehouse across the street (southwest corner of the intersection), but it burned so hot that the firemen could only focus on keeping it from spreading. This involved dousing the adjacent buildings in water. The water was good for neither the steel used for the pens nor the precision machines. Fortunately, losses were estimated at only $3500 and their insurance covered $10,000. In the second fire, in 1873, the fire started in the same building and the damage was more extensive. This time their losses were estimated at $20,000 and their insurance was only $11,000.

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.

1877 Pedrick and Warrington ad
1877 Pedrick and Warrington ad from New Orleans, LA

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.

1881 Warrington Steel Pen
1881 Theo Warrington ad from American Stationer

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.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

1868 Ad in Directory- Ancestry p880
Ad from 1868 Philadelphia Directory

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.

ESTERBROOK-2-COLORADO
Image courtesy of The Esterbrook Project

304 Colorado open box

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.

1877 Esterbrook Indestructible pen ad
From American Bookseller, July-Dec. 1877

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.

Warrington and Co oblique from David Berlin

 

 

 

New “Pen Type” Post: Barrel Pens vs. Slip Pens

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.

Barrel Pens vs. Slip 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.

1889 Leon Isaacs stub falcon pen image

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.

Wm Mitchell barrel_pens

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.

Bramah's patent pen points and pen with a Bramah holder
This picture is found in multiple places on the internet. If anyone wants to claim it, I’m happy to give credit, or take it down if desired.

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.

03_The_Times_Wed__Jun_13__1787

 

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.

detail of pens

Notice the similarity in shape to the modern barrel pens shown above.

Individual Wm Mitchell pen

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.

DawsonWarrenHyde in box

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.

Inbox

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.

Context within the Industrial Revolution

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.

Cheers,

Andrew

Esterbrook Steel Pen Company (Finally!)

We’ve finally arrived at the 800 pound gorilla of US steel pen companies, R. Esterbrook & Co. in the latest installment: “Esterbrook, Part 1: In The Beginning…”

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.

Enjoy!

 

Esterbrook, Part 1: In The Beginning…

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)

1813 Esterbrook richard_sr_friends_birth_record

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.

Cemetery1
The Quaker Burial Grounds in Liskeard. Courtesy of the Liskeard and District Museum.
Cemetery2
Richard Esterbrook’s grave. Courtesy of the Liskeard and District Museum.

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.

DeanTerracesm
Dean Terrace in Liskeard. Courtesy of the Liskeard and District Museum.

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.

1861 October Norwich forwards cert of removal to New Jersey

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.

James Bromsgrove 1845 post office directory of London

James Bromsgrove 1845 post office directory list of steel pen manufacturers

The next year, in 1846, he is also listed as a Steel Pen Maker on the baptism record of his daughter Emily.

James Bromsgrove daughter 1846 baptism record

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.

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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.

1862 Esterbrook advertisement in Detroit

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.

1864 Esterbrook in Vicksburg MS
From The Vicksburg Herald, 9 June 1864

By the end of the war, in 1865, we find ads for Esterbrook pens from Kansas to Nashville, Mississippi to Vermont.

1865 Esterbrook Nashville ad
From The Nashville Daily Union, 27 Dec 1865

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 Esterbrook dissolves partnership

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.

Epilogue

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.

Research Resources: Histories

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.

  1. Boston Mechanic, and Journal of the Useful Arts and Sciences, “August Notes,” August, 1835
  2. The Saturday Magazine, History of Writing Materials: Part 2, The Steel Pen, Feb. 17 1838.
  3. United States Magazine, “Writing Pens: How Steel Pens are Made”, April 1857 (detailed description of how Washington Medallion Pens were made)
  4. American Journal of Education, “XIII Specimen Notes of Lessons”, 1861
  5. 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.

President Jefferson’s Pen Maker

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.

Enjoy!

Peregrine Williamson: Part 2

Since writing my original post on Peregrine Williamson, I’ve found some additional interesting information, including a treasure trove of his letters with President Thomas Jefferson!

I have some interesting tidbits I’ll cover first, but the most interesting of my new discoveries are the letters. There are some really interesting bits in them.

Assorted Tidbits

Patents

I had covered the fact that Peregrine was an inventor beyond pens. I found a good list of all known patents filed by Williamson on the venerable source for all patent informatin related to hardware and tools: the Directory of American Tool and Machinery Patents DATAMP.

Pat. #DateTitleType
1,168X Nov. 22, 1809Metallic writing penhousehold tools
1,926XMay 12, 1813Machine for shot and bulletsgunsmith
3,185XMar. 20, 1820Coffee roaster
3,415XDec. 06,  1821Improvement in bedsteads
3,598XOct. 17, 1822Bedstead
4,150XJun. 18,  1825Machine for roasting coffee
5,368XFeb. 16,  1829Cooking stove, in the premium railwayrailroad car stoves
6,247XNov. 11, 1830Secret bedstead
7,749XSep. 09,  1833Screw augerauger bits
8,735XMar. 30, 1835Metallic pens
RX-26Sep. 30,  1840Improvement in the Making or Manufacturing of the Premium Railway Cooking-Stoverailroad car stoves

Unfortunately, all but the last of these patents are what are called “x” patents, which most of the time have no real information since most patents prior to 1836 were destroyed in a fire.

This last patent is actually quite interesting. It’s a re-issue of the one from 1829. The significance of this patent is not just that there’s a diagram connected to an X patent, but that Williamson was patenting a cooking stove to be used in a railroad car right on the threshold of the first steam-powered railroad to be run in the US (1830).

Another example of Peregrine Williamson being on the bleeding edge of a new technical revolution.

Another Invention: Chimney sweep machine

In 1822, the Baltimore city council passed a resolution to allow Peregrine Williamson to sweep some chimneys in Baltimore using his new invention.

Permission granted to Peregrine Williamson to sweep a certain number of chimneys in the City by his newly invented machine.

Whereas, Peregrine Williamson has invented a new mode by which to sweep chimneys, so as, in his opinion, to render unnecessary to use of climbing boys; and is desirous, in order to give his invention a fair experiment, that a trial of it should be made in a certain number of houses; and is being desirous to promote any invention by which the use of human beings in this business may be dispensed with,

Be it resolved by the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, That whenever Peregrine Williamson shall produce to the Mayor the assent of any twenty inhabitants of this city, who are housekeepers, that they are willing and desirous to make use of the said Peregrine Williamson’s invention for sweeping chimnies [sic], that it shall be lawful for them to have the said machine erected in their chimnies, without being liable to have their chimnies swept in the usual way, or being subject to any fine for the neglect of having it done; provided, that this permission shall not extend beyond twelve months from the passage of this resolution; and provided also, that nothing in this resolution shall be construed to exempt said persons from the operations of the ordinances now in force, if said person or persons shall neglect to sweep with said machine as often as may be required by law.

Approved Feb. 20th, 1822

Correspondence with Thomas Jefferson

In my original post I mentioned Williamson’s 1808 advertisement which included an endorsement from President Thomas Jefferson.

1809 Williamson ad with Jefferson

I recently ran across several pieces of the correspondence between Williamson and Jefferson in the collection of the Jefferson Papers of the National Archives. Their correspondence yields up some interesting facts and conclusions.

I will look at each letter and follow up with a commentary pointing out significant things about the letter. N.B. these National Archive letters are still considered “Early Access” versions, i.e. they haven’t been fully vetted and published.

Also, you’ll notice right away that spelling and capitalization seemed more of a competitive sport back then than a set of rules.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 23 January 1808

Sir                                                                                                  Baltimore Jany 23d 1808
do me the pleasure to Except of two of my three Slit metalic pens in a Calander case which I have Sent you as a preasent and pledge of Respect, I have Contemplated Sending you one before but have been prevented from Considerations of its imperfection to which inventions generally are liable, but haveing been making them for nearly two years they have been considerably improved—So it is with some degree of boldness and asureance I have Sent you those for your inspection and approbation and Especily as many of the most Eminent and Celebrated penmen of this and other places, have pronounced them to be far Superior to any of the patent metalic pens that have ever been invented heretorfore either in Europe or America it being well known that all the metalic pens upon the former principle have been wanting in that flexibility and Elasticity which is So necesary in order to write with Smoothness and Rapidity which in this is happily effected by the two aditional Side Slits—there is no doubt but that you will at once percieve the intention of the principle—that it is to relieve it of that otherwise inevitable Stiffness to which it has always been fixt. you will also discover the utility if not the necesity of the Substance on the nib the pen being reduced to give it the necesary Elasticity and Spring is made too thin without that Substance which is to prevent its acting Severe upon the paper—I merely make those Remarks on the pen to answer the probable inquaries that might arise from the investigations of a Curious mind—You will receive the case with the two Steel pens and pencil both pens fiting in the Same place with directions for pen and Calander wrapt round the case and all inclosd with in a case—Directions to open the Silver case. first to get at the pens pull the plane part from the Calander and it opens in the centre then turning the end of that part directly into the place out of which the pen was taken in order to lengthen it Suficiently to write with—then if the pencil is wanted returne the pen into its place you will notice a Small Sckrew in the centre which in one position Serves to pull out the pen and when turned to the left it opens to the pencil—Sir Should fancy suggest any new idea for the improvement of the pen (as perhaps there is yet room) it will be chearefully Received and adopted.

By Sir Your Obedt Servt

P Williamson

Excuse the errers and hand of a Mecanick

Commentary:

The reference to a calendar indicates that Williamson had included one of the perpetual calendars which were popular on fancy pencils and such in the 18th-century. This also indicates that Williamson is positioning his pen in the longer tradition of luxury writing implements.

One key things we find out is that Williamson had been making his pens for almost two years at this point, so he had begun making pens in 1806.

We also have the description of “three slit” applied to his pens. (see earlier post to see why this is significant in the history of steel pens)

Another interesting comment is found in this quote:

[his pens are] far Superior to any of the patent metalic pens that have ever been invented heretorfore either in Europe or America

Which raises the question, so there were other patent metallic pens invented in America before this?? I know Wise is England was making patented pens, but I’ve not heard of any others in the US, at least as a commercial enterprise. There is evidence that individual pens were made by inventors and craftsmen, but so far there’s no evidence of a commercial production of metallic pens in the US before Williamson.

The descriptions sounds a lot like a sliding pen/pencil configuration. I’d be curious when the first slide pencil was produced.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 30 January 1808

Baltimore Jan 30th. 08.

Sir I am very much gratifyed that the pen I had the pleasure of Sending you Suited and pleasd and that my feeble improvements had in any degree entitled me to the high Reward of your approbation—you have Sent an order for half a dozen of my pens which I have particularly Selected as you want to accommodate them to one of Peale’s polygraphs if those pens Should not be Sufficiently pliable a line addressd to me at No 72. Market Street, Baltimore I will Remidy the defect.

I have The Honour to be Respectfully Sir your obedt Servt

P. Williamson

price $3

Commentary:

So, Jefferson wrote back and praised the pens. He then ordered 6 more pens at a cost of $3, which he wished to try in “Peale’s Polygraph.”

Peale’s polygraph is a device for writing multiple copies simultaneously by connecting the writer’s pen to multiple other pens which all write at the same time. The original was invented by John Isaac Hawkins, and when Hawkins left America for England, he turned over his patent to Charles Wilson Peale, the famous American portrait painter. Peale, working with Jefferson, continued to make improvements on the device, and Jefferson continued to buy new versions.

In 1809, Jefferson wrote:

the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible . . . . I could not, now therefore, live without the Polygraph.

The polygraph currently at Monticello is fitted up with quill pen points, like the ones invented by Joseph Bramah in 1809. These are similar to today’s dip pens, but made out of feather quills.

1823 Bramah patent pens
Bramah was still selling his quill points in 1823

This brings us to the interesting question of what form these pens took. Other accounts say that Williamson was making barrel pens, i.e. pens which were attached to a tube of metal that was mounted on a holder of wood, pearl, etc… But to mount them on the polygraph, they would have had to be at least unmounted.

The polygraph currently in Monticello was from 1806, so could be the one he experimented with these new steel pens. Jefferson owned at least 11, so it’s not clear which one he would have used, but it must have been able to affix a steel barrel pen to the end. And if he had previously been using full quills (pre-Bramah), then putting a barrel pen would not have been much different than the quill.

What’s also interesting is that this was not the first time Jefferson had had a steel pen recommended for his polygraph.

Upon first receiving the polygraph, he writes this to Peale in 19 Aug. 1804.

liking as I do to write with a quill pen rather than a steel one, I value the last pen cases you sent me because they admit by their screws so delicate an adjustment. as the quill-pen requires to be kept in the ink

None other than Charles Wilson Peale wrote to Jefferson earlier that year in 24 June 1804 as Peale describes the polygraph:

“But if a steel pen is used to write with, and a quill pen in the copy, then the screw to the metal pen will be perfectly convenient for adjusting the touch of both. My letter of the 18th contains the advantages of using the steel [pen] and quill pens togather, and which may obviate the evil mentioned in yours of the 20th.”

So, this means that Jefferson had tried a steel pen before, didn’t like it and preferred quills until he tried Williamson’s pens in 1808.

And the last very interesting bit of information is that Peregrine Williamson was located at 72 Market St. in Baltimore. I’m trying to find where this would have been at the time. What I have been able to figure out is that what was Market St. in Baltimore town is today’s Baltimore St..

From Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Williamson, 24 February 1808

Jefferson liked the original pen combos so much he wanted to give some as presents.

Sir                                                                                                     Washington Feb. 24. 08
The half dozen metallic pens you sent me according to request, came safe to hand, & have answered their purpose well. I have now to ask the favor of you to send me 4. such as the one you were so kind as to send me first, that is to say a pen & pencil combined in a silver stem with a Calendar to it, & each in a separate wooden case. they are intended as presents to friends. the cost of these added to the preceding, shall be immediately remitted if you will be so good as to accompany them with a note of the amount. Accept my salutations.

Th: Jefferson

Commentary:

We learn that the pen/pencil combo was mounted in silver and came in a wooden box. And again with the “Calendar” which is not clear.

The other message is clear, just send me these, and I’ll finally get around to paying you for these and the six pens you just sent me.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 7 March 1808

Sir                                                                                           Baltimore March 7th 1808

The 4 Pens with calendar cases which you sent for, I have prepared with all possiable Speed and Sent you each in a Separate wooden case as You requested. at the time your letter came to hand I had not any of the cases of the discription you Sent for and therfore had to make them which alone occasioned the delay of them. the price of the 4 cases with pens $20 I am very glad that the half dozen pens answered their purpose. I have now (reluctantly) to request of you Sir the favour of publishing those lines in the note you Sent me that gose to embrace your opinion of my Pen. Several of my friends with whom I had the pleasure of Showing it advised me to publish it, but I determined that I would not without your approbation. Address to No. 72 Market St. Baltimore

I remain your most obedt humble Servt

P, Williamson

Commentary:

So, he gets an order from the President for four of his fanciest pens each with their own wooden box. You can only imagine the scramble. But it must not have been too terrible. It seems as if he already had the pens made, or close to, as it only took two weeks from Jefferson sending the order, and Williamson filling it.

In this letter, Peregrine asks the President if he can publish the kind words that Jefferson had written to Williamson. These must be the words in the advertisement.

Washington 26th Jan. 1808

Th: Jefferson presents his compliments to P. Williamson, and his thanks for the very fine steel Pen he has been so kind as to send him. It is certainly superior to any metallic pen he has ever seen, and will save a great deal of trouble and time employed in mending the quill pen.

The advertisements also include a quote from the next letter we have, but this is from a letter that is missing from the sequence.

From Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Williamson, 22 March 1808

Jefferson writes back.

Sir                                                                 Washington Mar. 22. 08.
I have been so much engaged lately that it has not been in my power sooner to write this short letter. The 4. calendar pens arrived safely, and I now inclose you a bank draught for 25. D. for those & what was furnished before. I find them answer perfectly and now indeed use no other kind. always willing to render service to any useful advance in the arts, I have no objection to your using the little testimony in their favor which I expressed on a former occasion, as desired in yours of the 7th. inst. I tender you my salutations.

Th: Jefferson

Commentary:

In his ad he includes the section “The four calendar pens arrived safely. I find them answer perfectly and now indeed use no other kind.”

It’s also interesting the Jefferson overpays. He really owed $23, but throws in an extra $2. Perhaps he rendering a service to a “useful advance in the arts.”

From Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Williamson, 21 June 1808

Jefferson has been using the steel pens for almost six months now and has gotten the measure of them. This is usually when the honeymoon period with any new technology is well and behind you.

Washington June 21. 08.

Sir

I must trouble you for a new supply of your steel pen points. I find them excellent while they last, and an entire relief from the trouble of mending. but, altho’ I clean them carefully when laid by for the day, yet the constant use for 6. or 7. hours every day, very soon begins to injure them. the points begin to be corroded, & become ragged, & the slit rusts itself open. I have sometimes, but rarely succeeded in smoothing the point on a hone, and the opening of the slit is quite irremediable. I inclose three which will shew the manner of their going. I will thank you for half a dozen or a dozen points of the same caliber, & a note of their amount which I will have remitted. I tender you my salutations.

Th: Jefferson

Commentary: 

The President is discovering that 6 to 7 hours a day, probably every day, spent sitting in the highly corrosive iron gall ink of the day, would play havoc upon a steel pen.

This is a problem pen makers try and fix for the next 130 years with many and wondrous solutions. It’s not until stainless steel nibs are introduced in the 20th century is this no longer such a problem.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 25 June 1808

Peregrine Williamson writes back with some advice and an interesting observation.

Baltimore June 25th. 08.

Sir

Your favour of the 21 Came safe to hand requesting a new Supply of Pens but previous to its reception I had disposed of all but about a half a dozen and therfore could not send the number You mentioned but I shall not forget to select a half a dozen more out of the next number that is made and to send them on in due time—You have truly observed (notwithstanding You clean them) that the constant use for 6 or 7 hours every day very soon begins to injure them. and that the points begin to be corroded & become ragged & the slit rusts itself open. You have sent 3 to give me an idea what You mean one of which is yet good with a little sharpening which I send You with the rest—but altho we have two much reason to urge those objections to the Steel Pen in concequence of its susceptibility of corrosion & rust, Yet I believe their is no metal that would eaven be a substitute for it haveing tried them. eaven Silver or Gold which I think is proof against either of those inconveniencies not excepted—for I have discovered that it is the points of the pen (which I might say is the pen itself for all the rest would be useless without it) that begin first to become worn apart & that not somuch from the corrosion as from its action on the paper that I have worn the points quite blunt so as to loose its harestroke intirely and yet the other parts to be apararntly intire. You say that you have sometimes but rarely Succeaded in Smoothing the points on a hone. I expect (if posseable) to be down to Washington Shortly and I Should be happy in takeing the pleasure to Show You the precise method to sharpen your pens as it might save You some trouble

P, Williamson

Commentary:

We do find steel pen repair services in London at an early date, but this is the first reference in the US.

But the most interesting morsel from this letter is the proof that Williamson experimented with gold and silver pens before settling on steel. He found that silver and gold wore away too easily. This was known as well by others, and was the cause of the search for a harder tipping that could go on the end of the gold pen.

Williamson’s point, that yes, steel pens may rust and get sharp, at least they don’t wear down so quickly as more expensive metals like silver and gold.

And now he’s offering to meet Jefferson in person and show him how to hone is pens. Too bad we don’t know if he ever made it.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 28 September 1808

The final letter I’ve been able to find in Jefferson’s letters in the National Archives is from almost 10 months after the first.

Baltimore Sept 28th 1808

Sir

I avail myself of the peculiar pleasure and satisfaction of sending You the half doz steel Pens Which I hope (last promised) will be in due time.

I am Sir Your Most Obdt And Most Hub Servt

P Williamson

Commentary: 

it’s clear that Jefferson continues to order pens from Williamson.

Other Letters and Relations

  • In a letter of 13 Oct 1808 to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, he asks him to stop by Baltimore and pay a P. Williamson of 72 Market St. for a dozen steel pen points
  • In a letter of 1 Dec. 1808, he receives the account (assuming showing paid) from P. Williamson with a balance of four dollars from teh 10 dollars his grandson left with the writer, John Rigden, the watchmaker mentioned in the previous letter. Seems Mr. Randolph just dumped the $10 with the watchmaker and never made it to Williamson. Ridgen must have paid Williamson and sent the money back to Jefferson.
  • In a letter of 22 Nov 1814, from William Caruthers, he mentions that based on Jefferson’s recommendation, Caruthers stopped by P. Williamson’s in Baltimore to see his newly patented method for making small shot. (see his patent from 1813). While Caruthers is not terribly confident of either Williamson or the other gentleman he visited being ultimately successful, he did think more highly of Williamson’s method. This indicates that Jefferson is keeping track of Williamson and his inventions.
  • And finally, in a letter dated 19 March 1822, to his friend from New York, DeWitt Clinton, we find the final judgement on Peregrine Williamson’s pens by the former President

I thank you, Dear Sir, for the elegant pens you have been so kind as to send me; they perform their office admirably. I had formerly got such from Baltimore, but they were of steel, and their points rusted off immediately.

One can only assume they were gold pens, now being made in New York City with tipping to make them much more durable.