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.



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.



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.

The Quaker Burial Grounds in Liskeard. Courtesy of the Liskeard and District Museum.
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.

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

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.


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.


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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.


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


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


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


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.

What is “Action” in a dip pen?

You’ll often read in old descriptions of steel pens comments about a pen’s “action,” as in “An easy action” or “the action of this pen being similar to that of the quill.”

What is “action”? This 1853 ad for Rhoads & Sons spells it out. Action is a combination of the flex of the tines, i.e. the spread of the tips, and the spring in, or close to, the body of the nib.

1853 Rhoads Sons amalgam pen long ad

This stiff action was seen as a cause of many problems, including hand fatigue, enervation of the wrist (probably carpel tunnel), and other issues.

Manufacturers attempted to solve this problem in different ways. Some made special pen holders with a rubber or spring end that allowed the pen to imitate having some flex. Others, like Rhoads, tried different materials beside the rigid steel being used at that time. The most extreme of these was probably the short-lived rubber pen nibs, made with Charles Goodyear’s newly invented vulcanized rubber.

1859 Goodyear rubber pen ad elastic less tiresome
1859 ad from the India Rubber Pen Co.


One of the earliest solutions was to add slits and piercings, as Rhoads alluded to, to soften up the body of the pen. We saw the first three-slit pen advertised by Peregrine Williamson in Baltimore in 1808. Later, Gillott patented the three slit pen in England and claimed the pride of discovery.

In 1853, a stationer, inventor and pen maker in New York City, Myer Phineas was granted a patent for a new kind of pen with broad cuts made across the body of the pen. This removal of material allowed the body of the pen to flex and create that softer feel.


This idea looks a lot like a form we find in later pens called the Double Spring, like this Esterbrook 126.


We find the name “Double Spring” applied to pens quite early, but without a picture to go with it. For example, in this ad from 1838 for Charles Atwood’s pens, we find both a Double Spring as well as an Elastic Spring. But without images it’s not clear if Phineas just improved on a design the Esterbrook was also hearkening back to, or if the Esterbrook took its name from earlier styles but implemented a restrained version of Phineas’ design?

1838 Atwoods double spring


Eventually, a combination of slits, piercings, grinding and much thinner steel led to nibs with a softer action. These pens were perfected about the time that call for soft action began to decline. People were more used to steel pens and less familiar with quills, the writing styles, like copperplate, which called for this softness were being replaced by more monoline business penmanship styles that didn’t require so much flex of the tines.

Fountain pens were also become more affordable, and fountain pen nibs less and less displayed a soft action. Carbon paper made “manifold” and stiffer nibs much more popular. The smoothness of tipped fountain pen nibs also resulted in less hand cramping. By the 1930’s, flexible fountain pens were fairly unusual. Soft nibs continued to be made, and some are made today, but that softness was only half of the equation. They would still be considered as having “a stiff action” by the standards of the 19th-century.


How Pens Were Made at Esterbrook in 1885 (and c.1920)

In my post on how pens were made in 1857 (and 1890), I list the main processes used by the Washington Medallion Pen Co. in 1857, and the general process used by British manufacturers in 1890.

I pointed out in that post that the similarities between Washington Medallion in New York City, and the process described by Henry Bore in Birmingham 33 years later, were almost certainly due to the fact that the American factory was set up by British-trained pen tool makers.

I also mentioned that another famous pen maker of the time also had their factory set up by British-trained pen tool makers: Esterbrook.

Esterbrook opened their Camden, NJ factory in 1861, a couple of years after the Washington Medallion article came out. I’ve not been able to find any detailed records of those early years, but I did run across an amazing image of the factory from 1885 made by Sanborn and used by insurance companies.

Sanborn map of 1885 Esterbrook Factory in Camden

As a reminder, the steps in 1857 included:

  1. Rolling sheets of steel
  2. Cutting
  3. Piercing
  4. Annealing
  5. Stamping
  6. Raising or Shaping
  7. Hardening
  8. Scouring
  9. Grinding
  10. Slitting
  11. Polishing
  12. Coloring
  13. Varnishing
  14. Inspection
  15. Boxing

All of these steps can be seen in the map. In building A, for example, on the first floor is scouring, second floor is cutting, third is raising and fourth is piercing. You also find rolling and hardening furnaces in the back, varnishing over along the east wall, and examining, weighing and box making in the front. (Esterbrook made their own boxes at this point).

You also find some additional work, such as a machine shop, engineering and offices. They also included a place where they did plating. That’s where they plated pens with various finishes, like gold, silver and “tar.”

Another example of how these same basic steps carried over into the 20th-century, we find a sample card used by salesmen to shows the various steps used in making a pen. The sample card probably dates from the 19-teens or maybe 20’s. The captions for the pens are above the objects.

Steps in making a pen sample card


Latest post – How Steel Pens were Made in 1857 (and 1890)

My latest post is one of my largest and most involved. In it I compare two descriptions of how steel pens were made. One from the US in 1857 that describes a visit to the Washington Medallion Pen Company’s factory. The other from Henry Bore’s 1890 The Story of the Invention of Steel Pens: With a Description of the Manufacturing Process by Which They are Produced.

I include comparisons of manufacturing from the first real industrial factory in the US in 1857, to how they did it in a large Birmingham factory in 1890, the height of the British Pen industry. Amazingly enough, they’re pretty much exactly the same. I address why that is, and show the tremendous impact a group of British-trained tool makers had on the beginnings of the large-scale steel pen industry in the US.

How Steel Pens Were Made in 1857 (and 1890)

I’ve already referenced an article in United States Magazine, from April of 1857 several times. Like here, here, and here. The full title of the article is “How Steel Pens are Made: A visit to the manufactory of the Washington Medallion Steel Pen Company.”

I’ve already discussed the importance of the Washington Medallion Steel Pen Company in other posts on this site. (follow the “here” links in the paragraph above) Now I’d like to look more closely at this very early and important explanation of how pens were made by the Washington Medallion Pen Company in 1857 and how their methods fit into the larger world of pen manufacturing of the time.

Up to the 1850’s we have no clear description of how US pen manufacturers created their steel pens. The closest we have is a line in the story of Charles Atwood where it’s mentioned that he had no idea how pens were made so he developed his own method, probably with the help of his inventor wife.

By the 1840’s, British pens were quite common, especially in the big cities, and the new American makers may have had some idea of how the British made pens at an industrial scale, but its most likely that the American makers created their own processes and tools. It’s also clear that they never were able to reach the same scale of manufacturing as their British counterparts from the same period.

So, where did Washington Medallion learn to make pens, and how does their method compare to contemporary British manufacturing techniques?

The British Influence

One of the things Washington Medallion did differently than its predecessors was to bring skilled workers from Britain to build and run its pen factory rather than rely on reverse engineering or figuring out a their own way to make pens. We’ve read already about George Harrison and George Bradford, two Birmingham-trained tool makers, who ran the factory and presumably set up the machinery and processes for making pens.

It seems these two young men weren’t the only workers they brought from England. In an 1863 compilation of women at work, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopedia of Women’s Work by Virginia Penny, it mentions:

An attempt has been made to manufacture steel pens in this country, but, I think, as yet without success. The makers of the Washington medallion pen had some girls to come from England to work for them, but found they could not keep up the factory, because of the prices they had to pay for labor. [ed. see this post for what else was going on] The duty on steel pens is thirty per cent., yet they can be imported for less than it would cost to make them here.

The pen manufacturing process in England was very reliant upon women for much of the actual cutting, shaping and grinding work, while men were concentrated in the dirty and dangerous work with furnaces and polishing.

This process described in the article, including the role of women in the manufacturing, is almost exactly the same as we accounts from the large pen factories of Birmingham from about the same period and continuing up at least through the 1890’s.

We can read similar descriptions, if not at the same level of detail, in publications from 1859, 1870, and an article in Scientific American from 1866. The Scientific American article states:

We believe there are but few manufactories in this country, that of the Washington Medallion Pen Company, and that of the Estabrook[sic], in Philadelphia, being among the largest.

The next really detailed description comes from our old friend Henry Bore, whose “The Story of the Invention and Manufacture of Steel Pens” is a treasure chest filled with gems. Even though it was published in 1890, more than 30 years after this article on Washington Medallion, the manufacturing processes, described on pages 37-49 are almost identical.

Let’s take a look at the process as described in the article in United States Magazine. I’ll point out any differences found in Henry Bore’s later account.

I’ve also included illustrations from both United States Magazine (1857) and Bore (1890).

How Pens are Made in 1857 (and 1890)

Sheets of Steel

Sheets of fine steel are heated to soften the steel and make it easier to work with. This heating can leave a scale on the surface. Before rolling to thickness, the sheets must be “pickled” in an acid bath to remove the scale. After pickling the steel is polished by being tumbled in a barrel that includes pebbles and water. This polishes off the scale and leaves a smooth, grey finish.

The steel is then rolled to the appropriate thickness. At Washington Medallion, because they only manufactured one style of pen, this was easy. In a factory like Gillott’s, where many, many different styles were produced, there were many different possible thicknesses depending on what was going to be made.

So, from a crusty, black bar, we now have smooth, shiny ribbons of steel ready to be made into pens.


United States Magazine, 1857
01 Bore rolling the steel
Bore, 1890

Women’s Work

From here, most of the work is done by women. This was considered a good job for a young woman. It was relatively clean, safe, was done mostly sitting down and since all the workers were women, (again relatively) free from bad influences. In descriptions if the next steps, it’s often emphasized that women were most often used because of their “quick, dexterous fingers” were well suited to manipulating these small nibs.

The work is admirably fitted for females, as it is light and wholesome, and requires that delicate manipulation and attention for which the sex is remarkable.

This is not to say the work was without danger. As you’ll read, there were a lot of heavy machines stamping with great force very close to unprotected fingers. Accidents did happen, but this was a time before industrial safety was a general concern, and since the women themselves were able to control the fall of the hammer, it was safer than many other factories in which women worked at the time, like the spinning and textile factories.


The bright steel ribbons are brought to a line of women sitting at presses. The presses are used to cut out the pen shapes from the ribbon, with great care to ensure as little waste as possible since the waste steel was worth about 1/5 the value of new.

At Washington Medallion they use screw and lever presses. With a “smart pull at the lever” the die is brought down with sufficient force to punch the pen out of the sheet. In Bore’s description, years later, they’re still using lever-operated screw presses.

A skilled operator at Washington Medallion could produce 300 gross, 43,200, blanks in a day. In an 1870 article on Birmingham, they give the same number for a skilled operator.

United States Magazine, 1857


Bore cutting blanks
Bore, 1890

Piercing, Annealing, and Stamping

In Bore’s description he says the pens are moved right to stamping where the name and any embossing is stamped into the pen. This is done with a foot-pedal-operated press that drops a very heavy weight onto a shaped bed.

In Washington Medallion, the pens first went to piercing where the hole is cut at the top of where the slit will be. After piercing, the pens are placed in a muffler, or a heated iron box in which they place the pens with a source of carbon and heated for 24 hours. After allowing them to cool, the pens have completely lost their temper and are soft for the stamping.

Bore helps us understand this deviation in the order of the process.

If the mark [for stamping] is unusually large, the marking process is deferred until after the pen has been pierced, in order that the blank my be annealed (or softened) which takes the impression more readily than hard steel.

If we remember what the Washington Medallion Pen looks like, we can readily see that it would fall into this category of “unusually large” stamp, especially the large embossed medallion.


Bore points out that the holes, often decorative in shape, require very delicate punches and dies which are the result of some of the most precise tool work.

Bore piercing
Bore, 1890


Bore stamping
Bore, 1890


Raising or Shaping

The next step is to give the flat pen blank it’s shape. In the case of the Washington Medallion pen, this is a complex mix of concave and convex curves. Again, this operation is done by the women using screw presses. One can imaging the rapid moving of pens into position, the fall the press, the ejection of the raised pen and the insertion of a new blank as a fairly smooth and continuous process.

United States Magazine, 1857
Bore raising
Bore, 1890


The pens are placed back in iron boxes and heated in the muffler until they reach the right temperature for the degree of hardness desired. This is a delicate operation and a highly skilled one. The pens are in a rotating barrel or box, similar to a coffee roaster, with an open end. During the heating, the master workman is constantly checking the color of the pens, occasionally pulling a pen out with a long steel spoon.

When they reach the right temperature they are cooled quickly. At Washington Medallion it only says they lay them out on a tray and cooled as quickly as possible. Bore mentions a more involved process that involves dumping them in oil and then removing the oil as much as possible by being rotated in a perforated cylinder and then dumped in a vat of boiling soda water.

They are then heated again to a very specific temperature to remove the brittleness and give the elasticity desired. This tempering also requires great skill and experience to get the right tempering.

United States Magazine, 1890


Bore Hardening
Bore, 1890
United States Magazine, 1857



Scouring in Washington Medallion’s factory was done by placing the blackened, rough pens into rotating barrels of sand. In Birmingham, they are first dipped in sulfuric acid and then rotated in barrels with water and pebbles made from annealing pots  broken and ground up to a fine gravel.

After scouring for some hours they are polished “white and clear” and ready for grinding. Because the British pens were scoured with water, they had to go through a separate drying step that involved an additional barrel with sawdust.

United States Magazine, 1857
Bore Scouring
Bore, 1890


Grinding was an important step, and for both Washington Medallion and for the British pens some years later, each pen went through at least two grindings: parallel and perpendicular to the axis of the pens. To see what a grind looks like, see my short post on grinding.

Both groups used a wooden wheel charged with emery and a method of holding the nib (pincers or pliers) as the nib would get hot from the quick grinding. The motion was rapid and precise and women could go through a lot of pens in a short time.

United States Magazine, 1857
Bore Grinding
Gore, 1890


Slitting was the most important and most delicate operation that called for the most precise machinery.

Slitting was accomplished by presses with a cutter of the utmost sharpness and hardness. Bore described them as having the sharpness of a razor. In both accounts the cutter is comprised of two edges, one on top and one underneath. These have to come together perfectly in order to have a clean cut. And the pen has to be positioned perfectly, especially if you consider the sharp point of the nib, which the slit has to bisect evenly.

United States Magazine, 1857
Bore slitting room
Bore, 1890


Polishing, Coloring, Varnishing

Slitting leaves a small burr and so the nib needs a final polishing. Washington Medallion used boxwood sawdust in a revolving drum. Gore says that first they start with “pounded pot” for 5 or 6 hours and then finished with sawdust.

After polishing, the pens are a bright silver-steel. To bring the bronze or other colors you see in vintage pens they would then place the pens back in the tempering barrels and heated again, but for only a very short time, just enough to change the color to the right one for that pen design.

After the pens are the right color they’re coated in a varnish to inhibit rust. The formula is “peculiar to the establishment” for Washington Medallion, or just plain shellac with alcohol (“methylated spirits”) for the British pens.

After the pens are coated they have to dry. At Washington Medallion, they dry the pens in the open air. Since they are prone to sticking, “the workmen exhibit no little dexterity while tossing and moving them about…”  Bore describes a process where the pens are first rotated in wire baskets to air dry and then scattered on iron trays and heated in an oven to evenly distribute the shellac and leave a glossy appearance.

Inspection and Boxing

The final stages are to inspect the pens and box them. In the magazine article, it says that Washington Medallion put its pens through a thorough inspection including testing the temper and pressing against the thumbnail to check the slit. According to the article, they scrapped all rejects. It also points out that “other manufacturers sell their second at about twenty-five percent less than the usual prices…” This is a practice that continued into the 20th-century. I have a couple of boxes of these seconds from a variety of manufacturers that seem to date to about the 1930’s.

As for the British, Bore only says that once the rejects have been sorted out the ones that are accepted are boxed.

Washington Medallion boxed their pens in a unique way that was defended in their various trademark lawsuits. The pens were first packed in small boxes of a dozen. Twelve of these were then packed into a larger box of a full gross.

The British pens, because they were shipped to many different countries, and were of various styles and imprints, were packed in boxes of different designs and numbers, depending on the destination country.

United States Magazine, 1857
United States Magazine, 1857
Bore steps in pen making
Bore, 1890


The British Influence: Part Two

We mentioned above George Harrison and George Bradford as tool makers from Birmingham brought by Washington Medallion to run the factory. Not surprising, the article in United States Magazine, all about a tour of the factory, mentions the very important role of tool makers. Gosh, I wonder if Harrison and Bradford were anywhere near the author during the tour?

Upon the make and prefect truthfulness of the tools depend the quality of the pens. The tools are manufactured on the premises by artists who are known as pen-tool makers. These tool makers rank in Birmingham as the best machanics [sic] in England, and command higher wages than any other mechanics in that country. They are the chiefs of their shops – all the work being performed under their charge and responsibility. They are necessarily constantly on the watch lest the tools get dull, or break, or in some way become imperfect, and require repairing or making anew – for it must be remembered that it is steel tools cutting steel, not steel tools cutting wood, cloth, or leather. Hence it is that the art is a difficult one. And without that which we pay for liberty – eternal vigilance – the steel pen cannot be made perfect, as a set of tools perfect in the morning may be doing imperfect work before noon. Another necessity of this peculiar business is that it requires for its successful prosecution a constant supervising throughout the various trades, that work may pass regularly through all the numerous processes, from the “cutting out’ of the “blank” to the inspection, assorting and boxing. The least neglect on the part of a general superintendent and the wheels get clogged, and the system deranged, and ruin soon ensues.

The evidence points to the truth of the importance of the tool maker. We can see that by noting which manufacturers had the benefit of trained pen tool makers and what happened to those men.

During the 1870’s there are five successful pen companies in the United States: Washington Medallion, Harrison & Bradford, Esterbrook, Warrington & Co., and Turner & Harrison. Each has a common thread: British skilled tool makers.

Washington Medallion: We’ve seen how George Harrison and George Bradford, trained tool makers from Birmingham, helped get this company off the ground.

Harrison & Bradford: George Harrison and George Bradford, after Washington Medallion stopped producing for a short time founded their own company which lasted until 1882.

Esterbrook: The stories of Esterbrook’s founding all tell of Richard Esterbrook bringing a group of Birmingham-trained pen makers to found the company. Richard Esterbrook Jr. himself may have gone through an apprenticeship with the Birmingham pen manufacturers. (see note below)* In addition, I’ve been able to identify with strong confidence one of these Birmingham-trained tool makers as John Turner. (a fuller account to follow in a future post)

Warrington & Co.:  A Philadelphia maker of small, metallic mountings, Samuel Warrington, filed a patent for a new design of pen, and hired John Turner from Esterbrook to set up and run his new company in 1865. After a series of disastrous fires in just a couple of years, Turner was able to buy out Warrington and partners, and use the machinery and tools to found…

Turner & Harrison: Founded by John Turner in 1875 by joining up with George Harrison to buy out the remains of the Warrington & Co.’s Continental Steel Pen Works. Turner & Harrison will have a reputation for, and a strong commitment to, quality manufacturing for its whole history. During its entire existence, from its founding in 1875 until it closed its doors in 1952, it was run for only two years by someone who hadn’t started out making pens and tools on the factory floor. This recognition of the importance of knowing how pens are made and what it takes to run an effective manufacturing operation, was a major component of the company’s commitment to quality and thus its success.

From Washington Medallion Pen Company and Esterbrook sprung not only Harrison & Bradford, Warrington, and Turner & Harrison, but also Miller Brothers steel pens. In 1882, George Bradford sold what was left of Harrison & Bradford, after George Harrison left for Tuner & Harrison and Bradford’s solo effort didn’t prosper, to a prominent cutlery manufacturer in Connecticut, Miller Brothers Cutlery. Bradford formed and ran their pen Department until his death. Miller Brothers Steel Pens became another major manufacturer of pens in the US.

These British-trained tool makers were instrumental for finally bringing a large-scale and successful steel pen industry to the United States. They laid the foundation for almost all successful pen manufacturers in the US in the decades to come.



*I tracked down the deed of sale from when Richard Esterbrook Sr. finally sold his stationer’s shop in Liskard, Cornwall in 1866. Included alongside the deed is a note some anonymous clerk added probably sometime in the early 20th-century. (1930’s? 1940’s?)

“Richard junior was apprenticed to a well known pen and nib manufacturer and eventually emigrated to America and set up business on his own account ….with great success.. The firm he founded, still in existence, the Esterbrook Corporation, is a firm of international repute but particularly in the USA of the standing of the Parker Pen and Shaffer Pen companies.”

The dates for an apprenticeship aren’t right for this to be Richard Esterbrook “The Founder”, often called “Sr.” but does make sense for Richard Esterbrook “The Son” often called “Jr.” (there were quite a few Richard Esterbrooks, and the one who is often called “Sr.” or “The Founder” was actually the second of that name, but his son was most often called “Jr.” and never Richard the Third.)