Research Resources: New York City

Going back all the way to Peregrine Williamson, it seems that New York City was the place to be if you were going to make, and especially, sell, steel pens.

New York City has long been our commercial hub with thousands of offices and firms even in the early 19th-century. The population tended to be very large, and mostly literate. The need for stationery and pens was not only highest there, but it was also a major distribution for the rest of the country.

As a result of these and other factors, New York City is important in the history of steel pens in the US, and so you need tools for doing research in New York City.

One of the first places to look when trying to find someone or some company, is to look in the directories. There are a few city directories to be found in ancestry.com, but the best sources is the New York Public Library collection of directories. Actually, the New York Public Library’s digital collection is an amazing resource in many way. Search it and you never know what you’re going to find.

Another collection of directories, some accessible, some behind paywalls, can be found here. The directories are divided by decade or era, and by location (Brooklyn vs Manhattan, for example).

You can find a list of direct links to pdf’s of the following directories at latinamericanstudies.org.

Dogget’s New York City Directory 1848
Trow’s City Directory 1857
Trow’s City Directory 1858-59
Trow’s City Directory 1860
Trow’s City Directory 1861
Trow’s City Directory 1862
Wilson’s New York City Copartnership Directory 1864-65
Trow’s City Directory 1865
Trow’s City Directory 1872
Goulding’s New York City Directory 1877
Trow’s Business Directory of Brooklyn 1899
Trow’s City Directory 1901
Trow Copartnership and Corporation Directory of Manhattan and the Bronx 1906
Trow’s Manhattan and Bronx Directory 1908
Appletons’ Dictionary of New York and Vicinity 1883
Directory to the Charities of New York 1874
The Medical Directory of the City of New York 1886

If you’re able to go in person, the New York Historical Society is a fantastic resource. There are some online objects, but most of their great collection is best found in person. Their researchers have also been extraordinarily kind and helpful in finding some things I couldn’t find anywhere else.

A lot of the steel pen manufacturers and the stationers who sold their pens were located in NYC. While a lot of old NYC has been demolished to make way for skyscrapers, it’s amazing how much is still there. Whenever I get an address, I like to use the amazing resource of Google Street View to check it out. Often it’s pretty obvious that the 30-story glass and steel structure on the site is not the building where Benjamin Lawrence and his brother Phineas had their stationery shop in 1859. But if you do see an old building, it would be nice to see just how old it is. If you’re an architectural historian, maybe you can tell by site the rough date. If not, you can go to the amazing hidden resource of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Society. On the page, scroll down just a bit and look for the Landmark Search field. Enter your address and it will take you to a map view with the information panel on the right. Here’s what it says about 73 Bleecker St.

NYCLandmarksInfo

It’s amazing what information is available, but the key for this kind of historical research is the Year Built date. If it’s of the right date, and a landmark, you might be able to get a full landmark report on the building. To do this, go back to the main web page and click on the Discover NYC Landmarks map.  Navigate to the location and click on the yellow or pink area and a pop up window with a quick summary of the historic landmark will appear. Click on the picture and it will pop up the full pdf of the historic landmark designation report. Here’s an example from the NoHo district which includes 73 Bleecker St.

The City Museum of New York City also has some interesting objects, especially photographs from the late-19th into the early-20th centuries, ephemera, etc… Go to their Collections portal to see more.

I’ll add others as they come along, but these will keep you busy for quite a while.

Edit: I forgot to add New York Historic Newspapers. A joint project of libraries, it provides searchable historic newspapers from all over NY state.

 

Research Resources: British Patents

Looking through old British patents is not nearly as easy, in some respects, to US Patents. With the right index, they are easily searched by subject, but to get any detail, even the abstract, you need to go to the British Archives. If someone knows of an online resource to see details behind any of these patents, please let me know.

Right now I’m focused on British patents up to about 1860, but have some of the indices for some later years in the 19th-century.

Up to 1852 (October, to be exact), British patents used a sequential numbering system. After October of 1852, the numbers became a mixture of year and number, e.g. 18631202 for Patent 1202 from the year 1863.

Fortunately, Google Books has several of the indices. Unfortunately, it’s Google Books, so there’s no way to find a single list of the same title. You have to search for them and use “related books” links etc… Google puts too much trust in search.

So, I’ve put together a list of the useful volumes I’ve been able to find. I’ll add to the list as I find things or people point me to missing volumes.

Main Index by Patent Number.

There is a two-volume index for the patents up to Oct. 1852. Volume 1 goes up to 1823, and Volume 2 continues from there through patent 14,359 in Oct. 1852.

This index is useful if you have the patent numbers. For my purposes, the best way to find them is by subject indices.

Subject Matter Index

The subject matter index for up to 1852 is also in two volumes. Volume 1 is for subjects beginning with a-m. Volume 2 is for subjects beginning with n-w. I’ve not found Volume 3 yet.

Pens, pencils, etc… are listed under “Stationery” so they are found in Volume 2.

After 1852, the subject matter indices are listed by year. I’ve so far been able to find the individual indices for the rest of 1852 (Oct-Dec) – 1869 with the exception of 1862, and 1865.  Then I found the index for 1881, but nothing between 1865 and 1881. Obviously there’s much more to find and I’ll update as I find more.

So, here are the indices for 1852 onward. In each book, look in the list at the front to find the page number for pens, pencils, etc…  On that page you’ll find a subject of the patent, the number, date and patentees.

Other appendices, etc.

There are other individual subject-matter appendices  that were published so those with specific interests would not need to buy the whole index set. I’ve not found one directly of interest, but you may run across some, like the one “Relating to Metals and Alloys (Excepting Iron and Steel).”

Research Resources for Steel Pens: The Esterbrook Project

The Esterbrook Project is just what it sounds like, a site dedicated to all things related to Esterbrook steel pens.

This deceptively modest site began as the owner, Phil, needing to come up with a way of keeping track of his own collection. After losing the information a couple of times, and having to start over, he decided a web site would be the best way to store the information.

Now The Esterbrook Project has the largest collection of images of Esterbrook steel pens in the world. Phil has carefully and conscientiously gather nibs, many from his own collection, others donated to add to the repository, taken careful photos and captured evidence for the existence of these nibs. He’s listed different sources that reference the nibs, such as the different Esterbrook catalogs which are known.

The heart of the site is the Nib List.  This is where you can take any Esterbrook nib and look it up by number. There are fewer and fewer numbers with no photos as the site becomes more popular and people send in missing nibs. Phil is very careful and will return the nib if asked, but if you can, I recommend gifting him an example so he can add to his collection as well as add it to the site. It’s a small price to pay for such an amazing resource.

There are some other resources on the site, including Phil’s own diagram of a pen’s anatomy. Reviewing it for this post reminds me that I forgot “shoulder” for my diagram.  [now fixed, ed.] See, there’s always something else to learn at The Esterbrook Project.

Full disclosure here, I have helped Phil out with the site from time to time and I’m fully dedicated to keeping this amazing resource going as long as we can.

Research Resources for Steel Pens: Historic Newspapers

The main source, at least the one with the widest reach, for exploring old newspapers, and a fantastic source for exploring the history of steel pens is newspapers.com.

This site is tightly connected to Ancestry.com. (another good source we’ll look at in a future post)  They host over 320+ million pages in over 5,600 newspapers from mainly the US, but also some foreign newspapers.

The newspapers range in date from the 18th-century on up. Not everything is here, but an awful lot of useful information can be found on the site. What you find has a broader range than American Stationer. You find more local information from around the country than in the New-York-based American Stationer. The site contains many small-town newspapers in which local stationers would often advertise, or local governments would place notices of requisitions for supplies, which gives you a decent idea of who is using what pens. You can even sometimes find snippets of information on which traveling salesmen from what companies have checked into the local hotel.

There are some quirks to the searching and viewing of results that you need to get used to. Once I search, as I look at results, I always right click the result to view in a separate tab. If you don’t, and try to go back and forth, it doesn’t always come back to the same place you left in your list of results.

Once you find something of interest, you use the simple, but effective, clipping tool to make a clipping of the article. Once you save it, then you can view the clipping, share it, download it (as a pdf), print it, or add it to an ancestry.com person. You can go back and look at your clippings at any time simply by clicking on “Clippings.”

The clipping works great, and allows you to title the clipping and even add a slightly longer description if you want. The only real limitation to the clippings are that you cannot group or organize your clippings in any way. The best you can do is sort them by date you clipped, or date of the newspaper (oldest first, or newest first). This helps when getting a timeline view of things, but it makes it harder when you either use the site to search for different projects, or your subject spans across time with lots of other clippings in between. I tend to name my clippings by the year and then the key name I was searching. So, for the following ad, I titled the clipping 1842 – C.C. Wright American steel pens

ccwright american steel pens

As they add new pages every month, it’s useful to save your main searches and they will send you an email when there are more results for that search. Sometimes it’s useful, and sometimes not, but it’s always worth checking it out.

Newspapers.com does require a subscription. If you do any amount of research, I don’t think you’ll regret it. I have suggested to them an ability to sort, group, tag or in some way to organize your clippings. We’ll see if they add it in a future release.

I have 748 clippings at the moment. Most are for pens, but I also have a number for family history, odd things I run across, and other interests.

Those clippings for early pens have allowed me to go back further, and to discover other makers, like C.C. Wright above, who have been forgotten in the few histories of the early American steel pen industry which were written in early times. Without newspapers.com I would not know a fraction of what I’ve discovered about the early period of American steel pens. (1800-1860)

Another good site is the Library of Congresses, Chronicling America. The site has information on a lot of historic newspapers (up to 1943), and a fair number of digitized pages which are fully searchable.

Instead of the “clipping” capability of newspapers.com, you can zoom in on an article and take a “picture” of it (the little scissors icon in the top), or you can save the whole page as a jpg or text, or a pdf with hidden text behind it for searching.

The quality of the scans are very good considering most came from microfilm. At least they’re of high resolution.

Newspapers.com has a wider selection of papers, and their interface and ability to cut and save clippings is very well-done. (though I’d like to be able to sort and organize my clippings instead of having them dumped into one big sortable pile.) But they are a subscription service and cost money. Chronicling American is free.

It’s a good idea to search both, because there are a few papers in Chronicling America that aren’t in newspapers.com. Either way, you’ll find some interesting information in the old papers.

Research Resources for Steel Pens: American Stationer

I wanted to share some of the resources I’ve been using to research the old steel pen makers and their pens. I’ll start with one of the most important for the golden age of the steel pen, 1870-1920.

The American Stationer

The American Stationer was a trade publication for the New York stationery and fancy goods trade. It was published weekly on newsprint from 1873 to at least 1928.

Many of the volumes and issues are available online. The best compilation of the issues and links to them is found on David Nishamura’s wonderful Vintage Pens Blog.  David’s blog post has good information about how to use the online versions. I also have found the Internet Archive versions to be the best. Unfortunately, the HathiTrust versions are often missing pages, and/or have pages mixed up in their order.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this journal for research into early pens and writing supplies. The journal is filled with advertisements, industry gossip and news, and sometimes even prices.

The best way to use them is to begin by searching in each volume. This is done differently for each version but it’s possible because there is some basic OCR-scanned text in the background. The searchable text is somewhat hit-and-miss and will miss key instances of your searched text, but it’s a great way to catch a lot.

The only thorough way to find everything is the brute force method of going through each issue page by page. For this, I recommend downloading the pdf versions. If you download every volume from the earliest of 1878, up through 1910, it takes about 7GB of space. I’m in the process of downloading each volume and then splitting them into individual issue pdf docs. This makes it quite fast to run through an issue as smaller pdf docs are faster than larger ones.

There is not a lot of overt information in The American Stationer. There’s the occasional short piece of news regarding one of the big manufacturers, or the announcement of the introduction of a new pen style, but most of the valuable information you can glean comes from the advertisements. What they can tell you are things like when someone moves addresses, or when they are advertising a new pen. You also want to look for when someone advertises, and when they don’t. It won’t give you a definitive statement, but it gives an indication, a hint for what might be going on.

As an example, I’ve not been able to find any documentation about when Leon Isaacs & Co was sold to Turner & Harrison. But, thanks to the American Stationer, I can narrow it down to 1899. There are mentions of Leon Isaacs and it’s principles advertising and out on sales trips up to 1898. Then in 1900, Turner & Harrison advertises Leon Isaacs’ Glucinum Pens as their primary line of pens.

It’s these small hints, gathered together, compared and collated, that start to put together the history of the steel pen industry in the US.

Plus, it’s fun to see all of the advertisements for things like pens, pencils, and even the occasional Milton Bradley game.

As a reminder, here again is the link to the most complete list of online issues of The American Stationer.

http://vintagepensblog.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-american-stationer-directory-of.html