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.
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.
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.