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: Trade Journals – American Stationer, Geyer’s Stationer, and American Bookseller

Trade journals can be a gold mine of information on an industry, and the trade journals for the stationery and office supplies industry is no exception. The two largest and most widely circulated journals were American Stationer, and Geyer’s Stationer.

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

Geyer’s Stationer

Another trade publication that has some overlap and fills some of the gaps in dates of American Stationer, Geyer’s was published in stapled, journal format, as opposed to American Stationer’s newspaper-like format. You tend to find longer articles in Geyer’s as well as a lot of attention to the activities of the National Association of Stationers, Office Outfitters, and Manufacturers, and their concerns, like the latest in window displays.

Geyer’s was founded in NYC in 1877 and published up into the depression. The quality of the images is generally good, but the advertisements are fewer than in American Stationer. But, there are surprises you didn’t expect in most issues, so it’s definitely worth a look.

David Nishamura has also collected the various dates of the online versions of Geyer’s on his vintage pen blog, here.

One cautionary note. Geyer’s seems to have not been terribly accurate with their volume numbers, especially early in a year’s printing. But something really bad happened in 1915. If you count from the earlier years, 1914 should have been volumes 57 and 58. Instead, through 1915 they used 58 and 59 for the volumes. In early 1916, it seems they’re continuing the error by numbering it Volume 60. Things seem to be back on track before the end of January 1916, they are publishing the volume number correctly, Vol. 61, which would make 1915 July-Dec. Volume 60, and Jan-July of 1915, Volume 59.

Unfortunately, I’ve also not been able to find either of the 1914 issues online, no matter what volume they’re marked as.

American Bookseller

The American Bookseller is a less fertile source for steel pens, but there are some gems in and among the various issues. In the second-half of 1877 there are a series of advertisements on some of the new pens they came out with in that year.

You can find a fairly good selection of issues from the Hathi Trust, here.