Pen History: The Early Years – 1830’s, the British Invasion

It was in the 1830’s that things really start to cook. In 1830 we have Perry’s first pen patent, in 1831, Sampson Morden and William Brockeden invent the oblique pen and pen holder, also in 1831 is Gillott’s first pen patent, and in 1832 we find Perry’s second patent, the origin of the Perryan Double Patent Pen. Altogether, there are 16 British patents related to pens and pen holders in the 1830’s as opposed to only 2 in the 1820’s, one of which was for an inkstand.

By 1831, Perry is already shipping pens to the US.

1831 Perry ad

12 1/4 cents ($1.47 per dozen) is a lot less than Williamson’s 100 cents per pen of just 20 years before. Prices are starting to come down, but they have a long way to go before they reach true mass-production levels. By 1843, the large stationer David Felt is selling his high-end pens for $1.50 per gross, the cheap ones go for 1 shilling (about 60-cents at the time) per gross.

1843 david felt pens 12 quarter cents each

In 1832 we see Gillott start advertising in the prestigious Times of London. This December 11th ad also announces his move to a much larger factory space at 59 Newhall St. in Birmingham.

1832 gillott

Richard Mosley is an interesting character because in the next decade we begin to see him selling pens branded with his own name. It’s not clear if he’s making his own, or having one of the Birmingham makers do it for him as a custom imprint. This is a practice that lasts as long as steel pens are made and one that makes research into actual makers a challenge.

This issue of stationers and other merchants paying a pen manufacturer to make pens with their name on it goes back to practically the very beginning of the post-craftsman era. Was not Josiah Mason making pens for Perry with Perry’s name on them? Perry stopped making his own pens after 1829, and was solely concerned with design, and marketing.

This starts to really become a problem in this decade of the 1830’s as the number of names on pens starts to grow. It’s not always clear who is making the pens, and who is merely marketing them. John Mitchell made some pens for Gillott, Mason was making all the pens for Perry, and so on.

There were a number of new, smaller makers, but it sometimes becomes a challenge to untangle maker from seller unless we can find written statements of someone being a “maker” or “Manufacturer.”

As I mentioned above, the number of names on pens starts to drastically increase in the 1830’s. Only looking at pens sold in the US, in the 1820’s I’ve found evidence of five different brands of steel pen being sold. In the 1830’s that jumps to 17.

The British

British names being sold in the US include,

  • Deane’s
  • Gillott
  • Harwood
  • Heeley Radiographic
  • John Mitchell
  • William Mitchell
  • Knight
  • Perry
  • Sampson Mordan
  • Sheldon
  • Skinner
  • Warren
  • Williams
  • Windle’s

Of these, Windle’s were probably Gillott pens; Windle is identified as just a merchant in the patent he and Gillott share. But this is only a guess on my part.

Heeley was also a large purveyor of luxury goods, and most likely had his pens made by Josiah Mason. It was Heeley, after all, who had befriended the young Mason and introduced him to to his mentor Harrison.

A few of the remaining may be merchants and not manufacturers themselves, but it’s not always either easy to tell, nor is it cut and dried. Sampson Mordan, for example, was a merchant and purveyor of luxury goods like silver card cases and perfume bottles, but he was also an inventor and manufacturer as well.

Sampson Mordan

In 1822, Sampson Morden and an engineer John Isaac Hawkins, were granted a patent. This patent describes not only a way to encase a pencil or crayon in a tube, which became one of the first successful mechanical pencils, it also includes a description of pens made of tortoiseshell or horn whose tips are embedded with “larger pieces of diamond, ruby, gold or other hard substances.” While the shell or horn was soft, they would also embed in them small slips of gold to help stiffen and strengthen the primary substance. These were not, as you can imagine, inexpensive.

Mordan’s company made these composite pens for a while but they were rather fragile, and the tips came off pretty easily, which rendered them useless. But Mordan was not finished looking for alternatives to quill pens.

As I’ve mentioned before, he and William Brockeden, a painter and inventor in his own right, invented the first oblique nib as well as the oblique pen holder, with the patent granted in 1831. These were sold quite successfully, and were quickly copied as soon as the original patent ran out. But Mordan was not content to stop there.

In the early 1830’s, a watchmaker from London, James Gowland, created a way to pierce a steel pen and bend the resulting slip of steel back around to create a type of reservoir which could hold more ink in a single dip than a regular pen. This design may have been the very first such reservoir pen ever made.

It seems that there were some issues with his early design that prevented it from being manufactured easily, i.e cost effectively. Mordan, upon being shown the design,  developed some improvements which allowed for mass-production at an economical price, and Mordan then patented those improvements and began selling his Triple Point Pens, and his Counter Oblique nib (an improved oblique nib with reservoir, see figures 3 in the picture blow).

This caused a small kerfuffle with an anonymous letter written to the editor of the Annual Register of Popular Inventions accusing Mordan of stealing Gowland’s invention. The author, who signs the letter “Scrutitor (pro bono publico)” strongly implies he is not connected with Gowland, but is instead attempting to stand up for the inventor against a mighty giant like Mordan, for “the public good.”

A long and detailed answer to this letter was published in a later issue from William Baddeley of London, a prominent inventor in his own right, who spoke with some authority as one of the folks involved in negotiating the connection between Gowland and Mordan. Baddeley points out that Mordan’s patent is for improved methods to MAKE the pens, in other words, manufacturing methods, that made the pens commercially viable and that Mordan is not actually stealing Gowland’s invention but instead is working with the original inventor to make these new pens.

1836 Gowland Mordan triple point pen from Mechanics Magazine

As you can see from the diagrams, the slit of steel punched out is bent over top of the nib. This is the earliest example I’ve found of a reservoir nib, but far from the last.

As a note of side interest, in the article it mentions that the Nib #2 is what is known as a Lunar pen, so when one reads of Sheldon’s semi-lunar pens, also made in the 1830’s, you have an idea of the shape

1833 Sheldon semi lunar pens ad

The Americans

In the 1830’s the American market was only starting to wake up to the promise of steel pens. Peregrine Williamson was no longer producing, but even he saw the potential and he made some noises of coming back into the pen business in 1835, there’s no evidence he ever did.

Instead, I find two identifiable Americans advertising their pens in the 1830’s. One was a stationer, and one a true, Yankee inventor. (there are other names that pop up, like Davis & Co. in the ad at the top of the post, but it’s not clear if they’re British, American, a Stationer, an alternative brand of a known maker, or what. So, there are still more out there to be discovered, but this is what we’ve got for now)

David Felt and Stationer’s Hall

David Felt was a major stationer and blank-book maker in Boston from about 1815 until he expanded (and eventually moved) to New York City in 1825.  His named his offices at 245 Pearl after the famed Stationer’s Hall in London, home to The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. (the guild of stationers and book and newspaper printers)

1829 stationer hall bill head

He made a lot of his own paper goods, like blank books (ledgers, journals, etc…) and playing cards.  He first had a factory in Boston, and then moved it to New York City. When he needed to grow out of that, he expanded and moved to Brooklyn, on Front St. between Adams and Pearl, right where one of the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge stands today. Later, in 1844, his business was growing so fast he looked for land in New Jersey to open a second factory. This became a factory town, Feltville. He eventually sold this property around 1865 as he retired after 50 years in the stationery business.

David Felt was a large and successful business man. He jumped on the steel pen trade in the 1820’s. By 1839 he was selling his own line of Stationer’s Hall pens. It’s not clear if he was making them in his Brooklyn workshop, or if he had them imported from a British house with his own imprint. He did sell a great deal of British stationery and fancy goods, but then he made a lot of his own materials and so he had mechanics and tool makers who could have created his own machines to make his own pens.

Charles Atwood

Atwood pens pop up from the early-to-mid 1830’s up through 1840. While Atwood made his office in the stationery hub, New York City, he began a bit further north in Massachusetts. Much of the following history is from an 1880 history of the old town of Derby, Ct. where Atwood had a factory for a while.

Charles Atwood was born in 1801 in Hardwick, Massachusetts, but the family soon moved to Salem, NY. His father was in the woolen cloth trade, which Charles learned until the age of 19. His formal education was scarce, but his desire to learn, it is said, was prodigious, especially math. This skill with numbers served him well in later years where he was known for great accuracy in his engineering. “So skillful was he in Arithmetic that he could solve many problems which are usually solved by Algebra, of which study he knew nothing.”

When he was 19 he began working for a Giles Tincker of North Adams, Mass. at a woolen mill. During his two years there, he invented a better means to remove wool from the carding machine, called the double doffer. Even though he was granted a patent in 1830 for this discovery, he was never in a position to protect his patent so he lost all benefit from it.

Not happy with this situation, he left the wool trade and instead saw steel pens as an interesting problem and a growing market. He had married Lydia Crosby and around 1832 or 1833 he invented a new way of making steel pens. He had no actual knowledge of how they were made in England, so he invented his own, reverse engineering, so to speak. There is some evidence that his rather extraordinary wife Lydia, may have played a larger role in the invention than is normally granted by the 19th-century historians. According to the book Mothers and Daughters of Invention, “Lydia was surrounded by inventors. Several of her Hotchkiss ancestors, her first husband Orrin Crosby, her second husband Charles Atwood, and her son-in-law George Kellogg were all inventors.”

Charles’ initial manufacturing operation was rather modest.

In a little shop at Middletown [Connecticut], his machinery was driven by one horse, and continuing the manufacture of pens a few years, he came to Birmingham, and carried on the same business in the large building now owned and occupied by Summers & Lewis. This building he erected  and it was long known as “Atwood’s Factory.”

In 1834, his pens were awarded a Diploma at the American Institute’s fair in New York City. This was also the fair where Goodyear displayed samples of India Rubber. Atwood’s pens were displayed under the category of “Cutlery, Edge Tools and Hardware” as there was no category, yet, for steel pens.

An 1834 ad for Atwood’s pens appearing in The Evening Post (of New York)

1834 Atwood Patent Pens

In 1835 he entered his pens in the first annual fair of the Mechanics’ Institute on New York City. His pens were described as “very good of style and execution” and were awarded a diploma.

By 1836 Charles had an office at 72 Maiden Lane where he stayed until at least 1840, after which no trace of his pen making can be found.

1836 Atwood pens made in city

By that point he had moved on to another invention, a new way to making hooks and eyes for clothing and sewing them onto cards. After he was able to sell that patent (he’s getting smarter), he moved on to inventing and patenting a machine for making various kinds of specialized chains. And then a machine for making pins that even in 1880 was still so fully used by the industry it was called an “Atwood machine.” He finally died at the young age of 53 from a congestive fever after a life of invention and innovation.

The 1830’s innovation and expansion was primarily on the eastern side of the Atlantic. (the indomitable Charles Atwood as the main exception) Patents, new factories, wider markets, all saw the British steel pen trade, especially in Birmingham, explode.

In the 1840’s, the American entrepreneurs begin to respond and a new crop of manufacturer begin to come forth. But that’s for next time.

Pen History: The Early Years – 1820’s, Foundations Laid

From about 1805 until about 1820 there were only a few people making and selling pens, with Williamson and Wise being the largest and widest distributed. There may have been others who made pens still on the craftsman scale and sold locally, but they’re less visible from this distance.

All of that changed in the 1820’s. This is the time when the British, and especially in Birmingham, introduced mass production, methods and consistency of quality to leave the craftsman’s workshop behind and become a true industry.

There are several major names which first appear in this period, including James Perry, Josiah Mason, John and William Mitchell, and Joseph Gillott. These were not the only makers in the 1820’s, but they were the foundational innovators and inventors who took a craft and turned it into an industry.  These folks also have the most written about them. For a fuller account, visit the Birmingham Pen Museum and/or get yourself a copy of People, Pens and Production (PPP)*, a book of essays about the rise and history of Birmingham’s pen trade. Because there is more information available elsewhere, I’ll only cover an outline of the period to give you an idea of how this all started. Much of the information below comes from this interesting book.

Throughout the 18-‘teens, Wise was making his barrel pens and selling them throughout England as well as America. He continued doing this well into the 1820’s. But he was soon to have competition.

1827 Wise steel pens ad

Ad from 1827 for a NY Stationer

By 1820 James Perry was making pens in Manchester. He soon moved to London and became known for his inventive marketing and variety of pens. He was successfully making pens and selling them widely in 1828 when a small manufacturer of spit rings in Birmingham, Josiah Mason, sent him a few samples of an improved pen based on Perry’s own pens. Within a few days, Perry showed up in Mason’s workshop, in person, and hired him to start making the Perryan pens for the next 40 years.

Josiah Mason had been a hard-working entrepreneur from his childhood. When he was a young man he was introduced to Samuel Harrison, the split ring manufacturer who had made those famous pens for his friend Dr. Priestly in the 1790’s. Harrison was impressed and not only hired him, but eventually chose him to take over his business. It was while Mason was making his split rings for key rings, and other steel “toys” (the term at the time for small buckles and other small, steel ornaments) when he saw some of Perry’s pens being sold in a stationer’s window. He purchased one and worked for a few weeks to see if he could make it better, especially focusing on better steel and manufacturing quality to improve flexibility. The results of these experiments set up Josiah Mason to be the maker of the famous Perryan Pens for decades to come before starting off on his own.

Mason’s factory eventually became the largest pen factory in the world, but before that could happen, a few other folks came along in the 1820’s to add their contribution to the industry.

The Mitchell Brothers (John and his younger brother William) seem to have been the first to really apply industrial practices and machines to the making of steel pens.

John started out making knife blades in 1820, and in 1822 he began inventing ways to apply machinery and other mechanical tools used to make metal buttons to the manufacturing of steel pens. “By applying the hand press to the processes of shaping, piercing and slitting pens he increased the rate of production, and cut costs. He also discovered a way of slitting steel pens after than had been tempered and hardened.” (PPP)

This application of machinery, especially the hand screw press, to the making of pens was the beginning of a real revolution in the availability and especially the affordability of steel pens.

When John Mitchell first started, his pens were 30s(hillings) a dozen. Within a few years, after the application of the machinery, the price fell to 1s 6d(pence) a gross.

John’s younger brother, William, worked with him for a while before setting out on his own and starting his own steel pen business. William eventually found great success and became one of the largest and most successful pen makers in the world.

In 1821, John and William’s sister Maria also began her entry in the steel pen trade by marrying a young man of Huguenot decent from Sheffield, Joseph Gillott.

Gillott had learned the trade of knife and scissor grinding in Sheffield, and brought that to Birmingham after the Sheffield cutlery trade took a downturn following the end of the Napoleonic wars. The stories of Gillott’s early years are numerous. He began making his own pens around 1827 in a crude workshop where he heated up the pens in a common frying pan over the kitchen fire. He quickly began to make money, and continued experimentation with the fineness and quality of steel, as well as adding the grinding of the nibs to increase flexibility. (An idea most likely arising from his days grinding scissors and knives as a young apprentice)

From these humble beginnings, Gillott went on to be one of the largest pen makers in the world, and many of his pens are considered the finest examples of the flexible pointed pen, and are highly valued by calligraphers to this day. But in the 1820’s, he was just getting started.

By 1820 in the United States, Peregrine Williamson seems to have lost interest in pens, leaving only Wise still advertising. These early British manufacturers hadn’t gotten to the point, yet, of shipping their wares to the poor, benighted savages in the former colonies in any great quantities. That is not to say people in the US weren’t using steel pens. You still find them being sold by stationers, like Chapman’s ad from 1829.

1829 chapman NY ad

 

And in 1828, the US House of Representatives spent a whole $1.00 on steel pens, and $1,359.27 on quills.

The full on assault by the Birmingham makers on the American market wasn’t to start until the 1830’s, and when it did, it combined with a series of other elements to create a whole new booming industry. And when you have a boom, there are always people who want to get a piece of that pie, and the number of manufacturers began to grow rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic.

* People, Pens & Production in Birmingham’s Steel Pen Trade, ed. by Brian Jones MBE, Brewin Books, 2013.

 

 

Additional Evidence for Early Metal Pens

The reason I called the first period Pre-History in my original post dividing pen history into eras, was that most histories with names begin after this time. Before 1800, we have hints, rumors and names out of the mists of legend that have come down with not much evidence, and not much more than names, rough dates and maybe a place.

The stories that were written later in the 19th-century tell us that right around 1800 there is Thomas Sheldon, or perhaps it was a blacksmith from Sedgley called Daniel Fellows. Of course the French have Arnoux in the 1750’s whose invention was pretty well ignored in France but was stolen by the perfidious British and used for their own enrichment.

We do know that Sheldon was making pens in the early 1800’s. So was Wise, and Donkin, who had the first patent for a metallic pen in Britain in 1808. I have also dealt with Peregrine Williamson in America in a prior post. All of them were active in the 1800’s and some, like Wise kept working up through the ‘teens and into the 1820’s.

So far, many of these names come down to us through later stories and anecdotes. It’s rare to find something more substantial, especially anything from the 18th-century.

I’d like to add one more name to this list of early makers of metallic pens. I recently came across the names of E. and T. Williams, working in London in 1790.

1790 E and T Williams gold silver steel pens

 NEW INVENTED GOLD, SILVER AND STEEL PENS

WARRANTED.

E. and T. Williams, No. 13, Strand, return their grateful thanks to the Nobility, Gentry, and the Public, who have approved and patronized their curious new invented Elastic Pens: respectfully inform them, that they have now, by great care and industry, brought them to the highest perfection; which, for finished workmanship, exactness of moulding, and extraordinary temperature, for durability, as infinitely to surpass every thing of the kind ever introduced in this kingdom.

They are fitted into ivory handles, plain, or inlaid, with a gold, silver, and steel Pen to each, or separate, with a pencil. – The steel points are preferred, and jetted over, which prevents their getting rusty. This is a valuable discovery, and a circumstance that has been long and universally complained of in the late ingenious Mr. Pinchbeck’s Steel Pens.

PORTABLE FOUNTAIN PENS, of the same quality, warranted to stand the test; the construction and finishing, being so compact and complete, as never can fail of answering the intended purposes, as proved by repeated trials.

I don’t have access to a lot of information on London at that time, so I have no more details of the interesting E. and T. Williams.

There was another advertisement from two years later in 1792 where they’re still “new invented.”

1792 new invented gold silver steel pens in ivory handles

One interesting implication of these ads is the language implying that there are other steel pens (“unrivaled in this kingdom…), that ones made in the past would rust, which has “been long and universally complained of…” It also implies that the pens, most likely barrel pens, are fitted onto the handles in such a way as to allow them to be switched out. “New points may be fitted in at pleasure, and by this means will write for several years without repairing.”

E. and T. Williams are advertising improved articles that are already familiar to the buying public, both their advantages and their problems.

I did find in an 1808 city directory of London that there was an E. Williams, Bookseller and Stationer, at 11 Strand. Could be the same. Otherwise, this is what I’ve got. This and a series of ads following that include the phrase, “gold, silver and steel pens” being sold by other stationers and book makers, implying that perhaps they are selling Williams pens, or others have started to imitate them. Here’s one from 1796.

1796 gold silver and steel pens

Again we see that to start a history of steel pens with Wise in 1803, let alone to start with Perry, Gillott and Mitchell in the 1820’s, is missing a “pre-history” that was real nonetheless. Rarely do these inventions just spring complete and original from the mind of a genius. This is the favored narrative in the 19th and for much of the 20th-century; the Great Man (because it’s always a man) theory of discovery and innovation.

The reality is that there’s almost always some foundations laid by others, early models and patterns upon which are drawn the inspirations for later developments.

Oh, and I need not mention the October 14, 1895 Harrisburg Daily panegyric for the recently deceased Richard Esterbrook (who started Esterbrook in 1860) that claimed for him the title of “the inventor of the steel pen”, is, shall we say, a bit off the mark.

1895 esterbrook inventor of steel pens

 

 

Origins of the Oblique Pen and Oblique Holder

I finally have an answer to a question that has puzzled me for a while: where did the oblique holder come from?

It’s obviously not a product of the era of the quill, so when did we first have nibs held at this odd, oblique angle? To answer this, you first you have to go back to the Early Years of the steel pen: 1820-1860.

Prior to this period, steel pens were almost universally all barrel pens affixed to a holder pretty permanently. Pens were also not really disposable. There were even steel pen repair services, just like the same services to repair your fine quills.

Individual slip nib pens which fit into a holder were originally pieces of a quill which came in a box of nibs and fit into a holder. These were disposable and meant to obviate the need to mend your quills.

By 1831 you did start to see more what they called “slip nib pens” or “portable pens” (easier to carry than a long barrel pen), but the idea of holding the nib at an oblique angle in the holder was an idea new enough it warranted a patent.

In 1831, an enterprising and very successful stationer and inventor, Sampson Mordan (inventor of the silver mechanical pencil) combined with one William Brockedon to patent the first oblique pen and oblique holder. (I’ve attached the patent below)

In the patent application they mention as the benefits that this will allow the writer to hold the pen more comfortably as well as it should allow the pen to last longer since both tines will be moving across the paper evenly. If you read the description, the idea of holding a pen obliquely seems to be a new idea, and one that requires explanation and justification, and the obliquity itself is patentable.

“and we hereby claim as our invention, the oblique direction or position purposely given to the slits of all pens, whether made of quills, metals, or other fit and proper materials, and also the obliquity produced in the use of common pens, whether made of quills, metals, or other fit and proper materials, when held in our oblique pen holders.”

The holders shown in the patent document include oblique nibs, as well as oblique holders with straight nibs. Figure 17 is explicitly labeled as “another pen holder adapted for holding common quill or metal portable pens [slip nib pens] in an oblique position”

Mordan-Brockedon-patent

Figures 26 and 27 show the oblique nib which was also covered under this patent.
The explicit language of this patent make it clear that the idea of holding a pen at an oblique angle is the central new idea of the patent. And thus with this we can finally point to the beginnings of the oblique holder and oblique pen.
One mystery solved, 10,473 more to go.
P.S.
Thanks go out to the owner of the Sampson Mordan site http://www.sampsonmordan.com/. I have found a number of the British patents related to steel pens, but have not been able to access any of their details. This wonderful person has posted some of Mordan’s patents and fortunately this was one of them. It helped me confirm what I suspected about oblique holders.
If you want to search more British patents, at least the names and patent numbers, I have the only list of indices I’ve found for the early patents (pre-1881). I had to gather them together and it’s still incomplete, and there are no details like the attached in these docs, but it’s a place to start.
If anyone has access to these pdf’s and would be willing to grab a few if I provided you with the numbers, I would be most appreciative. Thanks!

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).”