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.