Ok, so you’ve read some of my ramblings and are interested in steel pens. You start to pick up a few from eBay, flea markets, estate sales, etc… Now what? If you’re anything like me, you will soon start to have bags and boxes of pens which need ordering so you can both know what you have as well as find those you want. You also want to store them in such a way as to keep them from rusting (or rusting further).
Congratulations, you now have a collection! Whether your collection is a few dozen or thousands, it will help you in the long run to have some kind of consistent way to record the pens, store the pens, and both should help you find the pens.
I’m going to write a short set of articles on these three main issues beginning with your records.
You look at a pile of pens, especially vintage pens, and there are any number of ways of dividing them into individual types. There is also a lot of different information you can gather on each type. What you’re figuring out is what makes for an individual “record” and what information you want to collect for each record.
Let’s say you have a large pile of fruit. You can sort them by round fruit vs. long fruit, big vs. small (with a range for each), by color, etc… You could also divide by name and then record a lot of this information in each record so you can go back and make further divisions. So, you could record each fruit by it’s common name. You have a record for Granny Smith Apples, another for Red Delicious Apples, another for Valencia Oranges, and one for Unknown Pineapple. In each record you can record the shape, the color, the weight, whatever makes sense. Then later, with the right tools, you can go back and extract all of the records of red, round fruit, or all fruit over 20 grams and yellow.
What you put into each record depends on the type of information you are interested in. You can always start with a set of fields (discreet pieces of information like “size,” “shape,” etc…), and at some point if you wish to add more fields, you’ll have to go back to each physical object and record the new data point.
My records started out fairly basic but have grown over time. The first thing to think about is what will cause one pen to have one record, and another pen a separate one. Name and number are the most obvious means to differentiate one pen from another. An Esterbrook 314 is obviously going to have a different record than an Esterbrook 556 or an Eagle E410. But there can be several other ways of differentiating pens.
Early on, reading the great sites like Brandon McKinney’s, I was able to find out that the imprints on pens can indicate a difference for when the pens were made, so I decided early on, that a difference in imprint (the words imprinted on a pen) would be a differentiator that would indicate a different type. I also decided that finish (gray, silver, gilt, black, etc…) would also be a differentiator. Basically, I was looking for ways to further split pens into smaller groups (“types”) than just name and number.
You can also run into cases where the same kind of pen retains the same number, but the name changes. Esterbrook was particularly guilty of this re-naming as markets changed. The Esterbrook 556 is a rather extreme example. The imprints on the 556 include:
- Just “556”
- “556 Pen”
- “556 Advanced School”
- “556 School Medium Firm”
- “556 Vertical Writer”
For my collection, these are all different types. And if I found a “556 Pen” in gold plated, in addition to the normal “gray” then that would be a different type altogether.
In the database world, what you want whenever possible is to “noramlize” the data, which means to make sure the same meaning always uses the same words. To take an example, let’s say I’m gather information about the color of the pens. For those who are have a (VERY) thin layer of gold on them, I could use the terms “gold,” “gilt,” and “golden” without any rhyme or reason. Some days I might use “gilt” and others something else. If you did this, what you would have are records which cannot all be found by searching on a single word. You would have to know all of the possible search words to find all of the records which match.
This is where “standardization of terms” becomes something very useful and not just for data nerds.
There are several fields (pieces of information I record for each record) I have attempted to standardize: Finish, Shape, and Tip. The problem I ran into is that there aren’t industry standard terms used consistently by all manufacturers to describe these characteristics of pens. Instead you get a lot of terms that all mean roughly the same thing. So, I decided to make my own list of standardized terms which, so far, have been “good enough.” to save you all of the trouble I went to, I’ll share with you what terms I’ve settled on. We’ll start with the easy ones first: finish and tip.
The final step in a pen’s actual manufacture, before sorting and boxing, was to pop it back into ovens to get a certain color on the pen. This accounts for most of the colors pens come in, especially the two most common, gray and bronze. You can achieve a fairly high range of colors just from re-heating.
This re-heating is not hot enough to adversely affect the desired temper, but it does change the color. This step was also one of the most delicate and difficult steps which required someone very experienced who could get the pens to the right color without damaging them or their temper.
The other way to change the color of a pen is by a coating. Because steel rusts when in contact with water, manufacturers put all kinds of coatings on pens to supposedly slow down the inevitable rusting. These coatings could also be a status symbol, especially ones with a gold coating. Solid gold pens were orders of magnitude more expensive than a steel pen. (you might pay $12 for a normal gold pen when steel pens were $0.75 per gross) Some people wanted to be seen writing with a gold pen without paying for an actual gold pen, or liked the performance of a steel pen better but wanted the rust resistance of a gold coating.
Other common coating included silver alloys, nickel alloys and a black, tar-like substance. Copper coating is also mentioned but is extremely rare. Nickel-coated pens were also sometimes said to have a “white” finish. Nickel can sometimes be difficult to tell apart from very shiny steel. It’s usually not so shiny as a silver alloy, but shinier than bare steel.
And the last way to “color” a pen is the material. My collection is one of steel pens, but, along with steel, there were some pens made and sold like steel pens but were made of an alloy of brass. These pens are gold-colored, but aren’t gold plated (though there are examples of brass pens with gold plating). They are made of a copper-zinc alloy and have their antecedents in the “Pinchbeck” pens of the 18th-19th-centuries.
So, here are my standardized finishes with a little explanation of each
- Black: an easy-to-spot finish. Also called “Tar” finish
- Blue: also pretty self-explanatory. You rarely see this finish in the US except Esterbrook’s tiny artists pens. It’s more common in Europe.
- Bronze: one of the most common colors along with gray. Bronze can come in various shades from dark to light. This can be on purpose, but since I’ve found sealed boxes of bronze finishes that vary in lightness, I assume it can also be just how long the pen was left in the oven.
- Copper: Copper coating is extremely rare, and died out fairly quickly in the US. I have one copper-coated pen, an Esterbrook 048, but others were advertised as available in a copper finish. I assume this was also to prevent rust, though copper does corrode.
- Fawn: Another color advertised. I would assume, from seeing pictures of salesman sample books with pens identified as this finish, that it’s another word for a very light-colored bronze. This one is very difficult to differentiate in the wild without a positive identification. I’m sure some I’ve marked as “Bronze” were considered “Fawn” when sold, but it’s very hard to tell.
- Gold: This is the term I use for gold-plated or gilt. I record my actual gold pens in another data store, and they have different fields.
- Golden: This is the term often used to indicate the brass pens. I use this term for brass pens without an additional finish (like “Gold”).
- Gray: The most common finish for American pens, especially those made in the 20th-century. It’s the plain color of steel.
- Half-Gold: Esterbrook made one pen they call “half-gold” and I have adopted the term to also apply to pens like the Spencerian 42 Gilt-point where the body of the nib is gilt, but the heel is still plain steel.
- Nickel/White: There are three terms which can easily get mistaken for each other in the wild: Nickel, White, and Silver. A nickel coating is more silvery than a gray pen, but not as shiny as a silver-coated pen. I tend not to use this unless I’m pretty sure it’s actually nickel coated, like it’s silvery, but the pen never came in silver-coating but was advertised in nickel or white.
- Purple: Some purple can be difficult to differentiate from very dark Bronze in the wild. But this was an advertised finish so I’ve added it to my list in case I ever am lucky enough to find one labeled as such.
- Silver: Silver coatings were quite popular, with the Esterbrook Radio finish being the most common, along with the Hunt X-series.
I dealt with Shapes in my proposed Glossary of Shapes.
To the shapes I’ve discussed there, I’ve added three more
- Small Inflexible: While I try and stay away from capturing sizes of a particular shape (down that road lies calipers and madness), the Inflexible seems to have really only two sizes, big and little. The “big” is really just a normal-sized pen. The Small Inflexible is really smaller, as in a Lady Falcon vs. a normal Falcon.
- Pinched Leaf: While a Pinched Spoon is a spoon shape with a break between the heel and the body of the spoon, a Pinched Leaf is similar but for a leaf-shaped pen.
- Offset: This is an odd one. It is very, very slightly oblique, but not enough to be a truly oblique pen, and the body shape, while reminiscent of an elbow oblique, is unique. The patent on the pen says: Pat 7-1-90 & 3-22-93.
The tip of a pen can greatly impact how a pen writes, and the kind of line(s) it produces. The tips of pens actually fall into fairly clear categories. Beware, though, you have to observe the actual nib and cannot rely on advertising because different manufacturers called the same kind of tipe many different things. This is particularly true of the first kind.
- Ball: When you look at this tip under magnification, it looks like someone took a very small round-tipped punch and deformed the tip of the pen into a small hollow as seen from above, or into a small round or oval convexity if seen from below. This is a very common type of tip and was called many, many things, Oval Point, Ball Point, Round Point, etc… They all look basically the same. Some may be a little more oval than others, but they’re all basically the same. Some Ball tips can be pretty shallow and the only way to tell if it is a Ball or a Turned-Up tip is to look under magnification. The way to tell a Turned-up tip from a Ball tip is that the turned up tip does not extend below the bottom surface of the tines. A Ball tip has the steel of the tip deformed so that it extends below the bottom surface.
- DoublePoint: These nibs have more than one point. They can also be called names like Double Ruling Pen.
- Folded: Uncommon on dip pens, but much more common on cheap fountain pen nibs, the folded tip is where the very tip was drawn out longer than normal, then folded under to create an approximation of a Tipped nib. I’ve only seen these on very late dip pens which are trying to imitate the cheap fountain pen nibs of the day.
- Music: The other type of multiple point pen. These rare pens were used to draw musical staff lines and are one of the oldest forms of metallic pen.
- Oblique Stub: In this one case I am using the term “Oblique” like it is used in fountain pens. This means it’s a stub tip with one side longer than the other which then forms a slanted stub.
- Oblique Pointed: These are fairly unusual pens where the body of the pen is straight, but at the very end the tip turns up and forms an oblique angle. These tips are found on pens with the “Oblique Tip” shape.
- Oval: the Round, Square and Oval are specific lettering pen shapes where the tip is an actual square, round or oval shape and so creates a line with that kind of end.
- Pointed: Your common steel pen. Points can be extra fine, fine, medium, broad (or coarse), etc…, but they’re all meant to come to a point. With some very broad tips, like some “J” pens, it’s almost a toss-up as to whether it’s a “pointed” pen or a stub.
- Round: See the “Oval” shape above.
- Ruling: This, like the Oblique Pointed, is a point type only found on a specific pen shape. In this case it is a folded “ruling pen” like the Esterbrook Osborn Ruling Pens
- Shading: I use this term rather than the more common (today) “Italic” because “shading” implies this use for more than one type of writing. But this is, basically, a sharp-cornered, broad nib used for decorative writing.
- Square: See “Oval” shape above.
- Stepped: A very unusual tip shape. basically, there’s a break in the line of the tines as they move to the point. Just before the point, there is a step inwards which then creates an even narrower last few millimeters of tine coming to a point.
- Stub: A common tip that is broad across but is not sharp at the corners. These are almost all self-identified as stubs. Some stubs have slightly sharper corners which might make them “Shading” tips, but I defer to the manufacturer on this one. If it’s called a “stub” then I use that term. Stub pens were not meant, necessarily, for decorative writing, but were originally designed for rapid writing. You can find, though, some stubs, like the very broad Esterbrook Blackstone, also advertised as good for “engrossing.” (decorative writing like italic or blackletter)
- Turned-up: Similar to the Ball, but simpler and appeared earlier. The turned up tip is exactly that, the very tip has been bent to turn up at an angle. This turned up angle is meant to accomplish the same thing as the Ball tip, to make it easier to write faster without catching your sharp tip on the paper. Sometimes you have to look carefully, under magnification, to determine if it’s a turned-up tip vs. a ball tip.
- Tipped: Very rare in dip pens, but ubiquitous in fountain pens, the tipped nib has an actual tip applied to the end.
As I talked about in my short post on grinding, grinds can take different forms. I have created the following categories and so far they are sufficient for what I have cataloged so far.
- S1: The “S” are single grinds. I put them into three classes. This is a first-class grind. This is a single grind that is either more extensive, or more artistically done than the standard single grind. Artistic can include shaping the grind to fit in between the side slits, or, as in the case of the Gillott Mapping Pens, bringing a two-tone grind (grinding after coloring the nib) up to perfectly bisect the star-shaped center pierce.
- S2: The S2 is a second-class single grind, which is sufficient and pretty standard for that kind of pen. Stubs tend to have less of a grind, if they have any grind at all, so the standard for a stub pen is different than a pointed pen. This is a run-of-the-mill, standard grind.
- S3: Alas, we also see the third-class single grind. These are usually brief, poorly done, sketchy at best.
- D: The double grind. (see my Grind post)
- E: This is a grind where the embossed design is ground down usually to reveal the bare metal underneath, thus giving a pleasing contrast to the darker color of the nib. You find this most often with the “Letter” nibs where a large letter is embossed in the body of the pen just above the center pierce.
- T: The always amazing Triple Grind. (also discussed in my Grind Post)
- G: The dreaded stamped “grind” where, instead of grind marks, you find stamped Grooves or even, in the case of the old Soviet nibs, a Grid.
- N: no grind or stamped grooves at all.
Because of a rather specialized interest of mine, I’ve also added “In” to my inventory to indicate where a grind is found on inverted pens. An inverted pen is one where the imprint is inverted, is on the inside of the concave portion of the pen. This happens when a pen is accidentally flipped before “raising” and so the imprint is on the wrong side.
By finding a grind on the inverted side, tells us that unlike how pens were originally made, by later times (and I only find these 1930’s or later, pens) grinding must have been done before raising. This makes sense if you are going to automate this or have a machine do the grinding, because it would have been much easier to have a machine take a swipe across a flat pen blank before raising than to try and do it to a rounded pen.
This seems to be both the piece of information about a pen which most people want to know, and also the hardest to capture. If you search through online pen fora you will find near-religious-war levels of disagreement about how to measure, and discuss the flexibility of a particular pen. (fountain, dip, whatever).
I will not wade into these waters except to tell you the terms I’ve decided on for my own collection. I can’t tell you how to measure or differentiate one from another. For me, it’s a highly subjective and comparative exercise. I’m not so interested as to try and make it scientific.
- Flexible: this is the furthest I will go. No “wet noodle” or other of the terms thrown about. This encompasses a fairly wide range of “action“, as do the next two.
- Semi-flex: More flexible than the next one, and less than the former. Like I said, this isn’t rocket science, at least how I do it, and so take each term for whatever you think it means.
- Firm-flex: some flex, but not as much as Semi.
- Firm: Amazing to fountain pen users who are used to “nails”, a “firm” dip pen still can yield subtle line modulation. (thick and thin parts) Many so-called “Inflexible” pens are actually just “firm”
- Manifold: This is a completely stiff pen. In fountain pens this is called a “nail.” Since the Manifold pens were purposely made to be super-stiff in order to write through the early forms of carbon paper (the most famous early brand was Manifold, and the name stuck).
There are some other fields I capture which don’t lend themselves to the above level of standardization. These differ widely and may only be consistent within a pen brand.
This started out as a general field to differentiate different “makers” or “brands.” This is easy as long as the pen carries the big names, like Eagle, Esterbrook, Miller Bros, Spencerian. This gets to be more difficult when you start dealing with pens with obvious imprints from another maker.
In the end, I currently have “categories” which include entries like Eagle, Esterbrook, Miller Bros, and Spencerian, but I’ve also created categories for things like “Transportation,” Businesses” and “Schools” where I put the pens made with custom imprints for these kinds of entities. It gets tricky when you have some big brand like Spencerian which was a house brand for the big New York stationer/printer Ivison Phinney, but were all made by Perry. I’ve kept them under Spencerian as that makes the most common sense. I am starting to pull brands out from their own category if I become aware that they were just a stationer or other store which had pens made with a custom imprint, but were not trying to make a “pen brand” by itself.
Not all pens have numbers, and not all numbers are numbers. Some numbers are letters, and some have letters in them. For example, just about all Eagle pens are numbered something starting with an “E,” like the E470 or E310.
The imprint is what is actually printed on the pen from which I derive what category into which it will be placed. Imprints can be important for dating as well. Esterbrook tended to change its Esterbrook imprint over time (though I suspect there are some exceptions to the general rules). For example, if you find a pen with just “Esterbrook & Co.” it will most like be earlier than the imprint “R. Esterbrook & Co’s” or “R. Esterbrook and CO.” (unless it also has Made in U.S.A. on it, which means it’s later, see below).
Some pens mark down a location of where it is manufactured, or at least the location of the brand. The easy ones are the “Made in…” but you also find one word locations like “Birmingham.” If I know a location, but it isn’t marked and is significant, then I’ll include it in this field but in parenthesis. An example of this are some recent pens I purchased which were made in Argentina.
The location can sometimes give a general indication of relative date. If I have two Esterbrooks, for example, both with the same imprint (“R. Esterbrook & Co.”) and one says Made in U.S.A. and the other does not, I know the second one is older. Same with “England” vs. “Made in England.” The phrase “Made in…” generally shows up from around 1930 onward. Some, like Eagle, put their location on the pens from the beginning. (New York, U.S.A.) Others, like Gillott, don’t have any location on very early pens, then move from Birmingham, to England to Made in England. You might even find addresses on some pens.
Many, but not all, pens had names attached to the particular number or style, e.g. School, Manhattan Stub, Bank, etc… As I mentioned above, names can also change as marketing needs changed, despite being the same number . There were some very popular schools of penmanship which flourished for a while at the end of the 19th-century, but quickly disappeared in the 20th, such as Vertical Writing and Natural Slant. Pens were marketed by practically all manufacturers for these styles of penmanship, but once the popularity of that style of writing faded from popularity the pens were often re-named and sold under a new name. (The Esterbrook 556 “Vertical Writer” becomes the “556 Pen” and ends up as the 556 “School Medium Firm” meaning good for schools, medium point, and firm)
Names were often associated with the primary audience or profession to whom the pen was primarily marketed, or with whom the manufacturer wanted it associated. Stub pens tend to have names associated with the law, or academe as these folks were assumed to need to write frequently and quickly. (the primary purpose of stub pens)
Some pens are marked as being part of a series based on the type of tip, like “Bowl Pointed” or “Dome Pointed” pens. Other series have to do with the material or coating “Silver Alloy” or “Gladiator Series Nickaloid” pens. There are a few cases where the same manufacturer uses different series names for the same types of pens, like Hunt’s “Round Pointed” vs. “Bowl Pointed.” vs. “Shot pointed.” Under magnification they all seem pretty much the same thing, but it’s useful to differentiate in your inventory.
Storing and Finding
The next post will look at the physical storage of your pens in order to both protect them as well as to then find them as needed. This will touch upon how I use all of this information to order my records to help with those tasks.