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!

Pen History: Prehistory and the Craft Era

In my post outlining the various era of steel pen history I name the first two as Prehistory and The Craft Era. In this post I’ll dispose of the first, and show how the second period, the Craft Era, lays the groundwork for the real explosion in pen production during the Early Years.

Prehistory

There are several key sources which have gathered together multiple references in past documents, letters, etc… that mention early example of metallic pens.

The most exhaustive I’ve found is the slim volume The Story of the Invention of Steel Pens by Henry Bore, Ivison, Blakeman and Co., New York, 1890. This wonderful booklet of 60 pages packs more history per page than many other works of that more verbose time. In pages 3 ’till about 15 (when he strays fully into the next era), Mr. Bore lists citation after citation of references to earlier metallic pens.

Another good source is an article from The Saturday Magazine from 1838. It’s a British magazine and written very soon after steel pens began to be industrially produced. The article is the second in a series on the History of Writing Materials. The first one was on the History of the Quill. The main one I will look at is on The History of Steel Pens.  (there is a third section on the History of the Black-Lead Pencil, which some readers may find of interest, but I’m only dealing with the second section at this time.)

Basically, what these references all add up to is a picture of various people at various times imitating a writing pen, usually in a precious metal as a special one-off product. These seem to have been some variation of a barrel pen. Imagine a flat sheet of metal rolled into a tube and a pen point cut out of one end. This tube is mounted on a stick of some sort (wood, metal, whatever), and that is a barrel pen. These seem to usually be for nobility or special people like scientists or writers. These were specially created works from artists or craftsman.

The Craft Era

Where we start to see a transition is in the often-quoted story told by Josiah Mason who credits his mentor Harrison, with making a steel pen for the famous chemist Dr. Joseph Priestly (discovered oxygen, etc…) in the late 1780’s. This becomes a transition because this same Josiah Mason, in the 1820’s becomes one of the small group of major British men who turned one-off artisan pens into a valid industry, churning out high-quality pens using machines and mass-production methods.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves a little. What we start to see around 1780 are a few people experimenting with making steel pens as a possible livelihood. You have Harrison mentioned above. His technique was to roll a sheet of thin steel into a tube. The seam where the two side met he used as the slit, and then filed away the underside to make the shape of a pen. This was a highly laborious process.

There were others, such as a blacksmith named Fellows, of Sedgley (England) who in 1796 punched the shape out of a sheet of steel, wrapped the end into a tube and cut the slit with a chisel. Slight easier than Harrison, but still not fast enough.

These first steel pens were not only difficult to make, but users complained that they were stiff and scratchy. The steel was easily eaten away by the corrosive ink of the day. But it was the stiffness that really seemed to be a problem.

Quills can be flexible or they can be stiff. Swan quills, in particular, are big and thick and were known for stiffness. This was good for some kinds of writing, but much of the writing that was popular by the end of the 18th-century required a fine-point and a flexible tip. Someone needed to find a way to increase the flexibility of these early steel nibs before they could move from being a novelty to become a true commodity.

Despite the shortcomings, people were beginning to make and buy these early steel pens, primarily, it seems, in England. In 1806 Collins, Perkins & Co, a stationer in New York City, advertises that he has just received a shipment from London which includes “a large supply of steel pens.” Someone over there was making them and even exporting them. Could this have been Harrison? Fellows? Fellows’ former assistant Sheldon? Could it have been Wise of London with his “Elastic Steel Pens,” another barrel pen he began making in 1803?

1806 ad for large supply of steel pens

Here’s an 1807 ad for Wise’s pens. Remember that spelling back then was more of a competitive sport than the set of standards it eventually became.

1807 Wyses elastic steel pens

Right around this time, we find our first American pen maker, Peregrine Williamson. The story goes that in 1800 Williamson was a jeweler in Baltimore. He was having trouble mending his quill pens (this was a common problem, quills wore out quickly and most people were not very good at mending their quills), so, being a jeweler, he made himself a pen from steel instead. The first ones were too stiff, like the others being made at the time. Part of this was the thickness of the steel, but also the form of the barrel pen did not led itself to great flexibility.

He decided to make a few adjustments and thereby seems to be the first to add slits to each shoulder of the pen. (an innovation later claimed by the British, a claim unchallenged until now) This moved the focus of the tines’ flex further back on the pen and thus increased the flexibility of the tines. This became his Elastic Three Slit Metallic Pen. By 1808 he had moved to New York and set up a business making quite a good living for both himself and an assistant just making these improved steel pens. According to an article in the Boston Mechanic magazine for August, 1835, Peregrine Williamson was clearly a profit of $600/month with the work of himself and his assistant. He did sell his pens for 100-cents each, so they weren’t cheap. In 1814 that would be about $260,000 a month in today’s dollars in profit. Not bad.

1808 Williamson's elastic steel pens

(As an aside, the ad above Williamson’s was advertising the available work of an indentured servant who still had 8 more years to pay off his indenture. An interesting historical tidbit from the time.)

In 1809 Williamson took out his most ambitious ad to date. It is also one of, if not the first, example of a President of the United States being quoted in an advertisement. You can also see from the illustrations that these are also barrel pens affixed to a handle.

1809 Williamson ad with Jefferson

The “uniformity of their books” mentioned as an advantage of the steel pen over the quill comes from the fact that quill pens, especially if they are not mended by a professional, can vary quite extensively. This can lead to one pen writing broad, one fine, and thus an inconsistent look to your journals and accounts.

An interesting follow up to this story with President Jefferson is that in a letter of 1822, Jefferson is writing to his friend DeWitt Clinton in New York.

“I thank you, Dear Sir, for the elegant pens you have been so kind as to send me; they perform their office admirably. I had formerly got such from Baltimore, but they were of steel, and their points rusted off immediately.”

This indicates that Clinton had sent him most likely a gold pen, or at least one not made of steel, and that the former President had had trouble with the ink of the time corroding his steel pens too quickly.

By 1812 you no longer see ads for British steel pens as we were having a bit of a tiff with the island nation and goods were slow in getting here.

1813 ad for a whole host of stationery and fancy goods items, only mentions Williamson’s pens.

1813 Williamson pens

But later in the teens, Sheldon, the assistant of Fellows who had made barrel pens back in 1795 in Sedgley, began making his Sheldon’s Inimitable Elastic Semi Lunar Steel Pen. You also still had stationers advertising Williamson and Wise as the only named pens.

1809 Williamson and Wise steel pens

Various other mentions during this period in American advertisements shows that steel pens were becoming a standard item, even as quills were still the norm.

  • In 1811: advertisements for “English and American Steel Pens”
  • In 1812: “Best Dutch Quills, Crow Quills for Drawing. Ready made Pens, Patent and Steel Pens…”
  • 1817: stationer advertising “patent steel pens”

Quills were still the primary writing instrument, though. In an 1820 advertisement for a Penmanship class, one of the skills being taught is “to make a good pen” i.e. cut a quill to make a good pen with which to write your new penmanship.

To this point in its history, the steel pens made by the above gentlemen were actually still pretty much hand-made objects. But the foundations are being laid for the true revolution in the pen industry which occurs in the next decade.

From 1820 to 1830 we see the introduction of machinery and eventually mass-production methods used to make steel pens, and they go from a luxury item to an everyday tool of the student, businessman and common writer.

 

 

 

 

Pen History: The Ages of The Pen

I want to start to add some history topics to the blog now that I’ve got some of the basics down. For my first topic I’m going to lay out a general scheme I have for dividing up the history of the steel pen, specifically from an American perspective as that is my focus.

Prehistory

The first period is what I’m calling Prehistory because it’s a time where we have hints and tantalizing clues to the existence of metallic writing implements, but not a lot of details, nor really any solid names of artisans. There are several sources who have gathered together a great many references to metal pens going back quite a long way (at least Roman and possibly earlier).

Many of the earliest references are most likely to metal styli for making marks in wax, or to replace a reed pen. The first likely metallic pens similar to what we are used to, were made after the quill became the standard writing implement in the 15th-century. After that, we read of examples appearing here and there, usually as a one-off, or limited production and made of precious metals, like silver and gold.

The Prehistoric era lasts just into the 18th-century. At this point we enter The Craft Era.

The Craft Era.

This is the time when you start to have named makers creating steel pens by hand. These early craftsmen were either jewelers or blacksmiths, artisans used to working metal and with access to the tools of metal-work. This period lasts from the mid-late 18th-century, up until about 1823 or so.

This period sees the first people known to make a living by just making pens, as well as the earliest accounts of making pens using some of the technology (like the screw press) later used to industrialize pen production. We see the first record of a three-slit pen (main and two shoulder slits) for increased flexibility. We also see the introduction of the slip nib, a separate, disposable nib slipped into a holder. But these innovations are not always what you would expect, or have heard of in earlier histories.

The Early Years

 

After about 1823, the industrialization of pen making begins in earnest. Most of the activity and innovation is coming from Britain, predominantly around Birmingham, but also some in London and elsewhere. We also have some early factories being set up on the Continent.

1833___earliest_American_ad_for_Gillott__039_s__in_NY__039_s_Evening_Post

The Americans see that there is money to be made in this new industry and begin to set up factories for making their own pens, usually versions of the British pens which were becoming quite popular. The first American steel pen companies are formed.

1842___CC_Wright_Steel_Pens

The Golden Age

The Golden Age of American Steel Pens begins in 1860 and lasts up until around 1930. These 70 years see a flourishing and expansion of American steel pen manufacturing. A host of companies, big and small are formed, merged, split, and eventually settle into a handful of very large companies making millions of pens a year. At the beginning of this period the manufacturing process has been pretty much settled and it stays pretty much that way until up around 1900, or a little later when higher labor costs begin to drive innovation and increased mechanization for American makers.

This was also the golden age of pen advertising, and marketing. Pen makers split their lines into hundreds of styles, different brands, and tiers of quality, and with the advent of custom imprints, every stationer, business or wholesaler could have their own line of pens. You can still find thousands of different names imprinted on pens, ranging from massive railroads to school districts, state governments and even small stationery stores in rural cities.

harrisonandbradford1865ad

Esterbrook 1879 ad

This period ends with the strong rise of the cheap fountain pen, especially as fountain pens began to find entry into schools and became ubiquitous in offices.

The Decline

The Decline lasts from around 1930 until the early 1950’s which is when we see the two largest makers of steel pens, Esterbrook and Turner & Harrison stop making dip pens. Esterbrook continued on with their recent line of fountain pens, but Turner & Harrison completely dissolve their company in 1952, marking the end of a major era in Philadelphia pen making.

The Lean Years

From the 1950’s until actually quite recently, steel pens were still produced but only on a very small scale, and predominantly for decorative writing, i.e. calligraphy, or for drawing. Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in calligraphy, especially the styles made with pointed steel pens. As interest grows, the price of the vintage pens of the best quality for decorative writing has skyrocketed, leading some current makers to try and meet that demand with better quality control on their existing lines, and the re-introduction of the classic styles which today bring the highest prices for vintage nibs.

Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. Will the current interest in Maker Culture continue? Will “Modern Calligraphy” continue to be popular? Only time will tell.

 

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.