The earliest steel pens were what are called Barrel Pens. Basically, a sheet of steel was bent into a tube, the seam where the two sides came together served as the slit, and the rest was filed away to form the shape of a pen.
Some of these early metallic pens were mounted permanently on a handle, in other words, when the pen was worn out, you threw the whole thing away. In the very earliest time some stationers offered pen repair services, like you used to do for quills. (quills would need to be re-cut into the proper shape pretty frequently, and it was a somewhat specialized skill, but that’s for another post)
One of the main improvements in the very early years what the invention of the slip pen, what we think of today as the dip pen nib. This is smaller, cheaper to make (less steel), and easy to change. You can use it in different kinds of holders to fit your hand and writing style. (as well as your fashion sense should you wish)
The holder is a fairly simple piece of equipment. It’s basically a stick with some way of holding your nib on one end. (or both ends, in some cases) They can be made of all kinds of material, but wood was the most common. they can be plain or they can be fancy. But they basically come down to two shapes: straight and oblique.
The picture above shows a selection of different holders made in different materials. The one on the top is an oblique holder. It’s so-called because it holds the pen at an oblique angle, while the straight holders hold the pens straight out. See, I told you they weren’t complicated.
The oblique holder is mainly used for decorative writing. What that funny angle does is it keeps the pen pointed at the proper angle to the line of writing and, when held properly, with the proper orientation of the paper, keeps both tines of the pen down on the paper spreading evenly. This gives you not only a nicer line (both sides are smooth, no jagged edges from one tine dragging more than the other), but also helps keep those delicate decorative writing nibs from springing the tines. (Springing is when the tines of a pen don’t come back together like they should, either from being spread so far they strain the metal, or they get crossed enough from poor pen positioning they don’t come back properly)
Over the years when steel pens were the main form of writing, the vast majority of holders sold were straight. The advantages of holding a pen at an oblique angle were recognized pretty early. I’m not sure when the first oblique holder was invented, but according to the Saturday Magazine in 1838, the first oblique pen, a type of steel pen where the whole nib is in a zig-zag shape and the top points off at an oblique angle to the heel, was invented by Morden and Brockeden in 1831.
The oblique holder keeps that position better, and in skilled hands, can be tweaked and adjusted to fit small nibs, big nibs, and even the angle can be changed with just changing the brass flange that holds the nib.
The downside of an oblique holder is that you’re generally limited to shorter nibs. Ideally, the tip should not extend past the center axes of the holder itself. A straight holder can use pretty much any nib that fits in the end.
That said, there are always exceptions. There are even master penmen who use straight holders with tremendous skill for decorative writing.
For straight holders, the main thing to consider is comfort and/or style. Some people like thinner holders. A lot of early holders where thin, like the one second-from-bottom in the image above. These were much closer to the size of quills which people were used to.
All holders, regardless of the material, need some way to hold the nib. There are cheap plastic holders which just have a circular slit molded into the tip and hopefully your nib’s heel is the same basic arc as the slit. Most holders, though, fall into two main categories, the inner spring tip, and the slip fit tip.
On the left is the inner-spring tip. These are most common today, and you can even buy the tips by themselves and make your own stick. (both the top and bottom holders are modern, turned examples) With the inner spring you see the four (sometimes three in older versions) steel flanges. The pen slips in between the flanges and the inner wall of the steel insert. There’s no single way to position your pen, but I tend to prefer to have the heel of the nib straddle one of the gaps between the flanges as you see in the picture.
The second type, seen on the right, is what I call a slip fit. In this case there are just two flanges and a projecting outer case. The nib slips between these flanges, which act as springs to hold the nib tightly against the outer casing.
There are other types of holding mechanisms out there, but most are pretty obvious, and usually only found on older holders.
For really large nibs you may need to look for a special holder. The Esterbrook Mammoth Falcon is one great example of a pen which doesn’t fit normal holders. Esterbrook made a special holder just for it, and others also made larger holders that can hold one, but they are few and hard to find.
When buying a vintage holder, the key thing is this holding mechanism. The main thing you want to look for is rust. If there’s rust, pass it by. Otherwise, it’s just a stick, and there are only so many things that can be wrong with a stick.
And that brings us to the one and only piece of advice for these holders.
Don’t get the end wet!
When you dip your pens, dip them no more than half-way up the body of the nib. Try very, very hard not to dip them up to the rustable part of the holder. If you have a modern holder you like and that rusts, you can most likely buy a replacement end insert. If it’s a vintage holder with some other kind of insert, or a special size one, then you have a bit of trouble on your hands.
Fortunately, there are cheap holders out there that work as well as super-expensive ones. Look for ones that are fun, like the small celluloid pen with the enameled copper insert in the middle of the picture above. Or you can try for the funky ergonomic pens people are carving these days. This is where you can express your taste and style (or lack thereof) and show off to the world, or even just yourself.
Topics in the “Using Steel Pens” series of posts: