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.

 

 

Peregrine Williamson: Inventor, Businessman, and Pioneer Pen Maker

In the last entry on pen history, I wrote briefly about The Craft Era. There were two main makers from that era: Wise of London, and Peregrine Williamson in Baltimore. I wanted to share a bit more about Williamson who was not only an early pioneer and innovator, he was most likely the first financially successful pen manufacturer anywhere.

Peregrine Williamson was born around 1770. In 1800 he was a working jeweler in Baltimore when, as the story goes, he made a steel pen for himself as he was having trouble cutting a quill to his own satisfaction.

At first, this tube-shaped steel pen suffered from the same stiffness that plagued other attempts at making a steel pen. Peregrine worked at fixing this and finally came upon a method of adding two additional slits, one on each side of the main slit. This increases the flexibility of the tines by, essentially, making the tines narrower, as well as moving the center of flex forward towards the end of the slit. With less steel to flex, it became easier to bend the tines.

Here’s a more modern version of the same side slit. There’s another one on the other side.

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In 1809 he submitted a patent for this discovery. It was issued on 22 November 1810. Unfortunately, this patent disappeared with so many others in the 1835 fire. It is one of the missing “X” patents and would fall somewhere between X1392 and X1404. If anyone has seen this I, and the patent office, would love to see it as well.

By 1808 he was advertising his pens as the Williamson Patent Elastic Three Slit Pen. His early advertisements include excerpts from a letter from then President Thomas Jefferson, to whom Williamson had sent some sample pens. They also included an endorsement from Francis Foster, a writing master at St. Mary’s Catholic Seminary and College in Baltimore.

1809 Williamson ad with Jefferson

During the height of his production of these pens, their popularity ensured that he was busy enough to hire a journeyman assistant, and the business made a “clear $600 a month profit” according to an 1835 article in the Journal of Commerce out of New York City. (as quoted in full in the 22 May 1835 issue of The Evening Post (New York))

After several years of successful business, we had a bit of trouble with our friends across the Atlantic. In 1812 Peregrine Williamson enlisted in the 51st Regiment of the Maryland Militia for the defense of Baltimore. He was present during the battle of North Point where the British landing to take Baltimore was eventually repelled, and then was also present for the next two days at Fort McHenry during the British bombardment, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the national anthem.

It’s not clear how long he made pens, but he may well have continued through the few years of the war. The latest ad I have found for his pens is from late 1813.

Peregrine Williamson 1813 ad

But at some point he did stop making pens. According to that same Journal of Commerce article, he kept making pens “until the demand, limited as it then was, becoming for the moment supplied, and his attention being attracted to some other object, the manufacture of pens was abandoned.”

At the time, the only real competition he had was from Wise of London. While Wise was much more ambitious in his marketing and reach, he seems to have not been as financially successful. According to an 1838 article in The Saturday Magazine,

The first mention that we find of steel pens for writing, is in 1803, when Mr. Wise constructed barrel-pens of steel, mounted in a bone case for convenience of carrying in the pocket. These pens were very dear, and produced to their inventor but a scanty income. For many years, however, Wise’s pens were the only steel pens that could be had, and by means of great activity in “pushing a sale” of them, they could be had at almost every stationer’s shop in the kingdom.

While Williamson seems to have left the pen trade sometime in the 18-teens, Wise continued to sell his barrel pens into the 1820’s. An ad from a New York stationer in 1827:

1827 Wise steel pens ad

Something else happened in the 1820’s, and that was the first blossoming of the British pen trade. One of the major innovations frequently attributed to the British at this time,  was the three-slit pen for increased flexibility. Gillott’s 1831 patent lays claim to the invention of making the tines as straight, parallel strips of metal rather than sloping from the shoulder to the tip. This is accomplished via the two slits on the side, making them parallel to the main slit in the middle. In other words, he’s found a way of patenting the result of two slits parallel to the main slit, not the slits themselves. This wording may well have been one of the impetuses for the wide variety of side slits you begin to see, from “T” slits, “L” slits all the way up to outright cut-outs where the metal is taken away entirely at the sides.

Here’s a more modern pen (c. 1920’s) with the same kind of side slit as you found in 1830. As you can see, by separating it from the shoulder, it creates a straight tine with parallel sides. The slit is shown in the yellow oval, the tine is delineated by the rectangle.

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This patent has led many to repeat this as fact, that the three tine pen was first made by Gillott after his 1831 patent. One example is found in the Wikipedia article on Gillott which states,

One great difficulty to be overcome was [the early steel pen’s] extreme hardness and stiffness; this was effected by making slits at the side in addition to the central one, which had previously been solely used. A further improvement, that of cross grinding the points, was subsequently adopted. The first gross of pens with three slits was sold for seven pounds.

But how do we account for Williamson’s advertising (and patenting) his “three slit pen” over 20 years before? Could this be a case of independent invention? Well, the Journal of Commerce certainly does not think so.

A sample of [Peregrine Williamson’s three slit] pens was sent out to England, and imitations soon came back, placarded with an Englishman’s name as the inventors, “by His Majesty’s Royal Patent.” The Englishman [Gillott] could not invent so much as a card even, but made almost a facsimile of Mr. Williamson’s. The same cards have been perpetuated to this day, and the business has been pursued by the English manufacturers, until more than a hundred tons of steel are now used annually in the manufacture of more than two hundred millions of pens, and the price is reduced to a few cents. The English manufactures, in the mean time, have realized immense fortunes by the invention, but have added nothing to the principles of Mr. Williamson, nor, after all their change of form, have they contrived anything better than his, or so good.

Well, if that isn’t throwing down the gauntlet at the esteemed Gillot, Perry, et. al. I am not sure what else would suffice for a challenge? He even goes after Gillott for using cards to package pens. It seems that Williamson sold his pens for $1.00 each or $9 for a card of a dozen. And indeed, pens were very often sold on a card containing a dozen pens in the early days of the 20’s and 30’s.

Unless we end up finding one of Mr. Williamson’s pens, or better illustrations of them, or a smoking-gun admission from Gillott’s private papers that he saw a three-slit pen from America before his patent, there’s no way to validate the truth of this provocative declaration. We do know the later part of the statement, decrying any innovation on the part of the British, to be false. They did introduce many improvements in manufacturing techniques which were primarily responsible for bring the price far below Williamson’s $1.00/pen. They also pioneered thinner and better quality steel with better tempering, as well as grinding nibs to increase flexibility. (most likely that last innovation belongs to Mr. Gillott who had begun his apprenticeship as a scissors grinder)

What we do know is that the three-slit pen was not a novel invention of the British. And there seems to be an indication that at least some of these American three-slit pens made their way to England before this invention was claimed on that side of the Atlantic. It is a not-unlikely possibility that this idea was at least started by Peregrine Williamson, even if it was taken further by the early pen makers of Birmingham.

An additional interesting twist to Peregrine Williamson’s career is when he decided to get back into the pen game around 1835. He filed another patent as an improvement over his old patent of 1810. This was issued in 30 March 1835 and is another of the lost “X” patents. It should be somewhere between X8728 and X8736. I’ve also read a reference to yet a third patent from 1838 but have not been able to find any other reference or record of it.

This second patent, according to the Journal of Commerce, covered two innovations:

The first is a sliding clasp, which being moved up or down makes the pen more or less flexible, at the pleasure of the writer. The other is hardening the extreme of the nib [the very end of the tip] in the most extreme degree. By these two improvements which Mr. Williamson has or will secure, by patent, he hopes to clasp again the profits of his invention. We are now writing with one of his three-slit, sliding-clasp, diamond points, and it is certainly a very fine pen.

This idea of a sliding mechanism to adjust the flexibility of the nib also makes it over to England at least by the time of a British patent in 1856, #777, by Alexander Prince: “Improvements in steel pens for the regulating the elasticity thereof.”

The same concept even shows up later in fountain pens in the Eversharp Doric adjustable nib introduced in 1932.

Unfortunately, I’ve not seen any evidence that Mr. Williamson ever made any of these new pens, or started a new company, but the search continues.

Peregrine Williamson died in 1841 at the age of 71 of apoplexy.

For such an important, early figure, very little is actually known about him. He appears in no census data, no directories, no genealogies. Very little is known about his personal life, where he was born or raised, or even how he made his pens. What we do know is that he was a true pioneer and innovator, and he can truly be said to be the first American steel pen manufacturer.

 

**Thanks go out to Mariam, a wonderful Reference Librarian at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New York Historical Society for her kind help and for finding Peregrine’s War of 1812 service and death notice.

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.