Peregrine Williamson: Part 2

Since writing my original post on Peregrine Williamson, I’ve found some additional interesting information, including a treasure trove of his letters with President Thomas Jefferson!

I have some interesting tidbits I’ll cover first, but the most interesting of my new discoveries are the letters. There are some really interesting bits in them.

Assorted Tidbits


I had covered the fact that Peregrine was an inventor beyond pens. I found a good list of all known patents filed by Williamson on the venerable source for all patent informatin related to hardware and tools: the Directory of American Tool and Machinery Patents DATAMP.

Number Date Patentee Title Type
1,168X Nov. 22, 1809 P. Williamson Metallic writing pen household tools
1,926X May 12, 1813 P. Williamson Machine for shot and bullets gunsmith
3,185X Mar. 20, 1820 P. Williamson Coffee roaster
3,415X Dec. 06,  1821 P. Williamson Improvement in bedsteads
3,598X Oct. 17, 1822 P. Williamson Bedstead
4,150X Jun. 18,  1825 P. Williamson Machine for roasting coffee
5,368X Feb. 16,  1829 P. Williamson Cooking stove, in the premium railway railroad car stoves
6,247X Nov. 11, 1830 P. Williamson Secret bedstead
7,749X Sep. 09,  1833 P. Williamson Screw auger auger bits
8,735X Mar. 30, 1835 P. Williamson Metallic pens
RX-26 Sep. 30,  1840 P. Williamson Improvement in the Making or Manufacturing of the Premium Railway Cooking-Stove railroad car stoves

Unfortunately, all but the last of these patents are what are called “x” patents, which most of the time have no real information since most patents prior to 1836 were destroyed in a fire.

This last patent is actually quite interesting. It’s a re-issue of the one from 1829. The significance of this patent is not just that there’s a diagram connected to an X patent, but that Williamson was patenting a cooking stove to be used in a railroad car right on the threshold of the first steam-powered railroad to be run in the US (1830).

Another example of Peregrine Williamson being on the bleeding edge of a new technical revolution.

Another Invention: Chimney sweep machine

In 1822, the Baltimore city council passed a resolution to allow Peregrine Williamson to sweep some chimneys in Baltimore using his new invention.

Permission granted to Peregrine Williamson to sweep a certain number of chimneys in the City by his newly invented machine.

Whereas, Peregrine Williamson has invented a new mode by which to sweep chimneys, so as, in his opinion, to render unnecessary to use of climbing boys; and is desirous, in order to give his invention a fair experiment, that a trial of it should be made in a certain number of houses; and is being desirous to promote any invention by which the use of human beings in this business may be dispensed with,

Be it resolved by the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, That whenever Peregrine Williamson shall produce to the Mayor the assent of any twenty inhabitants of this city, who are housekeepers, that they are willing and desirous to make use of the said Peregrine Williamson’s invention for sweeping chimnies [sic], that it shall be lawful for them to have the said machine erected in their chimnies, without being liable to have their chimnies swept in the usual way, or being subject to any fine for the neglect of having it done; provided, that this permission shall not extend beyond twelve months from the passage of this resolution; and provided also, that nothing in this resolution shall be construed to exempt said persons from the operations of the ordinances now in force, if said person or persons shall neglect to sweep with said machine as often as may be required by law.

Approved Feb. 20th, 1822


Correspondence with Thomas Jefferson

In my original post I mentioned Williamson’s 1808 advertisement which included an endorsement from President Thomas Jefferson.

1809 Williamson ad with Jefferson

I recently ran across several pieces of the correspondence between Williamson and Jefferson in the collection of the Jefferson Papers of the National Archives. Their correspondence yields up some interesting facts and conclusions.

I will look at each letter and follow up with a commentary pointing out significant things about the letter. N.B. these National Archive letters are still considered “Early Access” versions, i.e. they haven’t been fully vetted and published.

Also, you’ll notice right away that spelling and capitalization seemed more of a competitive sport back then than a set of rules.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 23 January 1808

Sir                                                                                                  Baltimore Jany 23d 1808
do me the pleasure to Except of two of my three Slit metalic pens in a Calander case which I have Sent you as a preasent and pledge of Respect, I have Contemplated Sending you one before but have been prevented from Considerations of its imperfection to which inventions generally are liable, but haveing been making them for nearly two years they have been considerably improved—So it is with some degree of boldness and asureance I have Sent you those for your inspection and approbation and Especily as many of the most Eminent and Celebrated penmen of this and other places, have pronounced them to be far Superior to any of the patent metalic pens that have ever been invented heretorfore either in Europe or America it being well known that all the metalic pens upon the former principle have been wanting in that flexibility and Elasticity which is So necesary in order to write with Smoothness and Rapidity which in this is happily effected by the two aditional Side Slits—there is no doubt but that you will at once percieve the intention of the principle—that it is to relieve it of that otherwise inevitable Stiffness to which it has always been fixt. you will also discover the utility if not the necesity of the Substance on the nib the pen being reduced to give it the necesary Elasticity and Spring is made too thin without that Substance which is to prevent its acting Severe upon the paper—I merely make those Remarks on the pen to answer the probable inquaries that might arise from the investigations of a Curious mind—You will receive the case with the two Steel pens and pencil both pens fiting in the Same place with directions for pen and Calander wrapt round the case and all inclosd with in a case—Directions to open the Silver case. first to get at the pens pull the plane part from the Calander and it opens in the centre then turning the end of that part directly into the place out of which the pen was taken in order to lengthen it Suficiently to write with—then if the pencil is wanted returne the pen into its place you will notice a Small Sckrew in the centre which in one position Serves to pull out the pen and when turned to the left it opens to the pencil—Sir Should fancy suggest any new idea for the improvement of the pen (as perhaps there is yet room) it will be chearefully Received and adopted.

By Sir Your Obedt Servt

P Williamson

Excuse the errers and hand of a Mecanick


Not sure what he means by a Calendar. If anyone knows what he’s referring to, let me know.

One key things we find out is that Williamson had been making his pens for almost two years at this point, so he had begun making pens in 1806.

We also have the description of “three slit” applied to his pens. (see earlier post to see why this is significant in the history of steel pens)

Another interesting comment is found in this quote:

[his pens are] far Superior to any of the patent metalic pens that have ever been invented heretorfore either in Europe or America

Which raises the question, so there were other patent metallic pens invented in America before this?? I know Wise is England was making patented pens, but I’ve not heard of any others in the US.

The descriptions sounds a lot like a sliding pen/pencil configuration. I’d be curious when the first slide pencil was produced.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 30 January 1808

Baltimore Jan 30th. 08.

Sir I am very much gratifyed that the pen I had the pleasure of Sending you Suited and pleasd and that my feeble improvements had in any degree entitled me to the high Reward of your approbation—you have Sent an order for half a dozen of my pens which I have particularly Selected as you want to accommodate them to one of Peale’s polygraphs if those pens Should not be Sufficiently pliable a line addressd to me at No 72. Market Street, Baltimore I will Remidy the defect.

I have The Honour to be Respectfully Sir your obedt Servt

P. Williamson

price $3


So, Jefferson wrote back and praised the pens. He then ordered 6 more pens at a cost of $3, which he wished to try in “Peale’s Polygraph.”

Peale’s polygraph is a device for writing multiple copies simultaneously by connecting the writer’s pen to multiple other pens which all write at the same time. The original was invented by John Isaac Hawkins, and when Hawkins left America for England, he turned over his patent to Charles Wilson Peale, the famous American portrait painter. Peale, working with Jefferson, continued to make improvements on the device, and Jefferson continued to buy new versions.

In 1809, Jefferson wrote:

the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible . . . . I could not, now therefore, live without the Polygraph.

The polygraph currently at Monticello is fitted up with quill pen points, like the ones invented by Joseph Bramah in 1809. These are similar to today’s dip pens, but made out of feather quills.

1823 Bramah patent pens
Bramah was still selling his quill points in 1823

This brings us to the interesting question of what form these pens took. Other accounts say that what Williamson was making were barrel pens, i.e. pens which were attached to a tube of metal that was mounted on a holder of wood, pearl, etc… But to mount them on the polygraph, they would have had to be at least unmounted. The polygraph currently in Monticello was from 1806, so could be the one he experimented with these new steel pens. Jefferson owned at least 11, so it’s not clear what he would have used, but it must have been able to affix a steel barrel pen to the end. And if he had previously been using full quills (pre-Bramah), then putting a barrel pen would not have been much different than the quill.

What’s also interesting is that this was not the first time Jefferson had had a steel pen recommended for his polygraph.

Upon first receiving the polygraph, he writes this to Peale in 19 Aug. 1804.

liking as I do to write with a quill pen rather than a steel one, I value the last pen cases you sent me because they admit by their screws so delicate an adjustment. as the quill-pen requires to be kept in the ink

None other than Charles Wilson Peale wrote to Jefferson earlier that year in 24 June 1804 as Peale describes the polygraph:

“But if a steel pen is used to write with, and a quill pen in the copy, then the screw to the metal pen will be perfectly convenient for adjusting the touch of both. My letter of the 18th contains the advantages of using the steel [pen] and quill pens togather, and which may obviate the evil mentioned in yours of the 20th.”

So, this means that Jefferson had tried a steel pen before, didn’t like it and preferred quills until he tried Williamson’s pens in 1808.

And the last very interesting bit of information is that he was located at 72 Market St. in Baltimore. I’m trying to find where this would have been at the time. What I have been able to figure out is that what was Market St. is today’s Broadway.

From Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Williamson, 24 February 1808

Jefferson liked the original pen combos so much he wanted to give some as presents.

Sir                                                                                                     Washington Feb. 24. 08
The half dozen metallic pens you sent me according to request, came safe to hand, & have answered their purpose well. I have now to ask the favor of you to send me 4. such as the one you were so kind as to send me first, that is to say a pen & pencil combined in a silver stem with a Calendar to it, & each in a separate wooden case. they are intended as presents to friends. the cost of these added to the preceding, shall be immediately remitted if you will be so good as to accompany them with a note of the amount. Accept my salutations.

Th: Jefferson


We learn that the pen/pencil combo was mounted in silver and came in a wooden box. And again with the “Calendar” which is not clear.

The other message is clear, just send me these, and I’ll finally get around to paying you for these and the six pens you just sent me.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 7 March 1808


Sir                                                                                           Baltimore March 7th 1808

The 4 Pens with calendar cases which you sent for, I have prepared with all possiable Speed and Sent you each in a Separate wooden case as You requested. at the time your letter came to hand I had not any of the cases of the discription you Sent for and therfore had to make them which alone occasioned the delay of them. the price of the 4 cases with pens $20 I am very glad that the half dozen pens answered their purpose. I have now (reluctantly) to request of you Sir the favour of publishing those lines in the note you Sent me that gose to embrace your opinion of my Pen. Several of my friends with whom I had the pleasure of Showing it advised me to publish it, but I determined that I would not without your approbation. Address to No. 72 Market St. Baltimore

I remain your most obedt humble Servt

P, Williamson


So, he gets an order from the President for four of his fanciest pens each with their own wooden box. You can only imagine the scramble. But it must not have been too terrible. It seems as if he already had the pens made, or close to, as it only took two weeks from Jefferson sending the order, and Williamson filling it.

In this letter, Peregrine asks the President if he can publish the kind words that Jefferson had written to Williamson. These must be the words in the advertisement.

Washington 26th Jan. 1808

Th: Jefferson presents his compliments to P. Williamson, and his thanks for the very fine steel Pen he has been so kind as to send him. It is certainly superior to any metallic pen he has ever seen, and will save a great deal of trouble and time employed in mending the quill pen.

The advertisements also include a quote from the next letter we have, but this is from a letter that is missing from the sequence.

From Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Williamson, 22 March 1808

Jefferson writes back.

Sir                                                                 Washington Mar. 22. 08.
I have been so much engaged lately that it has not been in my power sooner to write this short letter. The 4. calendar pens arrived safely, and I now inclose you a bank draught for 25. D. for those & what was furnished before. I find them answer perfectly and now indeed use no other kind. always willing to render service to any useful advance in the arts, I have no objection to your using the little testimony in their favor which I expressed on a former occasion, as desired in yours of the 7th. inst. I tender you my salutations.

Th: Jefferson


In his ad he includes the section “The four calendar pens arrived safely. I find them answer perfectly and now indeed use no other kind.”

It’s also interesting the Jefferson overpays. He really owed $23, but throws in an extra $2. Perhaps he rendering a service to a “useful advance in the arts.”

From Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Williamson, 21 June 1808

Jefferson has been using the steel pens for almost six months now and has gotten the measure of them. This is usually when the honeymoon period with any new technology is well and behind you.

Washington June 21. 08.


I must trouble you for a new supply of your steel pen points. I find them excellent while they last, and an entire relief from the trouble of mending. but, altho’ I clean them carefully when laid by for the day, yet the constant use for 6. or 7. hours every day, very soon begins to injure them. the points begin to be corroded, & become ragged, & the slit rusts itself open. I have sometimes, but rarely succeeded in smoothing the point on a hone, and the opening of the slit is quite irremediable. I inclose three which will shew the manner of their going. I will thank you for half a dozen or a dozen points of the same caliber, & a note of their amount which I will have remitted. I tender you my salutations.

Th: Jefferson


The President is discovering that 6 to 7 hours a day, probably every day, spent sitting in the highly corrosive iron gall ink of the day, would play havoc upon a steel pen.

This is a problem pen makers try and fix for the next 130 years with many and wondrous solutions. It’s not until stainless steel nibs are introduced in the 20th century is this no longer such a problem.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 25 June 1808

Peregrine Williamson writes back with some advice and an interesting observation.

Baltimore June 25th. 08.


Your favour of the 21 Came safe to hand requesting a new Supply of Pens but previous to its reception I had disposed of all but about a half a dozen and therfore could not send the number You mentioned but I shall not forget to select a half a dozen more out of the next number that is made and to send them on in due time—You have truly observed (notwithstanding You clean them) that the constant use for 6 or 7 hours every day very soon begins to injure them. and that the points begin to be corroded & become ragged & the slit rusts itself open. You have sent 3 to give me an idea what You mean one of which is yet good with a little sharpening which I send You with the rest—but altho we have two much reason to urge those objections to the Steel Pen in concequence of its susceptibility of corrosion & rust, Yet I believe their is no metal that would eaven be a substitute for it haveing tried them. eaven Silver or Gold which I think is proof against either of those inconveniencies not excepted—for I have discovered that it is the points of the pen (which I might say is the pen itself for all the rest would be useless without it) that begin first to become worn apart & that not somuch from the corrosion as from its action on the paper that I have worn the points quite blunt so as to loose its harestroke intirely and yet the other parts to be apararntly intire. You say that you have sometimes but rarely Succeaded in Smoothing the points on a hone. I expect (if posseable) to be down to Washington Shortly and I Should be happy in takeing the pleasure to Show You the precise method to sharpen your pens as it might save You some trouble

P, Williamson


We do find steel pen repair services in London at an early date, but this is the first reference in the US.

But the most interesting morsel from this letter is the proof that Williamson experiented with gold and silver pens before settling on steel. He found that silver and gold wore away too easily. This was known as well by others, and was the cause of the search for a harder tipping that could go on the end of the gold pen.

Williamson’s point, that yes, steel pens may rust and get sharp, at least they don’t wear down so quickly as more expensive metals like silver and gold.

And now he’s offering to meet Jefferson in person and show him how to hone is pens. Too bad we don’t know if he ever made it.

To Thomas Jefferson from Peregrine Williamson, 28 September 1808

The final letter I’ve been able to find in Jefferson’s letters in the National Archives is from almost 10 months after the first.

Baltimore Sept 28th 1808


I avail myself of the peculiar pleasure and satisfaction of sending You the half doz steel Pens Which I hope (last promised) will be in due time.

I am Sir Your Most Obdt And Most Hub Servt

P Williamson


it’s clear that Jefferson continues to order pens from Williamson.

Other Letters and Relations

  • In a letter of 13 Oct 1808 to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, he asks him to stop by Baltimore and pay a P. Williamson of 72 Market St. for a dozen steel pen points
  • In a letter of 1 Dec. 1808, he receives the account (assuming showing paid) from P. Williamson with a balance of four dollars from teh 10 dollars his grandson left with the writer, John Rigden, the watchmaker mentioned in the previous letter. Seems Mr. Randolph just dumped the $10 with the watchmaker and never made it to Williamson. Ridgen must have paid Williamson and sent the money back to Jefferson.
  • In a letter of 22 Nov 1814, from William Caruthers, he mentions that based on Jefferson’s recommendation, Caruthers stopped by P. Williamson’s in Baltimore to see his newly patented method for making small shot. (see his patent from 1813). While Caruthers is not terribly confident of either Williamson or the other gentleman he visited being ultimately successful, he did think more highly of Williamson’s method. This indicates that Jefferson is keeping track of Williamson and his inventions.
  • And finally, in a letter dated 19 March 1822, to his friend from New York, DeWitt Clinton, we find the final judgement on Peregrine Williamson’s pens by the former President

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.

One can only assume they were gold pens, now being made in New York City with tipping to make them much more durable.