Author Topic: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens  (Read 3000 times)

Offline AAAndrew

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Not sure if this is the right forum, but found a couple of past threads on history, so I'm going for it.

I've been doing a little digging and online research into some mentions of steel pens in 19th-century materials. I though some might find some of this interesting.

I figure I'd put some of these into separate posts in this one thread, unless someone would like them separated. That way I'm not cluttering up the forum with lots of historical posts.

I'll start with a  short paragraph from the time of transition from quill to metal pen. It is found in the magazine The Living Age Volume 0074 Issue 946 (July 19, 1862), page 131

“What a pen is to be made of is still unsettled. The quill, the steel pen, and the hard-nibbed gold pen have their several advocates, and are largely used; but still every one complains that he is not suited: nothing that is good and cheap lasts. Various contrivances have been adopted for keeping steel and corrosion apart. Pens have been galvanized on Davy’s plan for protecting the chip’s copper, but not with good effect. Washes of all kinds have been applied; the latest we have seen being of gutta percha, with the very improper name of the gutta-percha pen. Glass has been tried, but has not come into use. A Correspondent informs us, that he strongly suspects that simple gold, without any hard nib, is the true material. When his nibs have come off, whether by wear or accident, he grinds the gold ends in an unskillful way into something like a practical form. He thus produces a rough pen, which is so durable that he thinks the manufacturers would do well to turn their attention to the imitation of a quill in gold. The metal is to be excessively thin, and our Correspondent suspects that the best imitation of a quill would require so little gold that a pen might be sold for a shilling. This pen, he things, would last for six months at least, even in the hands of a reviewer. At any rate, it is worth while to repeat from time to time the complaint that this world, in this prodigiously-puffed and loudly-lauded nineteenth century, is still without a pen.”
The Living Age Volume 0074 Issue 946 (July 19, 1862), page 131

Anyone ever heard of a gutta percha (early form of rubber) pen?  Anyone want to grind their gold nibs? The "nib" talked about in the paragraph was the iridium point applied to the end of the gold nib. In the early days of iridium, they didn't stay on too well and could easily break off.
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Offline AAAndrew

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #1 on: September 04, 2015, 11:29:58 AM »
another excerpt, this one from an article on how he likes to write by Oliver Wendall Holmes. The "stylographic" pen he mentions was an early form of fountain pen with a small wire in a tube instead of a nib. When you applied pressure to the wire it would retreat into the tube and ink would flow out. It made a mono-line and could hold a lot of ink, but they were notoriously fussy and difficult to make work.

“Over the Teacups” The Atlantic Monthly Volume 0066 Issue 397 (November 1890), by Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Nothing seems more prosaic than the stylographic pen. It deprives the handwriting of its beauty, and to some extent of its individual character. The brutal communism of the letters it forms covers the page it fills with the most uniformly uninteresting characters. But, abuse it as much as you choose, there is nothing like it for the poet, for the imaginative writer. Many a fine flow of thought has been checked, perhaps arrested, by the ill behavior of a goose-quill. Many an idea has escaped while the author was dipping his pen in the inkstand. But with the stylographic pen, in the hands of one who knows how to care for it and how to use it, unbroken rhythms and harmonious cadences are the natural products of the unimpeded flow of the fluid which is the vehicle of the author’s thoughts and fancies. So much for my debt of gratitude to the humble stylographic pen. It does not furnish the proper medium for the correspondence of intimates, who wish to see as much of their friends’ personality as their handwriting can hold, - still less for the impassioned interchange of sentiments between lovers; but in writing for the press its use is open to no objection. Its movement over the paper is like the flight of a swallow, while the quill pen and the steel pen and the gold pen are all taking short, laborious journeys, and stopping to drink every few minutes.”
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Offline AAAndrew

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #2 on: September 04, 2015, 11:33:33 AM »
and one more for now, a short poem.

A Modern Valentine

I've written it, love, with a stiff steel pen;
  For the geese, I understand,
Are so learned, now, that their quills, I trow,
  Must supply their own demand.

I've secured it, love, by the aid of glue,
  Instead of a strand of hair,
Which I cannot obtain, for I see, with pain,
  I have really none to spare.

I send it to you by the postman, love;
  For Cupid, I grieve to hear,
Is afraid of the cold, and has grown so old
  That he doesn't go out this year.

But the message is ever the same, my love,
  While the stars their courses fulfill.
Though to me and to you it may seem quite new,
  'Tis the old, old story still.

- by Caroline W. Latimer, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Feb, 1893
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Offline Jamie

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #3 on: September 04, 2015, 12:14:07 PM »
That bit in your second post is interesting to me, because the kind of line it puts down almost sounds like a wetter ball-point if it's so mono-lined that there's a fear of losing character in the handwriting.

And yet we still manage to have plenty of variations in people's handwritings without the swells. If anything handwriting may have in some ways become more varied since having 'perfect' handwriting is no longer a necessity.

Offline AAAndrew

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #4 on: September 04, 2015, 01:49:47 PM »
I found that interesting too. One's character or individuality was only perceived to be found in non-monoline writing. I wonder if it was more of an aesthetic rather than true observation. Someone like myself with mediocre handwriting write pretty close to the same either with a monoline fountain pen or a flexible or semi-flex dip pen. The shape of the letters are different (one with swells, one without) but neither, to me, seems more full of "me."

Also, isn't Spencerian mostly a mono-line style of writing with only periodic shading?

Probably more of a quirk of O.W. Holmes than a universal observation of the time.
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Offline Ergative

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #5 on: September 04, 2015, 02:15:16 PM »
and one more for now, a short poem.

A Modern Valentine

I've written it, love, with a stiff steel pen;
  For the geese, I understand,
Are so learned, now, that their quills, I trow,
  Must supply their own demand.

I've secured it, love, by the aid of glue,
  Instead of a strand of hair,
Which I cannot obtain, for I see, with pain,
  I have really none to spare.

I send it to you by the postman, love;
  For Cupid, I grieve to hear,
Is afraid of the cold, and has grown so old
  That he doesn't go out this year.

But the message is ever the same, my love,
  While the stars their courses fulfill.
Though to me and to you it may seem quite new,
  'Tis the old, old story still.

- by Caroline W. Latimer, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Feb, 1893

Andrew, that is utterly charming. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
Clara

Offline AAAndrew

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #6 on: September 04, 2015, 02:19:39 PM »
Ok, one long one before the holiday weekend (at least it is in the US). Have a great weekend. If things go well, we may be hitting a large flea market on Sunday. But I'm not counting those chickens until they hatch. Something tells me my plans are being thwarted as I set at work.  :P

Can anyone explain what a "Magnum Bonum" pen was? I suspect it was one of those tubular nibs?

The Manufacturer and Builder Volume 0001 Issue 12 (December 1869) page 362

“Pens and Pen-Making” 

Who was the inventor of the steel pen? We fear that his name, like that of the individual who ate the first oyster, is destined to remain unknown to the millions who, otherwise, would be eager to render their acknowledgments to their great benefactor. What should we do without steel pens? Why, it might as well be asked, What should we do without the printing-press? Like the railroad and the electric telegraph, steel pens have become one of the necessities of tile age. In these days when four-wheeled coaches were deemed the ne plus ultra of locomotion, and when a journey from the metropolis to the midlands was a task involving several days preparation, folks were content to use quills, which they cut and mended at their leisure. But after a time men grew weary of continually mending pens, and so, after many attempts and failures, the steel pen came into use - not the article with which we are now familiar, but one mounted in a bone case, and known as “Wise’s pen.” Thus was at the beginning of the present century; but there is reason for believing that this invention was of earlier origin, steel pens having been imported, about 1780, from Tunis and Tripoli into Holland.

It was not, however, until a comparatively recent period that steel pens came into general use, and to Mr. Joseph Gillott, the celebrated manufacturer of Birmingham, belongs, in a great measure, the honor of having rendered the steel pen cheap, good, and popular. His establishment in Graham street, Birmingham, may fairly claim to be ranked among the Workshops of the World; for its productions are famous over the whole face of the globe, while to the commercial man, whether at home or abroad, a Gillott is almost indispensable. A wonderful place is this pen manufactory. It is an immense brick building, described by a bewildered special correspondent as being an edifice which looks something like a large asylum, a little like a manufactory, and more like an hospital than either, with which graphic description the reader must be content ; for our business is not within the outside, but the inside of the place.
 
Very interesting is it to follow the steel from the moment of its being cut into long strips until it issues forth in the shape of a “magnum bonum,” or the well- known swan quill. The steel, which is made from the best Swedish iron, is cut into long thin strips of the requisite width by a machine made for that purpose, and which in appearance resembles a straw-cutter. The steel strips are then subjected to a series of processes, by means of which they lose their hardness and brittleness, and are freed from the oxide with which they were covered. They are then rolled until they become of the proper thickness. During this operation they are occasionally dipped in oil, the rollers being kept cool by means of a small stream of cold water constantly falling on them. The long, thin strips of white, glittering steel are next taken to one of the long workshops which form the upper part of time factory, and which are remarkable for their light, warm, and well ventilated character. These rooms lead one into another, and are filled with crowds of clean and busy workers, principally women and girls, the number employed being between five hundred and six hundred - thus solving one of the most important questions connected with the healthy and remunerative employment of women. Entering one of these rooms, we find it filled with a number of presses, at each of which a female is seated bushy employed in the cutting out of blanks, am operation which will be easily understood by a reference to the annexed diagram, Fig. 1, which shows a portion of tile steel ribbon after the blanks have been cut out of it. The steel is placed under the press, and by a rapid yet methodical movement the blank is accurately cut. We subjoin illustrations of three different forms of blanks, the largest being intended for a barrel pen, such as the "magnum bonum." The swiftness of the punching operation is almost marvelous, especially when we consider the seeming perplexity of the process. The steel has first to be carefully adjusted on the die, then the punch has to be brought down, and as each blank is cut out, care has to be taken to avoid waste. The number of blanks generally cut in one day by a female is three hundred gross, and as each gross contains some one hundred and forty-four, the gross total thus cut would be forty-three thousand two hundred.  The operation strongly resembles the old school-boy trick of moving the hand rapidly backward and forward under a regularly descending penknife. For one description of pen the steam press is used, but for al the others presses worked by hand labor alone are employed.

The pens are next carried from the blank-cutters to the side-slitters; after which they are pierced, the two operations sometimes taking place together. A kind of annealing process is then gone through, for the purpose of preparing the blank for being stamped. The stamping-press is exquisitely contrived, and the girl who works it places the flat blank side slit on the die, her foot works a treadle, and the next moment out comes the pen impressed with the required inscription. After this, the blank is snappered, or rendered of a half-cylindrical shape, and , in the case of the “magnum bonums,” to have the broader part of the blank made completely round. Up to this point, the pens are in a soft state, and, for the practical purposes, useless. They have the form of the finished article, but nothing more. To render them of the requisite hardness and elasticity, they are taken to a room in the basement of the building, where the furnaces are kept glowing in a manner which makes the atmosphere unbearable to those not used to it. Here the pens are placed in iron boxes, each capable of holding several gross. The obsess are lifted by means of a pair of tongs into the furnace, where they remain for about a half an hour, after which they are taken out, and the contents dexterously emptied into a tank of oil. After remaining for some time in the oil, they are strained by the inner tin n which they are placed, and which is pierced with holes, being withdrawn from the outer one. They are then placed in a kind of revolving sieve, and the oil which clings to them drained off by centrifugal force. So far, good. Now our pens have to be cleansed. This is accomplished by putting them in a number of barrels, which are made by means of steam power to revolve on a common axis. These barrels are filled with sawdust, which is found to be well suited for the process. The cleaning process is followed by that of scouring. A second series of barrels is filled with pounded casting-pot and water, together with a little quicklime to prevent rusting, and the pens, being placed in this mixture are whirled rapidly round for the purpose of removing the scale left by the action of the fire. This done, they are removed to the grinding-room, where the ear is saluted with a noise resembling the hissing of a forest of snakes. Each pen is held in a pair of peculiarly constructed pincers for a few seconds against a wheel of birch-wood, cut across the grain, and carefully loaded to prevent jarring. Each wheel is covered with leather coated with glue and emery, presenting a perfectly smooth surface. The pens are ground, firstly, longitudinally; secondly, cross-wise, so as to insure the requisite amount of elasticity being obtained. The workers, principally females, display great expertness in this delicate and seemingly difficult process.

The pens have now to be colored, much of their popularity depending on the beauty of appearance possessed by them. They are put into a kind of coffee-roaster, consisting of a simple cylindrical barrel, raised above a clear fire, and worked by means of a long handle. There they are subjected to a regulated degree of heat, until they acquire the blue or brown tinge required, when they are removed and allowed to cool upon an iron plate. Five minutes suffices to give the pens a bronze color, and ten minutes the well-known rich purple color. The degree of harness possessed by them is denoted by the lightness of the tint, and its diminution by the blueness which supervenes.  After being colored, the pens are placed in a solution of shellac in spirits of wine, and exposed to the open air, so that the spirit may evaporate, and leave the shellac in the form of a delicate white incrustation on the pens. This incrustation, on being subjected to a proper degree of heat, melts, flows over the pens, and presents, when cool, a beautiful enameled surface.

The pens are subsequently separated, and conveyed to a room where the final process – that of slitting – is performed, after which they are taken to the ware-house, where they are sorted, arranged, and placed in the fancy boxes in which they are usually sold. A box of common pens, which in 1830 cost two dollars, can now be obtained for a few cents; at the same time the quality is much superior. Mr. Gillott employs a large number of hands, who find plenty to do in converting tons of steel into countless numbers of pens. Well may it be said that the day of little things is not to be despised. Pens, like pins, are insignificant looking objects, but they play an important part in our economy, laying the basis of great fortunes, and affording employment to thousands of men, women, and children.
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Offline Jamie

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #7 on: September 04, 2015, 02:28:20 PM »
I like that article!

I don't know for sure what a Magnum Bonum pen is, but the nib they describe sounds suspiciously like what we call crow-quill nibs now, since they have the rounded back end.

Offline AndyT

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #8 on: September 04, 2015, 02:48:41 PM »
Can anyone explain what a "Magnum Bonum" pen was? I suspect it was one of those tubular nibs?

I think you're right: a large nib formed into a tube in the same way as a modern witch pen.  I seem to remember that it was an early form, before the penny dropped that it was easier and more economical to provide just part of the circle.  What benefit these nibs would have conferred is a mystery to me, but the design does seem to have persisted for a long time alongside the ordinary pens.  This is a page from a 1955 British Pens catalogue, and you'll find a lot more in the album here:


Offline Jamie

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #9 on: September 04, 2015, 02:51:40 PM »
The tubular nibs that I've owned, tend to be really tiny, like ridiculously tiny points, and fairly scratchy to write with as well. You have to a have a light hand to be able to work with them. Personally I like them, I don't use them on a regular basis, but every now and then they're fun to pull out and play with.

Offline AndyT

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #10 on: September 05, 2015, 05:36:43 AM »
... really tiny, like ridiculously tiny points ...

Parvum Bonum nibs.  ;)

The funny thing about crowquills and mapping pens - unless I've just been lucky - is that the quality of the modern product seems to be every bit as good as the old ones.  Shame they don't last long.

Offline tiffany.c.a

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #11 on: September 05, 2015, 11:02:31 AM »
Thanks so much for sharing these bits of history. Just the descriptive narrative writing style of the 19th century observer in the pen factory was fun to read. Amazing proces. And I really liked the OW Holmes piece about the quill/dip pen vs fountain pen for a poet. I'm a poet too, but anyone can attest that it's easy enough to lose an idea or the beauty of a sentiment, but imagine how dipping constantly would break that flow - or not. Maybe that also is a personal quirk as dipping seemed not to have damaged the quality of poetry produced before the fountain pen.

Offline AAAndrew

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #12 on: September 05, 2015, 01:20:42 PM »
I wonder if anyone has seen one of these

Scientific American Volume 0011 Issue 38 (May 31, 1856), p. 302

"Steel Pens - Mr. Macintosh has also taken out a patent for making steel pens with two nibs - one at each end of the pen - so as to have two pens on one piece of steel. The pen holders are made to receive the nib end of the such pens, and not injure them, and when one nib is worn out, it is turned round, as it were, and the other used. This invention possesses the merit of saving steel pen material."


Scientific American Volume 0012 Issue 7 (Oct 25, 1856), p. 53
This announces the beginning of a company that in two years would be renamed as the Esterbrook Steel Pen Mfg. Co. Richard Esterbrook only moved to the US and set up shop just earlier that same year. His company was mere months old.

"Steel Pens - The great seat of the steel pen manufacture is Birmingham, Eng.; there the art originated, and there it is still carried on to an immense extent. This peculiar manufacture, after repeated efforts, may be said to have attained to success among us. The American Steel Pen Manufacturing Co., of New York, exhibits a case of excellent pens in the South Gallery. Each pen has a stamped medallion likeness of Washington on it, for which a patent was obtained, as a design, on the 15th of April last. We have tried these pens, and can give them a good recommendation; still, we have used some English pens which were better. Our steel pen manufacturers will, no doubt, soon produce pens unsurpassed, if not superior to the best Gillott."
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Offline AAAndrew

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Re: A little research into 19th century info and references to steel pens
« Reply #13 on: September 05, 2015, 01:39:04 PM »
And one more for today.

Scientific American Volume 1005 Issue 6 (Aug 10, 1861), p. 86

The Steel Pen Disease
      Last February President Felton, of Harvard University, called public attention to the certain pains and debilitating affections often experience by persons accustomed to write much with steel pens, sometimes amounting to a complete paralysis, and rendering an amanuensis necessary. The theory was, or is, that the ink and the steel together form a sort of galvanic current injurious to the nerves of the hand and of the arm. There is no theory that will not find some confirmatory facts, and President Felton has received numerous letters proving the efficacy of the old goose quill as a remedy. As the steel pen is generally used in a handle composed of a non-conducting substance, the paralysis of the arm arising from the use of steel pens cannot be due to an electric current flowing from the pen; therefore the electrical theory will not stand the test of science.
     On this subject the Philadelphia Ledger remarks: - "We are inclined to think that this complaint is much more common and much older than steel pens. Mark the fatigued look and increasing illegibility of the writing of all rapid thinking authors, like Byron and Coleridge. They all write as if pins were sticking in their wrists. And yet there are bank clerks, who for years will go on calmly making entries, with steel pens, from day book and ledger, and never feel it. The real cause of the disease is writing too rapidly, and with care only for the thought, and not for the mechanical shape of the letters. It is because the nerves of volition move more rapidly than the muscles can follow, as thought outstrips expression."
     There is much force in these remarks, and yet they will not account for the removal of paralysis in persons who have ceased the use of steel and returned to the old goose quill. Cranky writing like that of Byron does not indicate disease of the hand. By using a very smooth pointed pen, and a light holder, the nerves of the arm will not be readily affected.
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