Author Topic: Very early steel pen writing  (Read 1199 times)

Offline AAAndrew

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Very early steel pen writing
« on: June 13, 2018, 04:20:05 PM »
I've been researching the origins of the steel pen industry in the US for a while now.

The earliest known maker of steel pens, as a business, in the US was Peregrine Williamson in Baltimore. In 1808 he sent a letter along with 2 examples of his pens to then President Thomas Jefferson.

I finally tracked down an image of that letter to see what his early steel pen writing looked like. The letter is fuzzy, but it's the only one I could find. I've contacted the Library of Congress to see if they have a better image I can access.

But even with the fuzziness, I thought some of you might find this interesting to see a letter written with a steel pen 14 years before Perry, Gillott or Mitchell made their first pen. 

Andrew

I love how at the bottom he deprecates his hand as that of "a mecanick"

Quote
Sir   
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

« Last Edit: June 13, 2018, 04:22:21 PM by AAAndrew »
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Offline AnasaziWrites

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #1 on: June 13, 2018, 06:08:23 PM »
Very interesting. Do you know what size paper he was using in this letter? Is there an envelope also?

Offline AAAndrew

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #2 on: June 14, 2018, 10:13:14 AM »
The record on the LOC website doesn't say the size, nor does it include an envelope. Since this was sent with a package, it was most likely just included in the package itself. I'm going to contact the National Archives and see if it's possible to get the complete accession record as that should give more information.

It struck me as I thought about it last night, that as far as I know, this is the earliest document we can definitively say was written with a steel pen. Unless Dr. Priestly has a letter somewhere in which he comments that's he's using one of those newfangled steel pens his friend Harrison is making, then this may be it.

I find it interesting that he can most definitely get nice thin hairlines and some impressive swells for one of these early steel pens. His three-slit design must have worked to some degree.
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Offline sybillevz

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #3 on: February 04, 2019, 03:41:26 AM »
This is super interesting @AAAndrew , thanks for sharing !
I have a question that is not about the steel pen itself but the shape of the pen...
According to the sources I've seen, penmen in GB and Europe slowly started to turn to pointed flexible pen between 1770 and 1800 (as opposed to the traditional broad oblique that had to fit the size of the writing and wasn't very flexible)... By 1820, it seems that they were all using this kind of cut. Professional penmen clung to the traditional tool longer than other people.

Reading that letter, it looks like the idea of producing metallic pens wasn't new in 1808, but that no one had managed to shape the pen so that it would behave according to what people were used to with the quill  : Williamson mentions the flexibility (which was considered important to write faster, even with the quill) but do you know if these prototypes were pointed or broad ? Would you say that the technical possibility to manufacture a workable pointed flexible pen is what eventually made the manufacturing a reality ? My guess is that it is easier to make a broad nib... Were there broad cut nibs on the market before pointed nibs ?
Finally, have you seen documents giving information about the moment when flexible pointed pens (quill or metallic) became the new norm ?

I'm trying to understand the transition from broad quill to pointed flexible steel pen... There are still some missing links in my research...



Offline AAAndrew

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #4 on: February 04, 2019, 07:20:08 PM »
I'm no expert in quill writing by master penman. What I can say is that a lot of people seem to be writing with pointed quills by the late 1700's, some are flexible and some are not, depending on how they're cut and who is using them. By 1800 it's obvious that sharp, pointed and flexible pens (whether quill or steel) are desirable.

The early descriptions of steel pens emphasize more than what we today call "flexible" pens. What you often run into, especially when talking about the deficits of early steel pens, is that they are too stiff, they don't have the "softness" of a quill. What they are talking about is more than just how far apart the tines will separate.

If I may be forgiven from quoting my own blog post (https://thesteelpen.com/2018/05/03/what-is-action-in-a-dip-pen/)

Quote
You’ll often read in old descriptions of steel pens comments about a pen’s “action,” as in “An easy action” or “the action of this pen being similar to that of the quill.”

Action is a combination of the flexibility of the tines (to go from thin to thick), their ability to spring back quickly (to go from thick to thin), as well as a softness to the body of the pen itself. In an 1835 ad I have in my article, it mentions that the action of a pen is "compound." This includes "a gentle, yielding backward action immediately above the nib of the pen [what we call the tines], and, second, the 'scissor' action, or spreading open of the points to permit the flow of ink." This last element is what we generally refer to today as the "flexibility" of a nib. But the people who were moving from quills to steel pens were also concerned that the stiffness of a steel pen (nib) is tiring to the hands, and makes it difficult to write smoothly.

Different manufacturers tried different solutions, from the material the pen was made from, to cutting slits across the body of the pen to create a kind of spring effect, to various kinds of holders that added spring.

As for the tips, which was your real question, the ones I've seen from the transition period of 1890's-1820 were all pointed. I've attached a photo of some pens made in Britain c. 1810. If you look at Williamson's letter, it's obviously a pointed pen. Copperplate was a popular style of penmanship from earlier in the 18th-century and it requires a flexible pointed pen.

I'd say the transition from broad pen points to pointed pen points happened before steel pens were made as a commodity, c. 1800 in England, 1806 in the US.

What allowed manufacturing of pointed, steel pens was the industrial revolution. By 1820's, the advances in quality steel, machine tools and precision machining allowed for the development of the practical screw and more precise tooling, and it was in the early 1820's that some mechanics in Birmingham figured out how to use these tools of mass production to make steel pens. (The Mitchell Brothers, Josiah Mason and Gillott are the primary names associated with these innovations). 

Interestingly, the broad nib pen wasn't really made into steel until later. The best guess is that the first steel pens with stub points were made around the 1850's. These were a reaction to the slowness it took to write with a pointed, flexible pen. For those customers who just needed to write quickly, and didn't need it to look neat (because they had clerks who would write out "fair" their rapid scribble), the stub was a wonderful invention. These pens were often marketed to those professions which seemed to have this need for rapid writing: "Lawyers Stub," "Judge's Quill," "Chancellor," "Congressional," and then there's the extremely popular Esterbrook 314 called the "Relief" because it is a relief to write with.

It was most likely around this time you also start to see what became known as Engrossing pens. These included sharper, broad nibs, like we would think of for ornamental broad-pen calligraphy. These were used for "Engrossing" which was the term at the time for decorating documents with ornamental writing. At first Engrossing pens were just another pen in the regular line of pens. Eventually, by the 1880's, manufacturers began to make separate lines of "lettering pens" and these came in specific sizes. Earlier Engrossing pens usually were made in fine, medium and broad.

As for when flexible, pointed steel pens took over from flexible, pointed quills, the tipping point seems to be around the early 1840's. I say this because the numbers of pens made began to grow exponentially. Quills were still being sold all through the 19th-century, the transition from one to the other began slowly but increased rapidly and passed a tipping point by 1850.

In Britain, we have numbers mentioned from early. Josiah Mason began in 1829 making about 20 gross pens that year. By 1830 he had made 100 gross pens, and he was the largest producer at that time. To give you an idea of the scale of growth, in 1846 and 1847, 300,000,000 pens were made in all of Britain (using 147 tons of steel). By 1849, Gillott was making 65,000 gross weekly by himself. (487,000,000)

The US didn't begin to get even close until the 1880's. For the first 3/4 of the 19th-century, British pens dominated the US market.

That was probably way more than you are interested in. Unfortunately, I don't know when broad quills were replaced by pointed quills. I suspect it varied by country. Germany and Russian, with the types of lettering common there, may well have stayed with broad nibs much later than in England or France. I really don't know the traditions there nearly as well as I know the beginnings of the steel pen.

With the steel pen, it was pointed pens which came first. This also makes sense because those who wrote with a pointed quill would have to mend their pen much more often than someone writing with a broad-cut quill. These pointed-quill writers would be much more interested in finding an alternative which did not need constant mending.

Hopefully this was somewhat interesting. If you're not asleep by now, you can obviously check out my site for more history. https://thesteelpen.com/
Check out my steel pen history blog
https://thesteelpen.com/

Offline sybillevz

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #5 on: February 05, 2019, 03:13:54 AM »
@AAAndrew Thank you so much for taking the time to answer so precisely !
Your research seems to confirm the conclusions I drew from mine : the shift to soft pointed quill came before the steel pen... Which seems logical, but it is something 20th century historians of calligraphy don't necessarily agree with: some stated that pointed steel nibs were in part responsible for the "loss of structure" in handwriting and therefore one of the things "real calligraphers" had to stay away from... This idea is also entangled with the myth that copperplate has always been written with a pointed pen. It's not the case... I'm going to read your blog with attention, then finish my next post for Penna Volans and will upload it this week. Thank you for your help !

Offline RD5

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #6 on: February 05, 2019, 06:22:55 AM »
I think part of the issue with the development of pointed pens, it that the term pointed pen didn't exist in this time period. I am no expert, but it seems to be that quills were cut narrower and narrower and there was a long transitional period.

I understood that at some point broad edge calligraphy died out, and that Morris and Johnston both independently rediscovered the techniques.

Offline sybillevz

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #7 on: February 05, 2019, 10:45:12 AM »
Indeed, I don't remember seeing a mention of "pointed" cut quill. But when they say the breadth of the tip should be equal to the thickness of the pen... I believe that's rather narrow. Illustrations are also quite clear on that matter. From the accounts of pen makers, people around the 1780's started to use narrower and more flexible quills so they wouldn't have to have to use more than one pen depending of the size they wanted to write at (broad pens don't allow as much freedom in movement). Women (who are weak, as we all know) preferred soft pens but men wanted tips that were stiffer yet allowed the variation in thickness of stroke. The transition period was probably not as long as you think : most people didn't cut their own quills and professional pen cutters contributed in accelerating the transition (for everyday writing).
I am not sure when "calligraphers" (who I define as professional penmen / writing masters who enjoyed creating ornamental works) changed their habits. They all had their own preferences of course, but I wonder when the pen of the "common scribe" was accepted for calligraphy as well.

Offline AAAndrew

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #8 on: February 05, 2019, 12:57:12 PM »
I don't know that I've seen many (or any) 18th-century pre-cut quills, but I have seen packages of them from the first decade or two of the 19th-century, as well as the new quill points where they cut up a quill into individual points that were inserted into a holder like later steel nibs. All of the quills I've seen, and it's not like it has been a huge amount, have been what I would consider pointed, and not cut broad. It may be that the broad point is so fine I can't tell the difference. That brings up the question of just how you define "broad cut" quills. If you make the point sharp, and then cut a tiny amount off the tip, is that broad cut or pointed?

One thing to consider is that a quill cut into a point will "fail" much faster than one cut broad. A fine point will get soft and start writing with a broader stroke faster than one already cut into what we might call a stub or italic point today. One of the early arguments for steel pens is that they don't change shape and cause your writing to be inconsistent within a single document.

One thing I would recommend is actually looking at hand-written documents at the time. Normal correspondence can be found in fine and what I would consider medium lines. Some has shading, but a lot of the writing of normal folks has little. Clerk writing is different, and penman writing different yet again. I doubt that there was one style of quill used by all. As a matter of fact, in Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen by Michael Finlay, there is an illustration of example quills from a stationer, each with the name of a customer on it to show the preferred cut for that customer.

Here is a picture, not sure of the origins, of Bramah's Patent Portable Pens, i.e. quill slips.
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Offline sybillevz

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #9 on: February 05, 2019, 02:10:51 PM »
I had read about these quill slips but never seen a photo ! thanks for sharing!
Accounts in writing books explain that to keep a "plume à trait" (which was as pointed as possible and used for flourishing), one had to leave it in ink all the time. Otherwise it would break, split, make stains... all the things every penman wants to avoid. The ink allowed the quill to stay soft. But not everyone had the skill to manipulate such quills, which required a very light touch combined with the strength necessary to produce big shades (women were said to be bad at flourishing).

I can confirm that quill cutters kept a record of who liked which kind of cut : in one of the books I have, the quill cutter explains how the shift to "fine" flexible cut made his work easier, as there were less details to write in his books.
Oh, and to avoid the quill from wearing too fast, he explains that the corners should be rounded so that no straight edge can catch in the paper.

Offline RD5

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #10 on: February 06, 2019, 05:57:48 AM »
This is all very fascinating.

I think the transition from broad edge to pointed pen writing is often skipped over when talking about the history of writing.  It seems mainly to be driven by the desire for a more versatile and faster pen. This seems to me, to have been a process of both developing the pen and the script. That is, experimentation with different pen cutting techniques as well as the development of thinner letters  complimented each other and created a feedback loop.

If pointed quills were already used for drawing, then all that was needed was the development of a flex pen for shading and a thin script.

Offline TeresaS

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #11 on: February 06, 2019, 09:45:06 AM »
On a side note, I wonder how well Thomas Jefferson liked the pens.  Is there any known correspondence back?
Teresa

Offline AAAndrew

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #12 on: February 06, 2019, 01:17:52 PM »
If you were a member of the Pen Collectors of America, you'd get to see all three parts of my article on this, including all of the letters back and forth.

 ;D

I also included the letters in this post on my web page. The article has a bit more info and is better written, but this at least shows you the letters.
https://thesteelpen.com/2018/05/06/peregrine-williamson-part-2/

The summary, for those who don't have time to read all of the letters:
Jefferson liked the pens so much he ordered more, and seemed to continue ordering more. He ordered four more for gifts for friends. "The four calendar pens arrived safely. I find them answer perfectly and now indeed use no other kind."

Jefferson continued to order pens for at least a year, and he stayed in touch with Williamson at least through 1814 when he recommends someone to stop by Williamson's workshop to explore his latest inventions around making shot for guns.

We find the final reference in a letter from Jefferson dated 19 March 1822, to his friend from New York, DeWitt Clinton.

"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.  After using the pens "6-7 hours a day" for months, Jefferson had written Williamson that he was finding the nibs to rust and get ragged. Peregrine wrote him back some advice on how to mend them with a hone (sharpening stone) if not too rusted. He also offered to see what he could do to repair them. Steel pens were still so rare that there were advertised repair services for steel pens in England until they began to be made at an industrial scale  and thus became so cheap as to be disposable. (starting late 1820's)

Jefferson also used the steel pens in his polygraph, the machine for making multiple copies of a written document by having two other pens writing on separate papers at the same time.
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Offline TeresaS

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #13 on: February 06, 2019, 03:38:20 PM »
  That is all so interesting.  Peale's polygraph especially caught my attention.  It would be really cool to actually try to use one... or at least watch one in motion.  Sounds like it could be a little frustrating to use. Thanks!
Teresa

Offline sybillevz

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Re: Very early steel pen writing
« Reply #14 on: February 07, 2019, 10:32:31 AM »
My post is up ! Here

I find it fascinating that most historians of calligraphy consider that the shift to pointed pen was the one move that exiled the English Round Hand out of "true calligraphy hands heaven"... and that many calligraphers today think it was an improvement...
Of course, it all depends on the point of view, and on where you draw the line separating calligraphy and handwriting.

The fact is that from the invention of the printing press the tendency went toward simplification of cursive scripts in order to make them faster and accessible to more people, mainly so that they could be used for trade and business. 20th century historians of calligraphy see this tendency as a deterioration whereas contemporary people see this as an advancement (parallel to the industrial revolution, efficient writing contributed to a more "efficient society").

Let's not forget that back in 19th century England, gentlemen thought that earning a living through actual work wasn't proper... I know that things were very different in the US, which probably explains why the calligraphy styles derived from the RH (including handwriting styles like spencerian) were kept alive longer as "art" than in Europe.