Thursday, 28 June 2018

They Were "A head" of Their Time

An almost infinite variety of small figural and novelty inkwells were made during the early to mid 1800's to satisfy the growing demands of the rapidly increasing new "middle class" of Victorian England. Many of the inkwells of this period had a cavity for the ink and a separate cavity (or multiple cavities) where the writing quill(s) could be stood while at rest. The shift to horizontal pen rests only became "a thing" when steel pens (nibs) began to be mass produced, as the metal tips of the pens could be damaged if left standing vertically when not is use.

Among the many novelty inkwells were "head" figurals that had a single opening for the ink cavity and then one or more quill holder holes elsewhere on the piece. Most of these inkwells were not of particularly high quality which makes their survival for almost 200 years all the more impressive!

I currently have 4 head inkwells and there are several others that I've been on the lookout for and hope to acquire at some point.

"Souter Johnnie" was a character in Robert Burns 1790 poem, Tam O'Shanter. In the poem Johnnie is Tam's drinking buddy, but the character is based upon a real "souter" (shoe maker) that Burns knew, John Davidson. Believed to be salt-glazed pottery, it is 3" long x 2" wide x 1.5" high. (c. 1840, England).

This bonneted damsel was apparently not having as good a day as Johnnie when they made her as she's a little dour looking. The top hole is for ink and the lower hole is the quill rest.  Made of porcelain in France, c. 1840. It is 2.75" long, 2.5" wide, and 1.75" high.


A rather self-important looking English gentleman sporting his finest wig, which includes the inkwell hole at the top and a quill holders on both sides. Made around 1830 in England. Staffordshire, or perhaps New Hall porcelain. It is 3" long x 2.5" wide x 1.75" high.

Another Souter Johnnie novelty inkwell. This one is believed to be made by Rockingham pottery, around 1840. Slightly different design and glazing than the other, and it is imprinted "Souter Johnny" on the base. It is 3.25" long x 2.25" wide x 1.5" high.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

My Wonderment at One Derwent

During a visit to our daughter's home in England a few years ago I was able to convince everyone that we should take a day to make a short pilgrimage to the Derwent Pencil Museum, located in the beautiful market town of Keswick in Cumbria. Of course, everyone readily agreed (who wouldn't want to spend a day at a pencil museum!), so off we went... (at least that's the level of enthusiasm that I recall...)

While my pencil collecting interests are primarily in the realm of 19th century mechanical pencils, I had still wanted to visit this museum for some time to learn more about the graphite (wad) industry in the UK, which dates back to the early 16th century (Borrowdale Mine), as well as the history of pencil-making in the Keswick area, which began in the 1830's.

The museum is small, but quite fascinating, and I would highly recommend a visit to anyone passing through that part of England, or that has even a marginal interest in the history of pencils, pencil manufacturing, and graphite mining.

One particular display that caught my attention described the secret map pencils of World War II. I had never heard of these prior to visiting the museum and I found the backstory fascinating...

In 1942 the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company received a visitor from the British Ministry of Supply with a special top secret request - to manufacture pencils that to all appearances were identical to other pencils, but would contain an escape map and a compass. 

These were to be provided to RAF pilots and crew to assist in their escape should they be shot down over enemy territory. As it turns out, the special visitor was Charles Fraser Smith, the creative inventor of all kinds of speciality gizmos and gadgets for MI6 and MI9, which he called "Q" devices. He also worked with Ian Fleming, and he is believed to have been the inspiration for the "Q" character in Fleming's James Bond stories.

To help ensure that the secret pencils remained a secret, only a few members of the management team were involved in their manufacture, and production of these was done after all the regular staff had gone home. There were 4 different coded pencils made, each with a different escape map. They were all painted green; the only war-era pencils to be painted at all as all paint had been requisitioned for the war effort.

It is unknown how many of these pencils were made, and after the war items such as this were recalled by the War Department and most were destroyed, including any original design diagrams that explained how they were to be made.

The Pencil Museum recently released a reproduction of the secret map pencil and being a sucker for interesting pencil stories, I immediately snapped one up. The "escape map" included in the reproduction set is actually a map of the area around the Pencil Museum.

It is believed that very few of the original World War II map pencils still exist other than those in the Pencil Museum, so if you have one of these lying about from the Second World War that you'd like to get rid of, call me!

Saturday, 19 May 2018

And Here's To You Mr. Robertson

We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files...

From a collector's perspective, purchasing items that are engraved is generally considered a no-no, as engravings often reduce the value of the item, sometimes significantly. However, there are times when an engraved item catches one's eye and capture's one's imagination.

Such was the case when I first acquired this "traveller" combo writing implement. While not marked as a Mordan, it is identical to others made by Mordan and Co.  and is quite likely a custom piece made by them.

George Murray (1814-1864) became the 6th Duke of Atholl in 1846. During his period as Duke, his preference was to use the spelling Athole, rather than Atholl. His wife was Anne Murray, Duchess of Athole, born Anne Home-Drummond (1814-1897). In 1863, the Duke became ill (neck cancer) and died in January 1864, his wife now becoming the Duchess Dowager of Athole. The Duchess Dowager was a very close friend of Queen Victoria, and she served the Queen as "Lady of the Bedchamber" for almost 40 years.

Their son, John Murray, assumed the title of 7th Duke of Atholl following his father's death, and the Duchess Dowager was given until Whitsunday, 1864 to move to what would be her new permanent residence in Dunkeld. Whitsunday is the name used by Methodists and Anglicans for Pentecost, the 7th Sunday after Easter.  In 1864, Whitsunday was May 15.

John Robertson was one of many individuals on the staff of the Duke and Duchess. He had been hired as a Factor, which I believe would have been a business agent for the estate, responsible for buying goods as well as disposing of goods on behalf of the Duke and Duchess.

From the various clues provided by the history of the Duke and Duchess as well as by the inscription on the item itself, the belief is that this combo is likely one of several that were custom ordered by the Duchess Dowager, and given as a"thank you" gift as she departed the estate in May, 1864. It would have been a relatively expensive item at the time and as such only given to the more senior staff members. As a custom piece, the maker's name may have been left off in order to allow sufficient room for the lengthy inscription.

Writing implements such as this were referred to as "travellers" for rather obvious reasons as they included a pencil, dip pen, thermometer, and a compass in the finial. It is a fairly rare item, and it is even rarer to find one with the mercury thermometer not only intact, but actually still working. It is 4.25" (10.5 cm) in length when closed, and just under 5.25" (13 cm) when the pencil is extended. The pen nib is gold, stamped "Adamant Pointed London".
Are there other identical travellers still out there that are similarly inscribed to other members of the Duchess Dowager's household? Who knows, but that is how a simple inscription, on a rare writing implement, grabbed my attention and began my quest to find out more.

And during the entire time that I was doing the research and writing of this blog entry, Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" became an earworm that I could not get rid of... and hopefully it is now stuck in your head as well... you're welcome!

One last fun fact ... Alexander Mackenzie, the 2nd Prime Minister of Canada from 1873-1878, was born in 1822 in Logierait, Scotland, a small community near Dunkeld and within the boundaries of the Atholl estate. He emigrated to Canada a few years prior to the arrival of the 6th Duke in 1846.

Note : Background history & images of the Duke & Duchess of Athole - "Chronicles of Atholl & Tullibardine Families", by John Murray, 7th Duke of Atholl, 1908

Thursday, 26 April 2018

It's Not Just What You Know, It's Also Who You Know

While many of us may believe that we are masters of our own destiny, and that it is only our own personality, expertise, work ethic, etc., that determines the extent of our success in our chosen career path, most of us that are past the mid-point of our lives can look back and readily identify at least one or two individuals that were significant influences in our careers, good or bad.

One of the earliest Mordan pencils in my collection - 1825
Sampson Mordan (1790-1843) was no different in that regard. He was a bit of a nasty individual when it came to how he ran his business. He regularly initiated legal proceedings against anyone that he felt had crossed him in some way, and at the same time he had no qualms about stealing ideas and technology from others that he associated with.

In spite of this, throughout his business career Mordan was able to connect with, and occasionally partner with, some of the most imaginative and brilliant minds of the period. Mordan's ability to leverage the value of those connections is clearly apparent in the enduring success of his company.

Mordan is recognized as the co-inventor of the mechanical pencil, having filed the first patent (#4742) in England, in 1822, jointly with John Isaac Hawkins. The Mordan brand quickly became synonymous with quality and his business flourished. Following his death in 1843, the business was carried on by two of his sons, Sampson Jr. and Augustus. Now, almost two hundred years later, their strict adherence to quality craftsmanship lives on through the current owners of the Mordan intellectual property, the Yard-O-Led company.
Hand crafted Yard-O-Led fountain pen - 2015

Here are just a few of Mordan's associates that I've stumbled across during my collecting of those beautiful victorian Mordan pens & pencils...

Oldest Mordan combo in my collection - 1823
"Bramah" clip on 1823 combo
Joseph Bramah (1748-1814) - As a young man, Sampson Mordan worked as an apprentice with Joseph Bramah, whose inventions included the famous Bramah Lock. As an apprentice, Mordan would have learned the skills involved in lock making and eventually the Mordan company also became well known as expert lock-makers. Bramah's locks were extremely difficult to pick or tamper with, and in 1790 Bramah offered 200 guineas to anyone that could pick his "challenge lock". It was 67 years later, in 1851, that someone finally succeeded after spending 51 hours over a period of 16 days to accomplish it. Joseph Bramah is probably even better known as the inventor of the hydraulic press, but between 1778 and 1812 he actually filed 18 different patents which not only included the Bramah Lock and the hydraulic press, but other well-known inventions including the flush toilet, rotary engines, the first pumper fire truck, automated printing of banknotes with sequential numbering, and in 1809 a mechanical device to manufacture quill nibs for pens. The production of pen nibs was a very lucrative business at the time and is another idea that Mordan took advantage of in future years, in addition to the easily recognizable "Bramah Clip", which was a unique way to secure the pen nib. Bramah was also well known for his attention to production quality and it may have been this trait as much as any other that he instilled in his favourite apprentice, young Mordan.

Following Bramah's death, Mordan began his own company and sometime before 1822 he teamed up with John Isaac Hawkins, the next major figure in Mordan's career.

1822 Hawkins/Mordan Patent #4742
John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1855) - Beyond the mechanical pencil, Hawkins had a wide variety of interests and his inventions touched many different fields of study - a duplicating machine, experiments in water filtration and sugar refining, use of a cast iron frame in upright pianos (he sold one of his fortepianos to Thomas Jefferson in 1802), trifocal lenses, and the iridium tipped gold pen. The 1885 Gentleman's Magazine describes Hawkins as follows : "He was a wonderfully prolific inventor, a martyr to inventive genius; ever at work on new inventions, some of which founded the fortunes of others, but none of them yielded much to himself. His share was comparative poverty, amply compensated by that intense enjoyment of life only known to the enthusiast, and which mere money cannot purchase." Hawkins first left the UK for America in 1790, returning to the UK in 1803, and then returning once again to America in 1848, where he died in 1855. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were listed among his American friends.

In 1823, in what was apparently to become a common practice for Hawkins, he sold his share of the pencil patent to Mordan, who in turn found a new partner that could provide a much needed cash infusion, the successful London stationer Gabriel Riddle.

G. Riddle Pencil - 1836/1837
Gabriel Riddle - While Riddle may not have played a major creative role in Mordan's life, he certainly was still a key figure. As a successful stationer, he had both the wealth and the distribution channels that Mordan needed access to after buying out Hawkins' rights to the pencil patent. Riddle also appears to have had the contacts that Mordan would come to take advantage of in the coming years. In 1824 Riddle appears in the membership list for the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce (Mordan does not); but in 1825 Mordan also shows up as a member and some of the other notables in that year's list that Mordan knew (or came to know) were Michael Faraday, William Brockedon, Joseph Clement, and Thomas Lund. Riddle and Mordan parted ways in 1836 at which point they became competitors in the pencil-case business.

1831 Oblique Pen Design Patent #6163
William Brockedon (1787-1854) - William Brockedon had a wide range of interests; artist (see Faraday portrait below), watchmaker, writer, inventor, and more. In 1801 (age 14) he took over his dad's watchmaking business during his father's illness and continued to run it on his own following his father's death in 1802. In 1831 he and Sampson Mordan filed a patent together for the oblique pen (slit is in the direction of writing). Brockedon's most influential invention was a machine to compress graphite powder into pencil leads. Prior to this, solid graphite was simply cut into the size and shape needed for pencils and other uses. However, the famous Cumberland graphite mines were depleted and Brockedon's invention ensured a continued steady supply of pencil leads. More importantly, Brockedon's invention was almost immediately recognized to be of value in other fields, most notably in the field of medicine whereby medication could now be compressed into pill form. So we can all thank William Brockedon every time we pop an aspirin, take prescription medication tablets, or write with a "lead" pencil.

Clement & Mordan Lathe Chuck Design
Image courtesy of:
Wellcome Images 
Joseph Clement (1779-1844) - Clement was a colleague of Sampson Mordan's during the period that they both worked with Bramah and in 1830 the two of them were awarded medals by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce for their advances in the design of lathe chucks (this would have been a big deal for someone making round things like pencil-cases). Joseph Clement went on to become one of the period's best machine tool makers and worked with Charles Babbage, building the first working model of Babbage's "Difference Engine". My favourite fun fact about Clement is that in 1805, when he was a young man, he started his career building looms in the small northern England village of Kirkby Stephen; the very same lovely village where our daughter and her family currently reside.

Michael Faraday by William Brockedon, 1831
Image courtesy of :
National Portrait Gallery, London - NPG2515(24)
Michael Faraday (1791-1867) - Grace's Guide to UK Industrial History lists Michael Faraday as an associate of Sampson Mordan. I was unable to find a direct business relationship, however, I did find one reference to experiments Faraday was conducting on some lead samples that William Brockedon had provided him with on behalf of Mordan.

In spite of having little formal education, Faraday is recognized as one of the most influential scientists in history and his discoveries included electric motors, electro magnetism, bunsen burners, and much, much, more. His accomplishments were recognized as being of such import to Einstein that he actually had a portrait of Faraday on his study wall, right next to one of Sir Isaac Newton.

Whether Sampson even realized it at the time or not, what a treat to have been surrounded by these individuals, most of whom were quite successful in their own right, and all of whom were major contributors to the massive technological advances taking place during this period in human history.

And honestly, come on, admit it... how great would it have been to be able to say that you were mentored by the guy that invented the flush toilet!?

For additional details on the lives of these amazing individuals, wikipedia is a great place to start :

Joseph Bramah
John Isaac Hawkins
William Brockedon
Joseph Clement
Michael Faraday

Gabriel Riddle - no detailed bio info found

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The Riddle of the Lund Pencil

At the beginning of the 19th century, members of the Lund family were already established in London as turners. Turning was a very skilled and well respected profession, and turners worked with a variety of materials including ivory, metals, and wood. Thomas Lund had learned the craft from his father and established his own business in 1804.  Included among the company's wide range of products were vanity boxes, chess sets, and corkscrews.

By 1835, Thomas Lund's son, William, had also established a business of his own on Fleet Street in London. William subsequently took over his father's business following Thomas' death in 1845. Around 1849/1850 William Lund began making what has become known as the "Lund" pencil. This was (and is) a pencil design that is so beautifully simple, and so perfectly functional just as it is, that it is somewhat surprising that the design seems to have completely disappeared from regular use. Lund pencils are fairly rare, and I consider myself fortunate to have a few in my collection...

The exterior of the Lund pencil casing is cut with a helical groove extending the entire length of the hollow barrel. The lead is placed into the barrel and the "propellor" (the gold ring around the middle of the casing) fits into the spiral groove and follows it, pushing the lead forward as it advances. This example is just over 13cm (5") in length, with solid gold trim pieces. Marked "Lund Patentee London".

The Lund example on the left below is 9.5cm (3.75") and is also marked "Lund Patentee London".
The wooden one on the right is 11cm (4.25") and is not marked.

So what was the "Riddle" behind the Lund pencil? Well it was really "who", and not "what"...

William Riddle was the son of Gabriel Riddle (London stationer, one-time partner of Sampson Mordan, and pencilcase maker). In 1848, William obtained patent # 12,383 for "Improvements in the construction of ever-pointed pencils, writing and drawing instruments, and in inkstands and ink holders". Thanks to Google Books, I was able to extract the following description of Riddle's patent from "Patents for Inventions, Abridgments of Specifications Relating to Writing Instruments and Materials, A.D. 1635-1866, London".
According to Ken Bull, in his book, The KB Collection of Pencils, William Riddle's pencil patent was "a subtle improvement on the simple 'Stop Sliding Pencils', first patented in 1783". Ken Bull further explains that Riddle "disposed of his interest in the patent to William Lund", and that an early version of the pencil was made of cedar, with an ivory cap & nozzle, with the barrel being imprinted "W. RIDDLE'S PATENT MADE EXCLUSIVELY BY W. LUND LONDON". It must have been quite a lengthy pencil to fit all that on the barrel!

As to why William Riddle, a successful businessman in his own right, and one with his own pencilcase making business, decided to get rid of the rights to his invention...? Well, that may be a riddle of a different sort, and as of this writing it appears to be an unsolved one...

Note: Lund family history information obtained from - The Story of Thomas & William Lund, and  Antique Box Guide.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Les Encrier Escargot

It just sounds so much nicer when said in French rather than the English, "Snail Inkwells", doesn't it? In fact, it was the use of that French phrase in the seller's description that caught my eye with the first snail inkwell that I purchased.

The design is believed to have originated in France in the mid-1800's, and then in the latter half of the 19th century a number of American makers began producing them. The French versions all seem to be porcelain, while the American versions were often clear glass or milk glass, although the odd coloured glass version shows up.

The simple logic behind the design is quite clever; when the "snail" is in the forward position the ink is accessible, and in order to reduce evaporation when not in use, you roll the "snail" upwards against a flat plate that covers the opening.

I currently only have two snails in my collections (both French, I believe) but I'm pretty sure I could find room for a couple more if the opportunity presents itself.

This was the first one I purchased. It is a nice clean white porcelain inkwell. The brass medallions on either side read "Encrier Bascule Paris J.L.". "Bascule Encrier" translates to "Rocker Inkwell"; I suspect that "J.L." are the maker's initials but I have yet to be able to confirm this.

This second one has a really great design which I suspect dates to the 1920's or perhaps a little earlier. It seems to have a lot of symbolism but nothing that I recognize from anywhere else. It is also porcelain, and probably french-made as well.

The following are a few examples from my wish list. I would like to obtain an example of a double or triple snail inkwell, and the final image is of an all metal version that I have only seen two of (and neither one was for sale) but I am intrigued by the "Mad Max" look of it and would love to find one for the collection.

This double one has been made out of milk glass with the "snails" being molded into dog faces. Likely american made (they tended to have heavy metal bases on most of them).

Although not obvious from the photo, this is a rare triple snail inkwell. White porcelain and of french origin.
This one is rather odd in that it appears to be all metal, including the "snail" part of the inkwell. It has a built-in candle holder in addition to the penholder. The extremely upright & compact design, including the rear hinged leg, suggests that it was perhaps intended for travel?

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Pencil Roulette

When I first began collecting mechanical pencils I tried to limit my acquisitions to items that matched those keywords - "mechanical pencil". However, items that didn't quite fit that definition gradually began creeping into the collection. Sometimes sellers would list the items as "pencils" and once received I'd discover them to be more than they first appeared. At other times there would be something about the images of the item that provided a clue (e.g. a patent date, or a missing slider where one would normally be, or two sliders when only one should be present). And on far too many other occasions, the item would just be too cool to pass up.

And now? Well, now I just accept the risks associated with seeking out interesting examples from the victorian pencil world, and I continue to be pleasantly surprised when the next "not-just-another-pencil" shows up in the mail.

Of course, playing pencil roulette doesn't always turn out to be a win, but like most gambling addicts I prefer to maintain my focus on the positive aspects and excitement of the ones that are wins, while quietly disposing of the detritus resulting from the losses!

Here are a few of the more interesting "wins" that have come my way ...

Jacob Lownds Pencil (1836) - This beauty was rather sad looking when I first saw it posted for sale many years ago. It was listed on an auction site as 'not working". It was almost black with dirt, it appeared to be missing its slider, and the seller indicated that the pencil was "stuck". But it was also listed at a ridiculously low price and something about it said "take a chance" so I did. It cleaned up nicely and works just fine. There never was a slider because the design never required one. There is no maker's mark on it, however, there was only one maker that I've come across that was using this design in the 1830's. Jacob Lownds filed his patent, (U.S. patent #32) in 1836. The pencil tip extends by pulling the top of the barrel, giving it a quarter turn, and then pushing it forward. Reverse the process to bring the tip back into the barrel. The etched design on the barrel only became clearly visible once I did a little cleaning. It is 3.5" (9cm) closed, and 4.75" (12cm) when extended.

W.S. Hicks Combo Pencil & Dip Pen (1867) - I've acquired two of these over the years and both were originally listed for sale as pencils. I had owned the first one for years, and at some point I had looked more closely at the patent details associated with the date on the barrel, "Pat.Dec.24.1867", and determined that I had something more than just a nice Hicks pencil. So when a second one came along, also listed as a pencil... I just had to buy it as well.

A gentleman by the name of Richard Ryne had filed U.S. patent #72,684 on that date and he assigned the patent to W.S. Hicks. There is a second cartouche on the barrel, on which I can make out a very faint "...0 '58". This corresponds to A.G. Days standard patent imprint "AG Days Pat Aug 10 '58". Days marketed an "improved" version of the Goodyear BHR.

This one has what appears to be a never inked solid gold Mabie Todd #4 pen nib (the second Hicks BHR combo is slightly smaller in diameter and has a #3 Mabie Todd nib). This one is 3.75" (9.5cm) closed, and 4.75" (12cm) when the pencil is extended.

John Sheldon - "Unique Pocket Companion" (c.1842) - This was one of the first "more than just a pencil" purchases that I made many years ago and it is by far my best pot luck win, thanks mostly to my own curiousity as a novice collector. The seller had listed it as a silver victorian pencil/pen combo, engraved with the owner's name. I normally stay away from engraved items but this one was listed as silver, seemed to be in good condition, and I liked the look of the "split" slider for extending the pen/pencil, which I hadn't seen before. When it arrived I realized that what the seller had indicated was an engraved owner's name was actually an imprint of the maker's name - John Sheldon, and that what I had just purchased was an example of John Sheldon's "Unique Pocket Companion", made in Birmingham, U.K., and marketed in the 1840's as a complete "Magnum in Parvo" ("Much in a Small Space").

In total, the Sheldon includes an amazing 8 functions - pen, pencil, toothpick, sovereign gauge, letter balance (to determine postage due), seal, lead reservoir, and simple measurer (barrel is 4" long and it is divided exactly in the middle). Oh, and the seller had the item's casing material wrong as well - it wasn't silver; Sheldon made most of his pocket companion's in what is known as German silver, or nickel silver (copper, nickel, zinc), and it has no silver in it at all. This allowed Sheldon to produce complex writing tools and sell them at affordable prices. In addition, being harder than silver, the material ensured that the tool would hold up well under regular use. A rare find, although I have been able to acquire one other Sheldon more recently.