Monday, 3 September 2018

Figural Travelling Inkwells

Travelling inkwells of the late 1800's took on many forms; some were designed for function over style in order to ensure that the ink remained in its container no matter how arduous the form of travel, some were made from precious metals and exotic materials to reflect the social status of the owner, and some were designed primarily as a novelty, with any concern over potential ink leakage taking a backseat to the creativity of the design. 

These novelty travelling inkwells would often be purchased to be given as gifts, or picked up as a souvenir during one's travels. We've all been in that situation while vacationing, not knowing what to pick up for our loved ones back home - "What should we get for Aunt Harriet? She's impossible to buy for!" "Well, she likes hats so let's get her an inkwell that looks like a hat box!". 

Maybe the conversations didn't always go exactly like that, but there was an almost endless variety of figural inkwells made, and fortunately many have survived in spite of their somewhat inferior quality. 

Regardless of the exterior shape of the figural travelling inkwell, most of them are very similar in terms of their inner workings and how they were made. 

"Hat Box" - snake skin covering
A pressure clip is pushed to open the inkwell's outer case, which then reveals an inner casing consisting of a secondary hinged lid as well as another pressure clip that holds it in place. 

"Hat Box"- inner casing
The glass inkwell is revealed once this secondary lid is opened. The inside of the inner lid would normally be lined in either leather or cork so that a reasonably good seal is formed with the glass bottle when closed. The casing and most of the fittings were made from brass and formed into a wide variety of shapes. 
"Hat Box" - bottle and leather seal

Various types of leather were used to cover the outer casings, including shagreen and snake skin.  

Here are a couple of other figural inkwells in my collection...
"Heart" - engraved brass interior


Saturday, 18 August 2018

Well, Well, If It Isn't His Nibs

Why, yes, yes it is his nibs... and some of the boxes in which they reside.

While trying to come up with a title for an entry about some of my pen nib boxes, I was reminded of childhood visits with our grandmother. She grew up in England at the turn of the 20th century and she retained a number of common British sayings her entire life, after emigrating to Canada as a teenager. As 1960's rural Quebec kids, most of these sayings made little sense to us, but she made sure that we always knew what she meant! If one of the 5 of us started to get a little too self-important, or bossy, she'd soon have the cheeky one back in her/his place with an eyebrows raised stony glare, and the words "well, well, would you look at his nibs?" in her finest British accent. But I digress...

Victorian era pen nib manufacturers created an amazing variety of nib styles and sizes to suit every writing need and personal preference. Manufacturers were also very astute to the whims of the buying public when it came to marketing their products, resulting in nibs being designed and produced not just for their functional purpose but often simply to commemorate someone, or something, in much the same way as sports memorabilia is produced today. Here are a few...

Sir Josiah Mason's "John Bull Pen" - Josiah Mason (1795-1881) was an English industrialist and at one time was the largest pen producer in England. He was also a major philanthropist. In 1860 he founded an orphanage near Birmingham which he endowed with £300,000, which led to his being knighted in 1872. In 1875 he founded Mason Science College which eventually became University of Birmingham. Mason's John Bull pen pays homage to England's famous national character, John Bull

J. Alexandre's "Baron Von Humboldt Pen" - These nibs were made by Perry & Co. around 1860 (the nib box contains a facsimile of part of a letter of approval from the Baron to J. Alexandre dated May 19, 1858).  Baron Von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, and explorer. He was one of the first to propose that South America and Africa were once connected, and he was the first person to identify human induced climate change (in 1800 and in 1831) based upon his observations during his travels.

Perry & Co. "Queen Mary Pen" - During the First World War, Perry & Co. received approval from Queen Mary (1867-1953) to produce a limited run of 20,000 boxes of these nibs, as a fund-raiser for the Queen's "Work for Women" fund.

Mumm & Zaum "Christian IX Pen" - Mumm & Zaum was a major continental Europe stationer in the late 1800's. One their commemorative pens was made for Christian IX (1818-1906), King of Denmark from 1863 to 1906. What I particularly like about these nibs is that they were each impressed with the image of the King. 

As a young man, Christian had hoped to marry Queen Victoria, his 3rd cousin. When that plan was foiled he married his second cousin, Louise of Hess-Kassel. They had 6 children, 4 of whom actually sat on thrones throughout Europe, either as monarchs or consorts (Denmark, United Kingdom, Russia, and Greece). His descendants include Margretthe II of Denmark, Elizabeth II of England, Philippe of Belgium, Harald V of Norway, Felipe VI of Spain, Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg, Constantine II of Greece, Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, Queen Sofia of Spain, and Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, earning him the sobriquet "the father-in-law of Europe".

Sources :

Grace's Guide to British Industrial History

Monday, 23 July 2018

A Special Pencil My Way Came - Carpe Diem

As collectors, we are always on the hunt for that next special item that will enhance our existing collection. It may be for something rarer than anything we currently have; it may be for something to fill a specific gap in our collection, or it may just be to find a better example of an item we already possess.

But sometimes that special item finds us first ...

During a recent visit to the U.K. I attended my first pen show and I was quite impressed with the range of writing equipment on display. While I have a fondness for fountain pens, my collecting interests are in other writing related areas and I was unsure as to whether a "pen show" would provide  me with much opportunity to find anything other than fountain pens; I was wrong.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I was encouraged to attend the show by couple of UK collectors. One of them was also going to have a table at the show and he was kind enough to bring a variety of writing related items for me to view. As a pen show novice my intent was to just look, listen, & learn; don't touch anything without invitation; and especially try to avoid buying anything this first time round!

Arriving at the show just after it opened, I spent the first half hour or so wandering the hall and checking out the wide range of fountain pens on offer; everything from early vintage pens to the most modern; some with price tags that were quite affordable, and some that were simply hard to believe could be that expensive. A few vendors had a smattering of pencils, dip pens, or other writing related items that caught my eye but I kept moving until I eventually arrived at the table of the vendor that I had corresponded with.

His offerings included a range of books on collecting writing equipment (I purchased two), a variety of fountain pens, some incredible early dip pens, and a variety of early mechanical pencils. Thankfully (for me) the show was somewhat quiet at that point so the two of us were able to chat for quite some time and I learned a lot from him as I was shown (and allowed to hold) some of the rarer pencils that he had available. Several of them were of interest to me but they were each well outside what I felt I could afford to spend. I eventually thanked him for his generosity in sharing some of his wealth of knowledge with me and I left with just the two books.

But thoughts of two of his pencils kept spinning through my head all afternoon and soon my good intentions and I were well on our way down that proverbial paved road. Within a few hours of leaving the show I was back in touch with the vendor; we worked out an agreeable package deal for the pair and about a week later they arrived.

Both pencils are exceptional and both quite rare, but in very different ways. An earlier blog entry described the first one - "And Here's To You Mr. Robertson".

The second pencil lacks the provenance of the Robertson "traveller", but it more than makes up for that with its shear beauty.

This is an 18CT gold enamelled pencil by S. Mordan; adorned around the finial, slider, and base, with a total of 20 seed pearls. It is not hallmarked, but it is believed to date to about 1840 (the custom fitted case that the pencil resides in is from the retailer "Halstaff & Co."; that name and the accompanying London Regent Street address in the box were only used between 1838 & 1842).

The intricate enamel work on the solid gold casing, along with the seed pearls, also fit nicely into that timeframe as it matches with some styles of jewellery that were fashionable during the early "Romantic Period" of Queen Victoria's reign (1837 until Albert's death in 1861).
I went to the show intentionally not seeking to expand my collection and failed miserably...carpe diem!  

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