Thursday, 3 February 2022

Well, Whaddya Know, Maude!

As kids growing up in the backwoods of Quebec in the mid-20th century, my siblings and I had somewhat limited exposure to our immediate relatives. We'd usually connect with our Ontario Aunts, Uncles, and cousins once every year or two, and with our Grandmother only slightly more often.

Our grandmother (Maude) was our only living grandparent, and lived several hundred miles away in Montreal, with her brother Les. When Grandma Mom decided to visit, it was Les who would do the driving. Maude and Les were born in England at the end of the 19th century and emigrated to Canada with their mother and two other siblings in 1913. In spite of the length of time they had lived here, the two of them retained their English "properness", and occasional "wackiness", throughout their entire lives.

Les was a fascinating character in every sense of the word. He would often go for a morning walk wearing a pair of gray wool dress slacks, held up with a pair of suspenders over a sleeveless undershirt covering his somewhat largish paunch (no shirt), his favourite white fedora, and a pair of nice plaid slippers; it was quite a sight. He was also quite a brilliant man in so many ways. He could often be found in his basement workshop crafting a variety of gadgets and gizmos. For a time as a young man he was a concert violinist, and reportedly once played in Carnegie Hall. He was also ambidextrous and could write with both hands at the same time, with the left hand producing a mirror image of the right. But to us he was just "Uncle Les".
Uncle Les's official retirement photo - fashion was not his forte

So what does ANY of that have to do with my collection of writing equipment? 

Well, as one can guess from the above, Les was a curious man at heart and in his own way he helped to instill that same sense of curiosity in us kids. He happily spent hours chatting with us, and whenever we'd share some nugget of what we believed to be childhood brilliance with him, he'd turn to our grandmother and say "Well waddya know Maude?" (likely with an accompanying quick wink). It was always said with sincerity, and never in a mocking or condescending way. It was his way of encouraging all of us as we discovered our world for ourselves.

My family has now had to live with my own use of that phrase for decades, whenever even the smallest snippet of a new discovery or fun fact passed through our lives. Over the past few weeks I've been revisiting some of my previous blog entries, along with their associated items from the collection, and what follows are a few of the fun facty entries I re-read that evoked a whispered "well, whaddya know, Maude" ... 

There are porcupines out there with quills that are over 30cm long - really! - A Prickly Business 
Mordan Quill Dip Pen - quill is over 18cm - late 19th c

Pencil makers acquired actual battlefield relics (bullets) to factory produce souvenir pencils - War Related Pencils
Bullet Pencil - Battle of Omdurman - 1898

The curious evolution of Lord Stanhope's one piece microscope - Instant Success Takes Time 
"Spotted Egg" Pencil with Stanhope - c1890

From a vine, high in the canopy of an equatorial rainforest, to a pencil factory in New York, to the wall of my office - Bean There, Done That
"Sea Bean" Pencil - c1880

When some pencil case makers helped others weather the storm during a major depression - Hard Times in the U.S.A.
Hard Times Token - John Hague - 1837












No matter one's interests, curiosity is what drives us to find out more, to question, to explore, to enjoy. Uncle Les helped me find countless "Well, whaddya know, Maude?" moments throughout my life and through my various collecting interests, and I'm now looking forward to discovering tomorrow's...

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Mordan's 1848 Catalogue "Unplugged"

For many collectors of Victorian pencils & penholders, the 1898 Sampson Mordan Catalogue is a familiar reference resource. Reproduced and published by Jim Marshall (The Vintage Pen & Pencil Gallery), this 28 page booklet provides a fascinating insight into the breadth of Mordan's offerings at the turn of the 20th century.

In addition, there are many single page advertising examples for various Mordan & Co. products that can be found online dating to various decades throughout the 1800's which can also be helpful in identifying and dating various items. 

And more recently, I came across a complete catalogue of S. Mordan and Co's product offerings that dates to 1848... 

Front Cover - 1848 Catalogue*
Inside Front Cover - 1848 Catalogue* 











Since I don't live in the U.K., the majority of my research efforts, as they relate to my collection, are conducted via the internet and existing published resources. In recent years, more and more research libraries and local/regional archives have made their collection catalogues available for online searches, greatly improving the opportunity for discovery of hidden gems. 

Every now and then I get the urge to spend a day, or three, wandering through some of these libraries and archives online, and last year the stars aligned for another round of sleuthing thanks in part to the recurring pandemic lockdowns.

While flailing around in one of many rabbit holes, I stumbled across a reference to an interesting collection of documents in the Cheshire Archives that had been donated by a member of the local Lowe family. Included in the catalogue for these family papers was a reference entry for an 1848 price list of Sampson Mordan & Co’s products. As I had never seen, or heard of, this price list before, the possibility that a complete catalogue existed that pre-dated the 1898 catalogue by 50 years immediately caught my attention! 


Several weeks later, and at a cost approximating that of an actual Mordan pencil of the same year, I received a download of high resolution scans of the complete 1848 catalogue, 72 pages in total, containing illustrations and pricing for the Mordan product line from 174 years ago.


Included in the catalogue are descriptions and pricing for a wide range of their products - pencils (silver, gold, figural, etc.), penholders, quill pens, steel pens, postage scales, copying presses, safes & locks, inkstands, perfume bottles, vinaigrettes, medicine chests, and more. The first, and largest section of the catalogue is focused on the "Patent Ever-pointed Pencil". With almost a third of the catalogue being devoted to their line of pencil cases, it is clear that this was Mordan's "bread & butter" product line at the time.


Silver Pistol Cases - 

3 sizes of Pistols in silver & gilt*
Example of silver pistol from my collection 

















The "Victoria Pattern" silver pencil cases had 21 variations available - 

"Victoria Pattern" 21 options*


"Victoria Pattern" combo from my collection














Mordan's "Gothic" gold pencil cases offered the discerning buyer a range of 2 styles in 3 different sizes, and as the catalogue points out, they are "A most elegant Article" - 


Gothic Gold Case*


Gothic Gold Case from my collection



















Copying Presses - 


Mordan copying press from my collection
Overview of available copying presses*


















Portable leather Travelling Inkstands - 


Portable travelling inkstands*

Mordan travelling inkstand from my collection



There are of course many, many, more pages in the catalogue, covering quite an extensive range of items. The inside back cover page of the catalogue provides a nice overall summary, and the outside of the back cover offers the reader "A Peep Into The Manufactory" (an illustrated look at the 13 steps involved in the production of the Mordan steel pen).



Inside rear cover*
Outside rear cover*

The above images are simply intended to "wet the appetite" by providing a few examples of pages from the catalogue, along with some similar examples from my collection. Other collectors will have even better examples of these and many other items found in the catalogue, I'm sure. The 1848 catalogue is intriguing not just for its age, but it also provides a broader, and more interesting, insight into what writing equipment was most sought after by the "buying public" at the time. While it may help fill in some blanks for some of us collectors, it also raises new questions (at least it did in my case).  

The introduction to the catalogue's pencil section includes the following assurance to prospective buyers - "To avoid all inconvenience, the following caution will insure the purchase of a genuine article :- See that each Pencil has the name, "S. Mordan & Co." stamped, on the body of the case."  I found this interesting as the makers mark commonly associated with the years 1845-1852 is "S. Mordan & Co. Makers" with "S. Mordan & Co." not becoming the mark until 1853.


I was also curious as to who the "Lowe's" were and why they would have had a copy of a Mordan catalogue in their family records. Apparently, the Lowe family has been a well known Chester family of jewellers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and assayers, for past 250 years or so. Lowe & Sons was established in 1770 by George Lowe, and while the business is no longer owned by the family, the business still carries on under the same name. The Mordan catalogue would have likely been used in the jewellery shop and then kept in their files for some unknown reason, eventually finding its way into the Chester Archives.


The catalogue also included a few oddball items that seemed rather incongruous, until you delve a little further into Sampson Mordan's personal history. 

A variety of cabinet and other locks*
Lathes & self-centering chucks*

At the beginning of his career, Sampson Mordan was an apprentice with Joseph Bramah. Among Bramah's inventions was the famous (at the time) Bramah Lock. Mordan developed his own lock making skills during this period, and Mordan & Co. eventually became well known for their locks. Another of Mordan's accomplishments was the invention (or perhaps the refinement of an existing invention?) of a self-centering lathe chuck specifically designed to address production issues in his pencil factory. In 1828, the Royal Society of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce awarded Mordan "The Large Silver Medal for his self-centering lathe chuck". More info on Mordan's professional connections and how they helped shape the Mordan product line over time can be found here.


And lastly, included in the catalogue are several versions of a "Styloxynon"... What the heck is a Styloxynon? Hint : The oldest surviving example of this device was patented in the UK in 1833, and any of us that have ever used a wooden pencil have also used a more modern version of it...



* All images from the 1848 Mordan catalogue have been used with permission from the Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, Cheshire Record Office, Chester. My thanks to all the staff at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies for their assistance in finding, retrieving, and copying the original document for me, as well as their patience in answering my many questions associated with the process.  

Sources :

Sampson Mordan 1898 Catalogue - The Pen & Pencil Gallery, ISBN 978-0-9562711

S. Mordan & Co's List of Prices - January, 1848 - Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, ZCR 24/23 

Lowe Family History Information - The Monuments at Bunbury Church, Cheshire, Part 2,  pages 103-104, 1918, The Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire


Monday, 31 May 2021

This Mammoth Isn't Extinct... Yet

The father of a friend of ours passed away last year, and our friend was the Executor of the estate. Over a period of several months since then he has been working his way through his dad's home and sorting through his various collections. His father was in his 90's when he passed away. He had always been an avid collector, amassing several very respectable, and valuable, collections including cameras, record albums, and currency, during his lifetime. Sadly, he was not an avid collector of antique writing equipment!

Over the winter months we'd occasionally hear an update about the latest "finds" amongst his dad's collections, as he gradually curated them and found new caretakers for them; more cameras, more albums, and more coins.

Then, a little over a month ago, I received an email from him indicating that while cleaning out his dad's office he had come across a number of pens and pencils. Was I interested in having a look? YES!

He forewarned me that most seemed to be advertising pens that his dad accumulated wherever he went - hotels, car dealerships, restaurants, etc. but that there might be a few things of interest. He had two shoe boxes full of stuff. I could go through it and make an offer if I thought there was anything of value. 

There were indeed many, many, give-away pens. There were also more than a few excellent quality items in the boxes, although all but one was from the last 40 years or so. We agreed on a price for all and I was able to offset the purchase by selling off the majority of the items (yes, there are even collectors of dried up hotel ballpoint pens!). 

Out of everything in the two shoe boxes, I've kept just 3 items. All 3 are in like-new, unused condition, but only one qualifies as antique, and has been added to my own collection. Finding it in amongst all of the other, much more modern, stuff was quite a surprise. It was oddly out of place, and it made my day ...


The Esterbrook Mammoth Falcon # 340 - This pen nib is HUGE! At just under 2 1/2" long, it requires its own special pen holder (also quite large). To provide a bit of scale, here it is next to a more standard size Esterbrook nib from the same period (an Esterbrook Relief #314).


The following Esterbrook advertisement from the Publisher's Trade List Annual of 1884 describes the Mammoth in detail...

I'm not entirely sure how to interpret "We also recommend its use to elderly gentlemen, because of its firmness and smoothness of point.", but hopefully one day this particular elderly gentleman will stumble across one of the original Esterbrook Mammoth pen holders and be able to test it out! 

For our friend, the true mystery remained - why would this single 140 year old unused nib appear amongst his father's office items? He had no other antique writing equipment of any sort. 

From my own experience as a collector, my suspicion is that it simply fell into his lap as part of a lot while purchasing items for one of his various collections, and once in his possession he couldn't part with it. Case in point - amongst my own writing equipment collection I also have an assortment of cigarette package trading cards from the early 20th century, a victorian traveller's candle holder/light reflector, a couple of first day postal covers from the 60's, and several other odds and sods that were all acquired that way. They arrived without being specifically sought after, and so far they have refused to leave. I suspect that just like the Mammoth nib, one day these items will have my own kids scratching their heads as they try and figure out what to do with it all. 

And what about the other two items that I kept? - While neither qualify to join my antique writing equipment collections, they are both welcome additions to my "why not" collection - the first is a Faber Castell e-Motion mechanical pencil from a few years back. It will be staying for at least awhile as I really like both its great design and the rich green colour. The second is a lovely LAMY 2000 fountain pen stamped W. Germany, placing its manufacture sometime prior to 1991. I know virtually nothing about fountain pens, but this is now my 4th; I'd better be careful! 

Both pencil and fountain pen are unused, for now...







Saturday, 26 September 2020

"Handy" Little Items



"The hand is the tool of tools" - so said Aristotle, a little over 2300 years ago.

Over time, our tool of tools gradually came to represent many different aspects of the human condition, and by the Victorian era there were disembodied hands popping up just about everywhere, as they came to symbolize anything and everything deemed positive at the time - strength, fidelity, loyalty, romance...

This peculiar attachment to the unattached human hand resulted in a wide variety of household items being fashioned in ways that incorporated a hand, often female in appearance, and almost always the right. This included household items such as vases & dishes, and personal items such as jewellery & walking canes...


... and of course ... pencils...



These three little pencils all date to the latter half of the 19th century. They are fairly tiny - the two gold ones are only 3.5" (9 cm) when fully extended.



The silver one is even smaller, at just 2.75" (7 cm) fully extended.





Given the size of these pencils and the attached ring on a couple of them, they were likely attached to ladies' chatelaines, or perhaps a small neck chain. 

So why is the right hand the predominant one portrayed in the design of all of these items and pencils?  The symbolism of the right hand has a long history of positive messaging, with various religions and cultures showing a clear bias towards the right. In Christianity for example, it is a place of honour - "the right hand of God". Many cultures imposed "rules" that governed which hand was used for which bodily function, with the right hand generally being the favoured one (e.g. for eating, greeting, etc.), and the left hand ... well, let's just not go there. Basically, since the beginning of time the left hand drew the short straw, and those born left hand dominant were often forced to "convert" and learn to use their right, often causing more harm than good - Left Hand Bias

For the most part we've gotten over the left vs. right debate (at least in terms of our appendages), and as unique as our hands may be in the animal kingdom, the disembodied hand has become far less of a "thing" since the mid-20th century... at least until this came along...   "Thing T. Thing"

Sources :
- Wikipedia
- YouTube
- Images of vase, brooch, and cane downloaded from internet


Wednesday, 5 August 2020

"Mor dan" Just An Inkstand

James Watt is credited with inventing a document copying device in 1780 (although he is far more widely known for his work with steam engines). As is so often the case, necessity was the mother of invention. Watt apparently found it quite frustrating not having copies of his business correspondence unless he manually reproduced them. With this invention he was able to "automate" the process and retain his own copies of all his letters and documents.

The mid-1800's saw a significant growth in demand for copying devices and a quick scan of the catalog of the Great Exhibition of 1851 indicates that amongst the exhibitors there were more than a dozen manufacturers of copying presses, along with many suppliers of copying papers and special copying inks.









During this period, S. Mordan & Co. created a number of different styles of copying presses, including this screw press/inkstand combination, with a design registration date of March 4, 1856, registration # 3813. Interestingly, it appears that Mordan had a small "copying" problem of their own when they made these as the registration number impressed into the brass handle of the press is shown as "3183" although the design number recorded by the British Patents, Designs, and Trade Marks Office at the time was "3813".




This 1879 stationery catalog advertisement shows a near identical copying press. According to the Bank of England's Inflation Calculator, the original price of approx. £3 would be somewhere around£400 ($700 CAD) in today's currency values.


In its simplest form, making a copy with a copying press consisted of taking an original document and layering it with a thin, dampened, translucent paper, then sandwiching the two sheets between two oiled sheets of paper to prevent ink bleeding, and inserting it all into the press. By using pressure some of the ink from the original would be transferred to the copy as a mirror image of the original. Hence the reason for using thin translucent paper as one would simply flip the copy over for it to be readable. This basic process upon which the Watt press was based remained in use for over 100 years. The use of copy presses began to decline in popularity as carbon paper and typewriters came onto the scene towards the end of the 19th century, although some were known to still be in use well into the 20th century.

These two pics show the internal "press" board with the brass plate that receives the outer brass screw, and the original instructions, still affixed to the underside of the press plate.


I have yet to actually try using the copying press but will eventually find the appropriate inks and papers to do so.


Sources :

Wikipedia

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Filling The Gaps

There are currently over 120 Mordan pencils in my writing equipment collection. Most of them can only be dated to within a few years of their manufacture based upon the maker's mark used at the time of production, as many early pencils were not stamped with full hallmarks.

Not long after John Hawkins and Sampson Mordan filed the first patent for a mechanical pencil in December, 1822, Hawkins was bought out and Sampson Mordan and Gabriel Riddle became business partners (October, 1823 through the end of 1836). Finding examples from the Mordan/Riddle partnership period with full, clear, hallmarks and in good working condition can be a challenge. However, the increased home time during the current pandemic situation has resulted in significantly more screen time for me, which occasionally translates to time spent searching the globe for new sources of items for the collection, trying to fill some of the gaps.

For quite some time now I have been slowly assembling examples of pencils from each year of the partnership of Sampson Mordan and Gabriel Riddle. One of the longest-standing gaps in this grouping has been an example of an 1829 Mordan/Riddle. In April, I came across one that was listed online at an antique shop in the UK and I snapped it up.

"S.MORDAN & Co:s PATENT" - 1829 - includes "SM-GR" maker's mark, which was used from 1824-1830, as well as full hallmarks for London, 1829. For a mechanical device that is 191 years old, this pencil is in amazing condition ; the hallmarks are clear, the casing is clean (no dents or dings in the silver, and no sign of rubbing), the tip is undamaged, and the mechanism is fully functional.

Mordan/Riddle - 1829
Mordan/Riddle 1829

Hallmarked London 1829
Waffle seal







While this fills one opening in the collection, there are still a few examples from the early 1830's that I need to find.

And for those that might be mildly curious, here are some examples of a other early Mordan hallmarks & maker's mark combinations ...

"MORDAN & Co PATENT" - This maker's mark was used in 1823 & 1824 - The combo below is an example of one of these very early Mordans. It has been well used by previous owners, as evidenced by the rubbing and minor dings, but the markings are still visible, and the pencil and pen holder mechanisms remain fully functional. The nib (pen) holder has a  Joseph Bramah clip, and the lion passant appears in several places, certifying the quality of the silver. It is approx. 13 cm long (5.25") when extended.
Mordan Combo - 1823/1824
Bramah Clip

MORDAN & Co PATENT
Mordan Combo - Double-ended


This little aide memoire, or tablet, pencil has a nicely engraved barrel and is only 8.5 cm (3.25") long. The maker's mark on it is a bit of a mystery. At first glance the maker's mark appears to the the same as above - "MORDAN & Co PATENT". However, if you look closely, there appears to be the remnants of a very faint "S" just to the left of "MORDAN".
"S"? MORDAN & Co PATENT
A "mystery" or a "missed read"?

I have not been able to find any references to Mordan having ever used "S MORDAN & Co PATENT" as a maker's mark. Without the "S", it is an 1823-1824 pencil, but if that is an "S" then I'm not sure where it fits in, although likely within the same general time period. Perhaps it is filling a gap I didn't even know existed?







"S.MORDAN & Co MAKERS & PATENTEES" - There were a few variations of this maker's mark which were used from 1830-1844. This mark, along with a hallmark that included "SM-GR" indicated a manufactured date period between 1830-1836, while "S-M" on its own was used from 1837-1844.
S.MORDAN & Co MAKERS & PATENTEES 1830-1844
This pencil has the maker's mark above but is absent of other markings/ hallmarks that would help narrow its date of production, so the manufacture date range is a 15 year period, from 1830-1844. The pencil is 11 cm (4.5") when extended. It is fully functional, with a rarer "onion" finial.




"S.MORDAN & Co MAKERS" - This maker's mark was used from 1845 - 1852. This pencil is also in working order; it has a very slender barrel (just 5 mm in diameter vs. 10 mm for 1829 pencil). It is 11 cm (4.5") when extended and has a shield-shaped finial .

S.MORDAN & Co MAKERS 1845-1852












With the variety of markings that Mordan used, along with the rarity of the early, fully hallmarked examples, filling all the gaps may be impossible, but the search is always fun... the biggest downside is that staying at home for too long may quickly become quite expensive!