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 :


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 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".
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.
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!

Friday, 31 January 2020

The Tongue Of The Absent

If we could go back in time a few years... let's say maybe 150 or so... long before internet & cell phones, even before rotary phones and party lines, the effort required in order to keep in touch with friends and family members living or travelling beyond a very small geographic distance from ourselves ranged from being quite a challenge to being quite impossible.

The furthest back anyone alive today would be able to remember, in terms of long distance communication, would be the early days of the telephone. As a kid, our family home had a nice oak wall phone, similar to the one below, with the separate receiver piece that you held to your ear, and speaking piece that was mounted to the main unit, complete with a hand crank that one would use to notify the operator that you wanted to make a call (and operators were actually human beings back then!). We were connected to the rest of the world through the local community party line, allowing everyone in town to quietly listen in and stay current with your personal business.
The demise of the party line resulted in a very long dry spell in terms of gossiping and public shaming opportunities. Thank goodness Facebook finally came along!

But I digress... Prior to the telephone, and all that followed, the challenge of keeping in touch was met by putting pen to paper; the pen was "the tongue of the absent".

I stumbled across this phrase a few months ago and was struck by the depth of meaning behind its simplicity. Imagine for a moment how difficult it would be for most of us living today to actually sit and write a letter, knowing that this might be the only way to convey one's thoughts, and that the message itself may take weeks or months to reach the intended recipient. So many letters that survived that period in our history are filled with eloquent thoughts, put to paper with beautiful handwriting... with not a single "lmao", "lol", or "wtf" to be found.

Here are a few "tongues of the absent" from the collection that would have travelled with their owners during the mid to late 1800's ...

W.S. Hicks - This is a nice black hard rubber pen/pencil with gold filled trim. It is approx. 3 3/4" (9.5 cm) long when closed and 5 3/4" (14.5 cm) when extended as a pen. The barrel has the patent date of Dec. 24, 1867 imprinted on it, which is actually the patent date for a combo pencil/pen invented by Richard Ryne of New York, which he assigned over to Hicks. The pencil end pulls out and reverses to make use of it as a pen, which has a nice gold Mabie Todd #4 nib.

John Rauch - A solid gold pen/pencil combination made by the American maker John Rauch with attached ring to hang from a man's watch chain or perhaps a lady's chatelaine. It has an interesting extending inner barrel design that was used by a number of American pencil case makers in the mid-1800's, allowing the item to be quite compact when closed. It extends from 3.25" (8.0 cm) to a full 4.75" (12.5 cm) when the inner barrel and pen are extended. It has a solid gold Wahl nib which I believe is much newer than the combo itself.


Sampson Mordan - Most of my pencil/pen collection consists of Sampson Mordan items so I really had to include at least one of them here. This combo is quite special for a couple reasons, beyond simply because it's a Mordan. It was one of my first acquisitions almost 20 years ago when I first started collecting writing implements. It is in near mint condition, and everything functions perfectly. At the time, my interest was limited to pencils, so although acquiring this combo was interesting, I never even bothered to look at the nib until several years later. It was quite a surprise then to see that the nib was a rare solid gold Francis Mordan pen! Francis was Sampson Mordan’s son and he had his own business selling pens, nibs, ink, etc.

The inner part of the barrel pulls out and then there are two tiny sliders to extend the pen or the pencil. The extended inner barrel is embossed with "S. Mordan & Co." as well as the Mordan "arrow", indicating solid gold. It is 4.5" when the pen is fully extended.