Wednesday, July 18, 2012

John Rendell, gold pen pioneer

The invention of the iridium-tipped gold nib was revolutionary, transforming the manufacture of dip pens and making possible the later development of the fountain pen as a mass-market product. But beyond the bare basics -- Hawkins' invention in England, sale to Cleveland, manufacture brought to America, and production under Levi Brown -- the history of the early years of American gold nib production remains woefully unstudied.

I have recently been doing research on Leroy W. Fairchild, one of the biggest names in American 19th-century writing equipment manufacture. This led me to try to find out more about Fairchild's former employer and first partner, John Rendell -- now all but forgotten, but a figure of considerable importance in the early history of American gold nib manufacture.

Those who recognize Rendell's name have likely run across it in the account published in Johnson's Universal Cyclopædia (vol. 6, 1889, p. 184), under "Pen":
Among the men in his [Levi Brown's] employ was Mr. John Rendell, whom, by common consent, the pen-manufacturers acknowledge to have done more for the advancement of this industry than any and all other men. He invented a number of machines for the different processes of making the pens and for tempering them, giving them the elasticity of the quill with the permanency of the metal; organized a complete division of labor among the workmen, giving to each one his peculiar branch of the manufacture; and in short revolutionized the entire business. His machines were purchased by other parties who were desirous of entering upon the business, and by their use the pens of Bagley, Barney, Hayden, and others attained a fair reputation. Mr. Rendell associated with himself first Mr. Spencer, and six years later Mr. Dixon, and the pens of Spencer & Rendell, and later Spencer, Rendell & Dixon, soon became known as the best in the market.
Unfortunately, this account is somewhat vague when it comes to dates. At least some dates can be nailed down by reference to the awards given out by the American Institute, however, for in 1846, Levi Brown was given a silver medal for the best gold pens, with Spencer alone receiving a diploma for second best. In 1847 the silver medal for best gold pens was awarded to Spencer & Rendell, and in 1848 the firm was awarded a gold medal, Levi Brown receiving silver for second best. The run of top awards continued in the following years, but in 1849 and 1850 the name of the company was now listed as Spencer, Rendell & Dixon. The awards were given in October of each year, which would suggest that the original partnership of Spencer & Rendell was formed between October 1846 and October 1847, and that Dixon joined the partnership between October 1848 and October 1849 [Although if the six years of the Universal Cyclopaedia account is to be credited, Rendell may already have been associated with Spencer c. 1842-43, which would be consistent with Fairchild's later claim of succession back to 1843 - D.]. For the change from Spencer, Rendell & Dixon back to Spencer & Rendell, we have more precise documentation, in the form of an announcement published in the New York Daily Tribune, January 1, 1851, p. 1, col. 5:
DISSOLUTION.--The Co-partnership
heretofore existing between the subscribers at No. 2
Maiden-lane, under the style and firm of Spencer, Rendell
& Dixon, is this day dissolved by mutual agreement, the
business to be continued by Spencer & Rendell, at the same
place, who are authorized to settle all accounts of the late
Two years later, Rendell and Spencer finally parted ways. The following appeared in the New York Daily Tribune on January 19, 1853, p. 2, col. 4, and also announced the formation of a new partnership between Rendell and his former employee, Leroy W. Fairchild:
NOTICE is hereby given that the copartnership heretofore existing under the name, style and firm of SPENCER & RENDELL, is this day dissolved by mutual consent, and affairs of the late copartnership will be settled by JOHN RENDELL, who is authorized to use the name of the firm in liquidation.
New-York, January 14, 1853.
The undersigned have this day formed a copartnership under the name, style and firm of RENDELL & FAIRCHILD, and will continue the manufacturing  of Gold Pens at Nos. 132 and 134 William-st.
In the years following, there were various advertisements for Rendell & Fairchild, "successors to Spencer & Rendell", and John Rendell himself is listed in Brooklyn city directories as a gold pen manufacturer, working at 132 William Street in Manhattan, and residing on Pearl Street in Brooklyn. Then, on February 3, 1859, this report appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that this is one and the same John Rendell, as there are no others by that name in the city directories of the time, and on the same page there is a death notice stating that the funeral will be held at 266 Pearl, his last listed address. His age was there given as 47 years and 11 months. A similar notice in the New York Daily Tribune of the same date gives the site of the accident with more specificity, as the office of a Dr. Meaden, Fulton Street near Vanderbilt Avenue.

If Rendell had indeed withdrawn from active involvement in the gold pen business some two years before his death, I have not found any evidence that the partnership of Rendell & Fairchild was at any point dissolved. A help wanted ad for a gold pen grinder from September 1858, invites applicants to contact Leroy W. Fairchild, with no mention of Rendell.

Other researchers have stated that Rendell was an English emigrant. In the 1850 census, he is listed as born in England around 1812, living in Brooklyn in Ward 4. This is an area that demands further work, however, along with the question of his early background and training. And it seems that innovative as his nibmaking machines were, they received no patents -- at least, not under Rendell's own name. Clarification of Rendell's partnership history, however, does suggest that Leroy W. Fairchild was stretching the truth more than a little when he promoted his business as having been founded in 1843. That date might represent when Fairchild first entered the nibmaking business, but that would have been as an employee, not as an owner.

UPDATE: The notice below from the May 16 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle may provide some background to Rendell's decline:

It was not just her husband John that Caroline M. Rendell would have left behind. The 1850 census records seven children: Maria J., 16; another Caroline M., 14, another John, 10; Willet S., 8; Margaret C., 6, Mary L., 3; and Spencer, 1. They had one female servant, age 21, and owned no real estate. What happened to some of the Rendell children is not entirely clear, but none that I have been able to trace ended up notably prosperous [but see the update below - D.]. In contrast, John Rendell's younger partner, Leroy W. Fairchild, whose circumstances as recorded in the 1860 census were much like Rendell's in 1850, had become a wealthy man by 1870, as the gold nib industry came into its own.

The only living descendents of John Rendell for which I can find evidence are through his son, Willet S. Rendell, and his sons, John Hamilton and Willet Graham Rendell [more found since -- see below].

This small cardboard box probably dates to 1851-53.

UPDATE: More information from a date only shortly after Rendell's demise is found in the entry for "Pen" in The New American Cyclopaedia (vol. 13, 1861, p. 101):
The first machines, and almost the only important ones in use applicable to the different branches of this work, were invented by Mr. John Rendell, who was employed by Mr. Brown. He continned to make these machines of various forms and of extraordinary perfection from the year 1844, and furnished them to Mr. Bagley and Mr. Barney, who were well known as among the early makers of gold pens. To these inventions is chiefly due the excellence of the gold pens made in this country. Mr. Rendell systematized the process, giving to each workman his peculiar branch, and thus a nicety and certainty of good work were attained by each one which was essential to the perfection of the pen. The processes employed are more numerous and delicate than one not acquainted with the manufacture would readily imagine. In the factory of Mr. Leroy W. Fairchild in New York they are now conducted with the original machines of Mr. Rendell, and the improvements and additions to these made by Mr. Fairchild have materially contributed to the peculiar delicacy, elasticity, and finish of the perfect pen. In 1850 the business had grown to such importance in this establishment, that a steam engine was procured for running the machines, the first application of steam power to this purpose. The number of pens which such a factory may produce depends entirely upon the amount of care and labor spent on each one. Of the more common sorts 300 may be made in a day as readily as 500 in a week of the best. 
The article goes on to describe the nibmaking process in some detail, an account clearly based upon the practice at Fairchild's factory, the immediate continuation of Rendell's.

UPDATE: It seems at least one of John Rendell's children enjoyed a prosperous life. His son, also named John Rendell, became a respected Brooklyn doctor. Born on March 6, 1840, he died on September 16, 1897, of injuries sustained while trying to calm his young carriage horse. Notices of his death also state that his father, our nibmaking John Rendell, was born in London, whereas his mother, née Caroline Matilda Smith, was born in Hempstead, Long Island. He left behind a widow, Mary Ann Rendell (née Excell), who lived until January 4, 1917 (Brooklyn Eagle, Jan 6, 1917, p. 20), sons William Ovington and Robert Excell, and two daughters, Viola Aurelia and Alice Lavinia. Viola's wedding was reported in the Brooklyn Eagle of Apr 25, 1895 (p. 4), including the presence of a few Fairchild women. I have not yet been able to determine how they might have been related to Leroy W. Fairchild, and what this might imply concerning a continuing relationship between the Rendell and Fairchild families.

I should also note that my initial conclusion that the Rendell orphans did not make out notably well was based upon the entry in the 1880 US census, where the younger John Rendell is recorded as a butcher. In fact, he only became a doctor at the age of 45, finishing his medical studies in 1885. In the 1870 US census he is listed as 24 years old, without any occupation, but it may be significant that the head of the adjacent household was a butcher named John Sweeney -- though the 1875 New York State census records the future doctor's occupation as "Ice Business". On balance, it would still seem that Dr. Rendell largely made his own way. Another bit of possible evidence of this is a series of notices in the Brooklyn Eagle (Feb 24, 1868, p. 5; also Mar 9, 16 and; Apr 6, 27) under property to be sold for unpaid taxes for 1866, where "Heirs John Rendell" are listed as $100.46 delinquent on the lot and house on the west side of Pearl, between Tillary and Johnson Streets. Whether the sale eventually took place, I have not been able to determine. The site is now occupied by the New York Institute of Technology, and Pearl Street no longer extends through these blocks.

Regarding the senior John Rendell, one more date (to be used with the usual cautions) is provided in Harper's Weekly, vol. 16, Jan 27, 1872, p. 75:
The gold pen was first manufactured in this country. LEVI BROWN, a watch-maker of Detroit, commenced it in Detroit in 1835, but did not meet with much success until 1840, when he removed to this city. At first the pens were cut with scissors into shape from a thin flat strip of gold. In 1844 a machine for their manufacture was invented by Mr. JOHN RENDELL, which has since undergone many improvements, and by which all gold pens are now manufactured.


Wren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

John Rendell is my 3x great-grandfather. I have some additional history on him, passed down through my family. He is thought to have been born in Guernsey (Channel Islands). His son, John Rendell, M.D., was my 2x great-grandfather and very notable in Brooklyn. If you search the Brooklyn Daily Eagle again, you'll find articles about him, including his death by injury by his horse.

Thank you so much for your extensive history on John Rendell. It helped fill some holes for me in my family research.

David said...

I will follow up on this -- thank you for sharing your information.

AH Ren said...

Thank you. The Guernsey (Channel Island) reference coincides with verbal history passed on to me. I am also related to John Rendell MD. I am a descendent of his son Robert Excell Rendell. - A.H. Rendell