Monday, August 6, 2012

Invention and investment: How the iridium-tipped gold nib came to America

By the second half of the 19th century, accounts of the origin of the iridium-tipped gold nib were already getting confused and contradictory. Had it not been for nibmaker John Foley's interest in setting down the facts, the story might never have been untangled. Fortunately, in 1875 Foley published a short but detailed history based upon his own correspondence with the men most closely involved, most notably Aaron Porter Cleveland and John Isaac Hawkins. This was bound as part of his firm's catalog, yet there is nothing in the account that suggests that as an historical record it was to any significant extent distorted by commercial considerations.

Hawkins was an extraordinary character, feelingly eulogized in 1885 as follows:
He was a wonderfully prolific inventor, was a martyr to inventive genius; ever at work upon 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 died in New Jersey in 1855, poor and obscure, but he appears to have been characteristically open and forthcoming in responding to Foley's queries about the invention of the iridium-tipped nib. His testimony is no less valuable, however, in clarifying how his invention was eventually commercialized:
"While at Birmingham," Mr. Hawkins says, " I concluded an agreement with the Rev. Charles Cleveland, brother-in-law of Mr. Simeon Hyde, of New York, for the sale of the business, and by his desire transferred all my right to his brother, Mr. Aaron Porter Cleveland, for the sum of three hundred pounds sterling ($1,500) then in hand paid, and a percentage arising from the sale of Pens. This transfer is dated August 22, 1835; and one point in the agreement was an engagement on my part to stop in New York and instruct a confidential workman of his nomination there, in the art or process of making the Pens . . . [p. 64]
This is corroborated by a letter from Aaron Porter Cleveland, responding to Foley's request for information:
New Orleans, La., April 8th, 1875.

DEAR SIR : -- I received yours of March 23d yesterday.

The secret and instructions for making the Gold Pen were purchased by me from the inventor, Mr. Hawkins, for £300, in the spring of 1836. I learned to make the Pen, and sold a few in London before I left at £1 each. The gold was tempered by the hammer and the points put on with a blow pipe and ground with sharp emery. Four Pens were all that a good workman could finish in one day. I returned to New York in the fall, and by Mr. Hyde's request, taught Mr. Levi Brown how to make the Pen in October, 1836. I made but one or two Pens in doing so. I had no interest in the matter except to make the purchase for Mr. Hyde, learn the process of  making, and teach any one he might designate.

Yours respectfully,

Simeon Hyde (1784-1853) was thus the driving force behind the successful commercialization of the gold nib, and he is presented in that role in a number of 19th-century reference works (examples here and here). Rev. Charles Cleveland (b. 1804) and Aaron Porter Cleveland (1809-1885) were the much younger brothers of Hyde's wife, and though other references credit them for the transmission of the new technology to the United States, Foley's evidence leaves no doubt that both were working for Hyde and under his direction. Hyde was a successful New York City merchant, and this was not his first venture into an improved pen. In the 1834 fair of the American Institute, a diploma was awarded to W. Ackerman for a "patent jewel pen . . . Offered by Simeon Hyde, 401 Fourth street". In another account, Ackerman's pen was described as "a gold pen, with points made of a valuable jewel" -- leaving no doubt that Hyde had been keeping a close eye on the latest improvements in nib technology, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hyde had paid a substantial sum for Hawkins' invention, and surely intended to profit by it. All sources agree that it was Levi Brown, then a jeweler in Detroit, whom Hyde chose to put Hawkins' nibs into production in the United States. What none of the sources so much as allude to, however, were the terms of the agreement. Was Brown working for Hyde? Or -- more likely, given that Brown was already a man with a well-established business of his own -- was there some sort of partnership? But if so, why, as Levi Brown establishes himself as America's first manufacturer of iridium-tipped gold nibs, do we hear nothing more of Simeon Hyde? Was Hyde a very silent silent partner? Or did Brown end up buying him out? It is also possible that Hyde sold out to Brown from the beginning, and that the reason he had to go all the way to Detroit, was that he wasn't just looking for someone capable of learning nib manufacture (his brother-in-law, with no prior training in jewelry work, had learned it easily enough), but for someone with both capital and the willingness to invest it.

Many questions, but few answers. I will be discussing Levi Brown's entry into the gold nib business in an upcoming post, so let us now turn to what I have been able to find out about Simeon Hyde. Hyde was born May 26, 1784, in Norwich, New London, Connecticut. On Aug 19, 1810, he married Catharine Abiah Cleveland. Both came from prominent families, but while there is much available on their genealogies, there is much less available when it comes to anything of a biographical nature. I have not been able to find any trace of Hyde in the 1840 or 1850 census records, so have had to rely on old newspapers and directories to follow his career.

Most of that career was spent as a wholesale hardware merchant, often in various partnerships: Hyde & Banta (1821); Hyde, Loomis & Co. (to 1823); Hyde & Cleveland (from 1828); Hyde, Hickock & Greenman (from 1833); Hyde, Harris & Roosevelt (1835) -- although the Hyde in the last two appears to have been his son, Simeon P. (1814-1841). Some of these partnerships were active enough as to maintain offices in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as New York City. Hyde was involved in other ventures as well -- in 1826 his name appears as one of the directors of the Orange Fire Insurance Company, at 42 Wall Street -- and his name also appears in lists of passengers arriving from and departing for Liverpool. This English connection is further illustrated by this advertisement placed by his son Simeon P. in 1840:
In the following year, Hyde's eldest daughter, Catherine Cleveland, married her 3rd cousin, Arthur Cleveland Cox, a star clergyman and future bishop. Things went downhill shortly afterward for the Hydes. Within a year and a half both father and late son had been declared bankrupt. They were not alone: their names appear repeatedly in the New York newspapers in long lists of other bankrupts, victims of a severe business downturn that started in 1837 and continued until 1843. Some of the resulting legal mess, involving notes and Chicago property investments, was not untangled until 1880. In 1846, Simeon P. died in his 33rd year.

I have found no evidence of Hyde's involvement in any other business ventures after his bankruptcy. His name does not appear in Doggett's New York directories of 1845-46 and 1848. On September 8, 1849, the New York Evening Post announced that "Mr. Simeon Hyde has received the appointment of Assistant Appraiser of this port, in the place of A. B. Mead." This was no minor post, so clearly Hyde retained his connections and reputation, if not his capital. Hyde was still in this post when he died on May 27, 1853. The only death notices I have been able to find are short and say nothing of his career, only that he died in his 70th year after a short illness. References to him as "Simeon Hyde, Esq." mostly postdate his appointment as Assistant Appraiser, and as far as I can tell do note signify any career in the law.

The situation is greatly complicated by the evidence for Hyde's continuing involvement in Hawkins' nibmaking business in England, initially as a silent owner, and from 1845 more openly, as the firm was reorganized as a partnership, Mordan & Hyde. It appears that Hyde only sold out to his partner Francis Mordan in 1848, returning to New York that same year (see Samantha Grose and Jim Marshall, Francis Mordan and the Everlasting Pen, pp. 22-23). If Hyde's involvement in the London operation could remain so well hidden for so long, we speculate about his ongoing non-involvement with Levi Brown over the same period at our peril. Did bankruptcy force Hyde to sell out to Brown, or did Hyde manage to protect his interest in Brown's business despite bankruptcy? Yet another question: could Simeon have been the Hyde in the partnership of Dawson, Warren & Hyde?
[At least the last question can be answered: no, that Hyde was Ellsworth Hulbert Hyde]


The main printed genealogical references are Walworth's Hyde Genealogy (p. 93, no. 1033) and Andrews' The Descendants of John Porter of Windsor, Conn.(pp. 493, 684-5). Publicly available online family trees are incomplete and inconsistent, especially as regards Simeon Hyde's numerous children. Should any descendents have an interest in correcting this information, the following may prove useful:

Simeon Hyde died May 27, 1853 in his 70th year. The death notice shown above appeared in the New York Tribune, May 30, 1853, p. 7, col. 5. The entire page can be downloaded in pdf here, thanks to the extremely useful website archive of New York newspapers, without which this article would not have been possible. Another notice, without mention of the funeral arrangements, appeared in the Evening Post on the same date, p. 3, col. 5 (pdf here), but oddly enough there seems to have been no notice in the Brooklyn Eagle.

Hyde's wife Catherine Abiah died on Jan 21, 1869. Her death notice in the New York Daily Tribune of Jan 22, p. 5, col. 6 (pdf here), described her as the "wife of the late Simeon Hyde of this city".

Hyde's daughter Catherine Cleveland's marriage to prominent clergyman Arthur Cleveland Coxe makes her life easy to trace. The marriage notice in The New World on September 25, 1841, p. 208, col. 4 (pdf here) is the earliest reference I have yet found to give Simeon Hyde the honorific "Esquire".

Hyde's son and namesake, Simeon Porter, died July 30, 1846 in Camden, New Jersey, "in his 33rd year", as reported in the Evening Post of August 1, p. 3, col. 1 (pdf here).

Hyde's sons Frederick S. and M. Cleveland became Episcopalian clergymen. Death notices for the former appeared in the New York Tribune, November 20, 1900, p. 9. col. 3 (pdf here) and in the Wyoming County Times, November 22, 1900, p. 1, col 6 (pdf here). The Tribune obit gives a birth date of  July 16, 1835, but later records give July 15, 1836 -- one of which may be a transposition error. Death notices for M. Cleveland Hyde appeared in The Western New Yorker, November 23, 1899, col. 4 (pdf here) and his brother Frederick S.'s presence at the funeral was noted in the Wyoming County Times, November 23, 1899: p. 5, col 3 (pdf here).

Four of Hyde's sons died young, and their dates are not given correctly in the family trees. Edward Henry died July 13, 1840, in his 24th year, as reported in the Evening Post, August 14, 1840, col. 8 (pdf here). On  July 28, 1826, p. 3 col 1, the New York Spectator reported the deaths of Henry Martin on July 9 and William Augustus and Charles Caldwell on July 25, "youngest children of Simeon Hyde" (pdf here).


Mike Forester said...

Hi, David,

Almost hilariously, Simeon Hyde's bankruptcy was still being thrashed out in federal court in New York in 1880, stemming from land speculation in Chicago in 1835. Interesting character.


David said...

The court case was not over his bankruptcy, per se, but over a resulting dispute over title. I already mentioned this case in the post, though the NY Times article does summarize it more neatly than reading the entire decision (noting that the Times erred in placing the bankruptcy following 1857: the date should be 1837).