Monday, July 30, 2012

Levi Brown, the first gold pen manufacturer: early years, Detroit

In the often-murky story of the first years of gold nib production, one figure's role is quite clear: Levi Brown was undoubtedly the first to manufacture iridium-tipped gold nibs ("pens") in quantity. As recounted in Johnson's Universal Cyclopædia:
Mr. John Isaac Hawkins, an American gentleman residing in England, was led by an accident to use the native alloy of iridium and osmium, one of the hardest and most refractory of all metallic alloys. . . Hawkins's rights were purchased by Rev. Mr. Cleveland, an American clergyman then in England, who in 1835 induced Mr. Levi Brown, a watchmaker in Detroit, to engage in the manufacture of gold pens. These were at first made by hand, and were very poor substitutes for the quill. In 1840, Mr. Brown removed to New York and enlarged his business.
Yet even by 1889, when this scanty and rather confused account was published, Levi Brown had become an historical footnote. The article makes no further mention of him, though it does name in passing several nib manufacturers that followed in his footsteps, and gives a glowing tribute to the contributions of Brown's employee, John Rendell. Nor has Brown received much more attention since, neither from historians, nor even from his own descendents (he appears in one publicly-accessible family tree at as "Eli Brown", with virtually no personal data beyond "goldsmith -- made gold pens").

Further notes on the Korean fakes

I have recently had the opportunity to inspect some of the "enhanced" Parkers recently sold by eBay seller yeujeff [ID changed to rttrfb, as of September 12; also now selling as sunpawel] (formerly jeffriad) from Korea (previous discussion here). Personal examination bears out my previous conclusions, and allows a better understanding of exactly how the work was done and how it can be detected.
The most obvious fakes from yeujeff/jeffriad to date are the bandless Duofolds. Real examples are early production pens, made from hard rubber which is hard to the point of brittleness (hence the rarity of intact survivors) and totally opaque. The fakes use newly-made caps and barrels that are made from a plastic which is rather soft and waxy, and -- a huge giveaway, visible even in the eBay photos -- translucent.

The contrast between the materials used in the fakes and in the originals is less stark with the Mandarin Yellow Duofolds, since the genuine pens were in this case made of plastic, too. Nonetheless, the fakes use a yellow plastic that is decidedly softer than the original, and which an alert and experienced collector should be able to detect by touch. In any event, chemical testing easily demonstrates the difference between the fake and the real. The plastic of the fakes appears to be custom-colored home-cast resin, which, ironically enough, is even less stable than the original Parker yellow. The pen I inspected was already developing internal stress cracks in the middle of the barrel.

The fake 51 demonstrator was the pen most likely to fool, especially if sold by photos. Although the barrel and hood were oversize enough that the cap fit was too tight, this can't be counted on for every example. And though the imprint did have anomalies, they were subtle and not easily spotted without fairly high magnification. Luckily, the one sure giveaway is something that would be extremely difficult for any faker to duplicate, and that is the telltale interior machining marks on barrel, hood, and blind cap alike. Genuine Parker parts have a very distinct pattern of toolmarks, absent on the fakes. Again, this will be very difficult to detect from photographs, and it helps greatly to have genuine examples in hand with which to compare.

I have not yet have an opportunity to inspect one of yeujeff/jeffriad's "double jewelly" 51s, but I have a pretty good idea of what he is doing with them. The rare colors -- mustard (Yellowstone), Nassau Green, tan -- are not available in standard commercially-available plastic rod stock, so these are surely also being home-cast and custom-colored, whether in acrylic or polyester resin remains to be seen. Inspection of tool marks will be a little tougher on these than on a transparent demonstrator, but still fairly straightforward after disassembly (and downright easy with the blind cap). Since genuine double-jewel 51s are scarce and not to be had cheaply, even in common colors, yeujeff/jeffriad is in most cases using inexpensive single-jewel pens and adding newly-made tassie (blind cap) rings and jewels. In nearly all of his double-jewel listings that I have seen, the blind cap jewel's color is decidedly off.

Right now yeujeff/jeffriad seems to be lying low. Nothing is currently listed for sale on eBay, but neither has his account been deactivated. Now that he is starting to get bad feedback, including comments that accuse him of selling fakes, it is likely that he will eventually reappear under a new user name. We can all keep an eye out for him, though, by regularly searching for new sellers with a sudden abundance of rare Parkers: double-jewel 51s, Mandarin Duofolds, and 51 demonstrators, in particular. He might also be found by watching buyers of parts Duofolds: otherwise sound pens with badly discolored or cracked caps and barrels.

Graphite samples

Dixon is one of the best-known names for both graphite and pencils. This group of graphite specimen jars once belonged to Harvard, and consists of samples of Dixon products in various forms and grades. I would guess that they date to the end of the 19th century or very early 20th century. Harvard appears to have pitched them back in the 1970s or '80s, along with loads of other old scientific samples and models. When they appeared at a local antique shop, they seemed the perfect pencil-related display.

Big nibs!

Here are a few large gold 19th-century dip pen nibs. Then as later, indication of size by number was not standardized: the smallest nibs are the #12 Foley on the right and the slightly larger #8 Morton to its side, while the largest are the #8 and #9 nibs in the center. Note, too, that the Foley nibs are dated -- a practice which likely originated with nibmaking pioneer Levi Brown, but which was only sporadically followed by other nibmakers (John Foley being one of the few to embrace it consistently).

The picture below gives a better indication of scale. The small nib underneath is a standard Waterman #2 from the late 1930s.

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.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Van Valkenburg's original clip

Once upon a time, fountain pens and mechanical pencils didn't have clips. Then, a number of inventors and entrepreneurs began to offer add-on clips, which became extremely popular -- so popular, that the pen and pencil makers took notice and soon began to offer permanently-attached clips, often first purchased from the independent clipmakers, but later invariably of the penmakers' own design.

One of the most notable of these clipmakers was Levi D. Van Valkenburg, whose sprung rocker-style "V. V." clip was adopted by Parker, Conklin, Moore, and others. The "V. V." clip is well known to collectors, in versions covered by US patents 844,061 and 886,095 of Feb. 12, 1907 and Apr. 28, 1908. Much less familiar is Van Valkenburg's first clip design, patented in 1896. Since the metal part of the clip was held on the pen or pencil by a thick rubber ring (which also provided the clip tension), there wouldn't be much left once the rubber inevitably hardened and rotted. Indeed, in a recent thread at Lion & Pen, George Kovalenko wondered if any even survived.
Well, fear not, George! This turn of the century Remex eyedropper recently showed up in the mail; the box is a bit stained and rough, but the pen is nearly pristine. It was used, but not much, and not for a very long time. And on the cap is a fully intact 1896-patent Van Valkenburg clip.
The rubber ring has long since hardened, so the fit on the cap is a bit loose. For some reason it was put on backwards (the thumb tab should be on the right, of course). I photographed the pen as I received it, yet it should be easy to slide the clip off and put it back on in the correct orientation.
The clip is marked with the May 26, 1896 patent date, though these clips continued to be advertised for a good 20 years afterwards and perhaps more.

PS The clip would still work mounted backwards, since a pocket's edge would readily slide under the smooth curve of what was intended to be the thumbpiece. Perhaps the original owner couldn't be bothered to push down on the thumbpiece to release the clip's grip each time the pen left or was returned to his pocket.

PPS Here is an ad for the clip from a 1908 issue of Geyer's Stationer:

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fake pens alert

A warning to anyone buying vintage pens on eBay: beware of the Korean seller "yeujeff", formerly "jeffriad" [and now rttrfb, as of September 12; also sunpawel]. He is a notorious faker, specializing in Parker Duofolds and 51s. The pens on offer use some original parts, combined with newly-made caps and barrels. He appears to have sold quite a few forged Mandarin and bandless Duofolds, as well as fake demonstrator 51s. The new parts appear to be skilfully machined, complete with what appear to be factory imprints -- which, however, are clearly laser-engraved upon closer examination. You can read more about yeujeff/jeffriad's fakes here, here, and here [this post at Fountain Pen Network has now been removed by the site administrators, along with all other mentions of yeujeff/jeffriad's doings; I have already written to ask them to reconsider]. You can see what they've been fetching on eBay here (note that there may be a few common but genuine pens scattered in among the fakes; I have yet to see one of his "rare" pens that is unquestionably authentic).

As I have noted elsewhere, it is a real pity that yeujeff/jeffriad didn't choose the honest path, for there is a considerable market for customized vintage pens. Judging from the quality of his counterfeits, he would have done very well making "fantasy" pens -- surely much better than making fakes in the long run, even if he is never arrested or prosecuted.

PS This also demonstrates the limitations of eBay's feedback system, in which yeujeff/jeffriad boasts a 100% positive rating. You can read the comments of the victims here. Note the wildly unlikely numbers of Mandarin Yellow Duofolds, bandless Big Reds, 51 demonstrators, and double-jewel 51s in Nassau, Yellowstone (aka Mustard), and Buckskin Tan.

UPDATE: The posts at FPN regarding the Korean fakes have been restored, though it appears that they have now been redacted to remove any mention of his current username, yeujeff. At least some threads have been locked, as well (threads here, here, here, here, and here).

After having had the opportunity to inspect a few of the fakes in person, I have posted some further details and comments here.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ghost gold pens ad

I've been doing a lot of digging into the history of the early gold pen makers of New York recently. So it was a pleasant surprise to run across this photo of an ancient and very faded painted advertisement somewhere on Nassau Street -- one of the centers of the trade in the 19th century.

I can't quite make out any of the words above "GOLD PENS", nor is there any further information in the original post (where you can view the full-sized version of the image above, along with a host of other ghost ads from times past).

PS From Google Maps, the building appears to be on the east side of Nassau Street between John and Fulton, with the photo taken from somewhere near the intersection with John Street, looking northeast down Nassau. Street View doesn't help much beyond this -- no idea of the exact address, or if the ad is still visible (the picture was posted in 2008).

Waterman plaque

Back in 1934 a plaque was installed at the corner of Broadway and Dey in downtown Manhattan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lewis E. Waterman's invention, as this clip from the March 15, 1934 Waterville Times reports:
Now Waterman's pen was hardly the first practical fountain pen, and he filed his first patent application in mid-1883, not 1884, but the Waterman company's publicists weren't going to let facts get in the way of a good story. What happened to the plaque? Like most of downtown Manhattan, Broadway and Dey has seen a lot of changes over the years.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Old jewelry trade periodicals online

The digitization of old books and, in particular, periodicals has made pen history research vastly easier. Two of the main resources are The American Stationer (link list here) and The Jewelers' Circular (Google Books links here and here -- UPDATE: may not work reliably, see below). Unfortunately, there are quite a few gaps in each periodical's run, with some available in "snippet view" only and some partially to completely non-text-searchable (digitized as images only, with no conversion to text). In some cases you can't get from here to there: the cross-referencing of other volumes is incomplete and inconsistent. And many of these volumes aren't available outside of the United States, due to copyright issues (though browsing through a US-based proxy server is a simple workaround).

Nonetheless, there's still plenty to work on -- and the prospect of more and more treasures to be digitized in the years to come. I recently ran across an 1892 article surveying jewelry trade periodicals. The full article can be viewed here, along with the chart reproduced below.
Note that of the ten publications listed, only one -- the Jewelers' Circular -- has a significant number of issues available online. I found but three months of the Jewelers' Review, and of the rest, nothing. Cause for despair? Quite the opposite, I think. There's still a lot of material out there, and it's only a matter of time before we get access to it.

PS While a number of these publications ended up merging (The Jewelers' Circular absorbed Jewelers' Review and Jewelers' Weekly, for example, and then Keystone), in 1892 they were still separate entities. With merged titles, library cataloging can be confusing, since often an absorbed publication will be listed only under the title of the absorbing publication.

ADDENDUM (Dec 15, 2013): Google Books' indexing appears to have changed, and though the links above have been updated, there is no guarantee that they will stay valid. Here is an annontated list of direct links to copies of the Jewelers' Circular that I have found, which may not be easily located by normal Google searching. In many cases the runs are incomplete.

ADDENDUM (Feb 12, 2014): Many of these volumes are also accessible at HathiTrust.

Vol. 15 (Feb-Jul 1884; Aug 1884-Jan 1885)

Vol. 23 (only Aug-Oct 1891)
Vol. 26 (only Feb-Mar 1893)
Vol. 27 (only Aug-Oct 1893)
Vol. 28 (only Nov 1893-Jan 1894)

Vol. 29 (only Nov 1894-Jan 1895) also at the Internet Archive

Vol. 34 (Feb-Apr 1897, incorrectly listed as 1892)(May 1897-Jan 1898)
Vol. 36 (Feb-Apr 1898)(May-Jul 1898)
Vol. 37 (Aug-Oct 1898)(Nov 1898-Jan 1899)
Vol. 38 (Feb-Apr 1899)(May-Jul 1899)
Vol. 39 (Aug-Oct 1899)(Nov 1899-Jan 1900)
Vol. 45 (only Aug-Sep 1902)
Vol. 56 (only May 1908)

Vol. 74, Issue 2, May-Jul 1917
Vol. 75, Issue 1, Aug-Oct 1917
Vol. 75, Issue 2, Nov 1917-Jan 1918
Vol. 76, Issue 2, May-Jul 1918
Vol. 77, Issue 1, Aug-Oct 1918
Vol. 77, Issue 2, Nov 1918-Jan 1919
Vol. 78, Issue 1, Feb-Apr, 1919
Vol. 78, Issue 2, May-Jul, 1919
Vol. 79, Issue 1, Aug-Oct 1919
Vol. 79, Issue 2, Nov 1919-Jan 1920

Vol. 80, Issue 1, Feb-Apr 1920
Vol. 80, Issue 2, May-Jul 1920
Vol. 81, Issue 1, Aug-Oct 1920
Vol. 81, Issue 2, Nov 1920-Jan 1921
Vol. 82, Issue 1, Feb-Apr 1921
Vol. 82, Issue 2, May-Jul 1921
Vol. 83, Issue 1, Aug-Oct 1921
Vol. 83, Issue 2, Nov 1921-Jan 1922
Vol. 84, Issue 1, Feb-Apr 1921
Vol. 85, issue 2, Nov 1922-Jan 1923

Following issues to1934 are semi-available as "snippet view" (have been digitized, but not available online)