Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wiley's Union pen


Reader Robert P. Foster recently sent us photos of an unusual nib in his collection, suggesting that it would make an interesting topic for a post. As can clearly be seen, only the front portion of the nib is gold -- the rest is of silver. 




As it happens, another example has been in my collection for some years, mounted in the holder shown below. The imprint is slightly different, but the patent date is the same, as is the construction.



The imprints on both nibs reference Edwin Wiley's US patent 73419 of January 14, 1868. The text of the patent makes it clear that such bimetallic nibs were not new at the time: 
The present invention relates to that class of pens commonly known as the "Union Pens," and which are made with their "nib" of gold, and their heel or body of silver or other inferior metal. ["nib" here refers to what we now would call the tines; "pen", to the nib as a whole]
The text goes on to explain how such nibs were made, which entailed completing the forming of the nib before soldering the tipping material in place -- the great problem being that
. . . the blank cannot be then rolled without injuring the same, the nib of the pen is thereby so annealed or softened from being heated by the soldering as to be deprived of its elasticity to such an extent as to greatly deteriorate it, it being, in fact, of no greater value or utility, as a pen, than a "gold pen" that has been repointed. 
Modern tipping is done by electric resistance welding, but clearly this was not the case in 1868. Since tipping in that era entailed heating of the entire nib to a temperature that left the metal soft and malleable, elasticity had to be obtained after tipping, by work-hardening of the gold by rolling and/or hammering. Wiley's patent was for an improved method of joining the silver and gold portions of a "Union" nib which allowed the blanks to be rolled after tipping "without being split or broken" along the seam -- though it is clear from our examples that the rolled seam was still left rather irregular in appearance.


In searching for more information on other makers of "Union pens", I ran across Morse's US patent 73255 in which gold and steel parts are joined by tabs to form a sort of ink reservoir nib, coincidentally granted on the same date as Wiley's patent 73419. Of greater significance, however, was a French government report from 1860, Enquête: Traité de Commerce avec l'Angleterre: Industrie métallurgique, vol. 1, where on pages 860-61 an interview regarding the nib industry elicits the following reference to the English Wiley firm's Union Pen:
M. SAGLIER. Certainement. Mais tandis que M. Mallat vend au commerce ses plumes d'or de 3 francs à 5 francs, les plumes d'or sont vendues en Angleterre 1 shelling. J'envoie à l'exportation des plumes d'or faites par MM. Wiley, de Birmingham, qui coûtent 1 shelling. Je vends également à l'exportation des plumes d'or et d'argent de la même fabrique, qu'on appelle union pen et qui coûtent 8 à 9 shellings la douzaine: ce qui fait de 8 à 9 pence la pièce.
So in 1860, Wiley's solid gold nibs sold for one shilling, or twelve pence, while their silver and gold Union Pens sold for eight to nine pence each. It would also seem that the "Union" name predated the American Civil War, though in short order the name would have been seen as patriotic as well as descriptive. Exactly when the Union Pen was introduced, and how long it remained in production, are still open questions.

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