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").

Our first glimpses of Levi Brown are of a well established jeweler and a prominent figure in early Detroit. He is mentioned repeatedly in Friend Palmer's Early Days in Detroit (1906):
Levi Brown, the jeweler and inventor of the gold pen, had his brick store and residence on the north side of Jefferson Avenue between Shelby and Griswold Streets, nearly opposite that of Thomas Palmer. (p. 121)
Levi Brown . . . dealt in jewelry, clocks and watches. Chauncey S. Payne was his partner and succeeded him in the business for awhile, then moving to Flint. Levi Brown was the inventor of and the first to manufacture the gold pen in the United States or elsewhere. He used to charge five dollars for the nibs alone and people thought them cheap at that. A nice man was Levi Brown and a Christian gentleman. (p. 407)
[Rev. David M. Cooper letter to the Free Press, about his father, David Cooper (1789-1876)]:
And I remember, as if it were yesterday, the glee with which coming home from the store one day he exhibited his first gold pen purchased from Mr. Levi Brown, a watchmaker, and deacon in St. Paul's church, for which he paid $5 and whose shop stood on the site of the present Willis Block. I supposed then, and have never seen it contradicted, that Mr. Brown was the inventor of the gold pen. Mr. Brown subsequently sold out to Mr. Payne and removed to New York City. His chief workman, Mr. Griesbach [this may be a mistake for B. Grieshaber], continued until quite recently the business of repairing gold pens. Since his death, at an advanced age, his son carries on like work at his residence on Orleans Street. (p. 428)
In the 1830 census, we find Levi Brown in Detroit, the head of a household of five. Although the census records do not give their names or exact ages, these would have been his wife Louisa S., two daughters and a son. Later census records provide more information about the family, but some of this is contradictory. For example, Levi Brown's birthplace is listed as Massachusetts in the 1850 census, but Rhode Island in the census of 1860 and in his son's response to the census of 1880, while his son's response in 1900 was Michigan! Similarly, Louisa S. Brown's birthplace in the 1850 census was New Hampshire, in 1870 Vermont, and in her son's response in 1880, New Hampshire again -- and Michigan in 1900. If we are to discount the son's responses, however, there is the possibility that Levi Brown was born in a place that belonged to Massachusetts in 1850 but Rhode Island in 1860. Indeed, the two states had longstanding border disputes that were only fully settled in the early '60s. It is possible that something similar also lies behind the seemingly conflicting records on Louisa S. Brown's birthplace as well.

To be continued. . . .

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