Friday, August 31, 2012

Wiley, another gold nib manufacturing pioneer

Although this entry is primarily about William E. Wiley, it also bears upon our ongoing research into the behind-the-scenes activities of Simeon Hyde in the early years of gold nib manufacture on both sides of the Atlantic.

Several years ago, the late John C. Loring published an article, "The Transatlantic Beginnings of the Gold Pen" (Stylus, Feb/March 2004, pp. 61-63), in which he perceptively noted Hyde's central role in buying Hawkins' gold nib business. Loring went on to speculate about Hyde's ongoing management of the business, proposing that "For the following fifteen years [from 1835], Hyde maintained gold pen factories in London and New York", also suggesting that since gold nibs were soon being made much more cheaply and in much greater quantity in America than in Great Britain, Hyde must have been bringing semifinished nibs from New York to be finished in London and resold as British. The evidence Loring provided does not support these conclusions (and other evidence opposes, such as the rarity of early British gold nibs and the fundamental differences in shape and form from their American counterparts), though in some cases it poses interesting questions -- such as the reason for the sudden drop in gold nib prices in London in 1850, a halving of the going price.

Loring tied this price drop to Simeon Hyde's departure from England in September 1848 after selling out his interest in the gold nib business to his partner, Francis Mordan (the departure and the change in ownership were noted by Frank Crosbie, cited by Samantha Grose and Jim Marshall, Francis Mordan and the Everlasting Pen, p. 22, but further corroboration of Hyde's places of residence and business dealings in the 1840s would be highly desirable). This doesn't make a lot of sense, however; if Hyde really had been taking advantage of American production efficiency in order to reduce the labor cost of gold nibs sold in England (itself completely unsupported speculation), one would expect English nib prices to go up, not down, once he left the scene.

It turns out that the drop in gold nib prices has a much better documented cause, as explained in British Manufacturing Industries, vol. 3, London, 1876, p. 163:
Mr. W. E. Wiley, of the Albert Works, is the largest maker of gold pens in Birmingham. When the business of gold pen making was introduced as a local industry by Mr. Wiley thirty years ago, the retail price of such pens was a guinea each. The first of Wiley's gold pens were retailed at 5s. each, and now enormous quantities of gold pens are sold as low as a shilling each. This is owing to the adoption of improved machinery and appliances in the manufacture. At the time when gold pens were first produced by Messrs. Mordan, of London, and for many years afterwards, the usual method of slitting the pens was with the aid of diamond dust—a very costly process, since its uncertainty, by occasionally cutting wide gaps in the pens, caused no little waste of material. To remedy this, Wiley introduced a system of cutting the slit by means of emery on revolving copper cutters, which has been practised ever since. This so cheapened the production, as to enable a good quality gold pen to be sold retail at 5s., for which a guinea was formerly demanded.
Similar accounts appear in other sources (here and here), but all provide similarly rough dating. Henry Bore's detailed history of the invention of the steel nib, however, clearly states that Wiley began making gold pens in 1850, which is also consistent with the records of his exhibiting at the Crystal Palace in 1851, the New York Industrial Exhibition in 1853-54, and the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855. Wiley clearly enjoyed considerable success, not least from supplying Perry & Co. with pencil cases -- an open contract, according to Bore -- and their 1863 factory still stands as a Birmingham landmark, now known as the Argent Centre. Wiley & Co. eventually became part of Perry & Co., but the story doesn't end there, as William E. Wiley's son Edwin took the family name and business to America. The following is his obituary in the American Stationer of October 4, 1894:
Edwin Wiley, who has been identified with the gold pen manufacturing business in this country for very many years, died suddenly at his home, 730a Madison street, Brooklyn, on September 26. The funeral services were held on Saturday evening and the interment was on Sunday.

He was born in Birmingham, England, on October 13, 1835, and was early apprenticed to the business of manufacturing gold pens, going naturally into the business in which his father had won a name, and in connection with which the name of Wiley was widely known. When about sixteen or seventeen he came to this country, and after completing his apprenticeship he, in 1856, became the junior partner of the firm of Brown & Wiley, and later in connection with his brother James he organized the firm of Wiley Brothers, manufacturers of gold pens, who were then located in Fulton street, Brooklyn. In 1860 he went into business for himself under the style of E. Wiley and continued it until 1880, when he made a contract with an English house to manufacture for them. This contract led to litigation and the business here passed to his son, Edwin C. Wiley, who now continues it, and with whom Edwin Wiley was always associated.

Mr. Wiley took out patents in connection with the manufacture of gold pens, whereby the cost of manufacture was greatly reduced, as well as patents on pen and pencil holders. He was sick only two days, and an ailment which at first seemed slight developed into congestion of the lungs and carried him off. He leaves a widow, a son and a daughter.


David said...

interested to know more about these New York Wileys

WE Wiley was my GGF, I haven't found Edwin, but interested to know more

please contact david at gardiner-hill dot org

David said...

Would like to establish the genealogy of edwin Wiley do you have more details of his early life?

David said...

Actually a 'half brother' of William Edward Wiley

David said...

What information I've found to date is published here.

David said...

Sorry David, I am not subscribed pls email me!

Edwin is indeed half brother by the sister of his mother.

From memory I think another brother came to new york.

I don't have much on earl life, they were certainly not wealthy and had a lot of children

5 children by Ann Hipkiss d 1932

then a further 7 children by her sister Sarah Hipkiss.

It was common practice for unmarried sisters to take over the bed and maternal duties of a sister who died (often in child birth)

David said...

James Wiley also took out pen patent in 1856