Friday, September 7, 2012

John W. Greaton, gold nib maker and metallurgist

Several years ago, before the value of gold began to climb, I bought a hoard of gold dip pen nibs. They were clearly early, many bearing dates in the early 1850s, and were all marked "John W. Greaton". They appeared to be new old stock, though some had been "tested" with a file to see if they were indeed solid gold; most of them are shown in the photo above -- note that the ones in the photo are big nibs, what later makers might call #6 to #7-size.

At the time, there was no Google Books, and I did not have the time to dig out information about Greaton by traveling to multiple libraries and sifting through old city directories and microfilmed periodicals. Now, however, basic research of this sort is much easier, so I can share the following about Greaton and his nibmaking career.

As it turns out, Greaton left the gold nib business early, gaining fame in his subsequent career as a chemist and metallurgist. His obituary appeared in The American Stationer, vol. 1, April 1, 1897, pp. 528-29:
John W. Greaton, who was engaged at one time in the manufacture of gold pens at 23 Maiden lane, New York, died at his home, 326 Union street, Brooklyn, N. Y., on March 26, at the age of seventy-four years.

Mr. Greaton was born on January 1, 1823, on Pump street near Shinbone Alley, New York, which are now known as Pearl street and Chatham square. When he left the gold pen business he became a chemist and an assayer. He invented a solder on copper which would not eat through gold, for which he was offered $50,000. When the Government began the manufacture of five-cent nickel pieces Mr. Greaton instructed the men at the mint how to alloy the metal so that the coin would not break the die. He had a laboratory in the rear of his home, where he conducted his experiments, and where, during which, he lost the sight of one eye.

In 1854 he removed to Brooklyn, where he became estranged from his family. This so affected him that he retired from business altogether, and spent the greater part of his remaining life in his library with his books (of which he had a large number) as his companions, counsellors and sympathizers.

He is survived by a widow, one son and two daughters.
An obituary in the New York Herald of March 27, 1897, p. 12, col. 2, also noted that Greaton "took an interest in educational affairs, [and] was a member of the Society of Cincinnati." His bibliophily is also noted in The Library Journal and The Art Collector, but without specifics.

Greaton appears to have entered the gold nib business in the later 1840s; he is not listed in Doggett's New-York City Directory for 1845 & 1846 but is listed in the 1848 issue, and the earliest advertisement I have found so far is in the New York Herald of May 17, 1847, where John W. Greaton & Co. announce their "wholesale and retail depot at No. 71 Cedar street, up stairs, where you can sit down and try pens of all approved makers in competition, and decide for yourself their relative merits." Another advertisement that appeared in February 1848 states that "JOHN W. GREATON & CO., No. 71 Cedar street, (one door from the Post Office,) have the Pens of all the best makers, which they are now selling at reduced prices. The Pens and Cases others advertise to sell as the best in the city, for $2, they sell for $1,50 only, and others low in proportion. Gold pens repaired." In the same publication, ads in March finally make mention of Greaton-branded nibs: "They have Pens of their own and all other makers also, which are selected by a competent person, the poor or rejected Pens returned to the makers." This is made more explicit in an advertising supplement that appeared in 1849 but looks to have been compiled the year before, the American Advertiser, where John W. Greaton (no longer styled as a corporation) promotes himself as a nib manufacturer, and touts his own nibs below.
Greaton's ads appeared with some frequency, but I have yet to find any indication that Greaton contributed anything noteworthy to the process of nibmaking. He did receive a silver medal from the American Institute in 1850, but for "gold and silver extension pen and pencil cases", not nibs. After 1850 the ads no longer appear, and business directories list Greaton at 23 Maiden Lane. A court case regarding the subletting of that property indicates that Greaton began renting there in June 1851, and from the testimony about the period 1854-55, nib manufacturing was yielding to general jewelry market trading by then -- buying and selling gold and silver thimbles, for example. This would be consistent with the statement in his obituary, cited above, that Greaton retired from business following his estrangement from his family after moving to Brooklyn in 1854. In later Trow's Directories up until 1860, Greaton continues to be listed under "gold pens" or "pens", but in 1865 he is listed as "refiner". All in all, it seems likely that the nibs in our hoard came from the tail end of Greaton's activity as a nibmaker, and that no significant production took place after the mid-1850s.

UPDATE: Greaton's full name was John Wheelwright Greaton; his grandfather was the Rev. James Greaton, born in Boston, July 10, 1730, graduated from Yale in 1754, and ordained in England before returning to New England. He died as rector of St. John's Church in Huntington, Long Island, in 1773. Rev. James Greaton married Mary Wheelwright (from another prominent Boston family) on October 1, 1761; they had two sons, John Wheelwright Greaton and James Greaton. Our John Wheelwright Greaton would appear to be the son of James Greaton, as his uncle and namesake reportedly died unmarried in 1815.

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