[Posted on L&P on Aug 19, 2010.]
[This was the version of Francis Cashel Brown’s biography that I transcribed and placed online in 2011. The original is housed at the New York Historical Society Archives, and it might be a draft of the article that appears in the Encyclopedia of American Biography, New Series, Vol. 27, on famous New Yorkers. It may have been written ca. 1956-7 by one of his sons or daughters, probably Edward Guy Brown, or Camille Miller, and it was based upon their father’s autobiographical speech, also housed at the NYHS. More on that later, in Pt.2. Until then, let’s deal with the text at hand. The unknown author of the biography borrows Brown’s autobiography almost wholesale as the main body of the text, but he frames it with such statements as, “The development of a major American industry came about when...Francis Cashel Brown introduced the first practical, enduring fountain pen”, also that his “pioneer firm gave to the world its first satisfactory fountain pen, thereby laying the foundations of a major mass-production industry”, and finishing with, “He was...aware of the significant role Providentially accorded him in industrial history by his serving to bring to mankind one of the most necessary and most universally used devices–the fountain pen”. But the text is conflicted because the main body, which Brown wrote, is a more straight forward, if slightly biased, retelling of the early history of the fountain pen. He’s so self-effacing and unassuming. He must be a Canadian. In comparison, the hyperbolic framing remarks by the author are way overboard with their superlatives. He must be a Canadian-American. In any case, the main body of this text is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Waterman creation myth.]
Biography of Francis Cashel Brown, Inventor
Early History of The Fountain Pen
Early History of The Fountain Pen
“The development of a major American industry came about when, in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century, Francis Cashel Brown introduced the first practical, enduring fountain pen. Inventor, as well as manufacturer and merchandiser, he founded and headed the Caw’s Pen and Ink Company of New York, pioneer firm which gave to the world its first satisfactory fountain pen, thereby laying the foundations of a major mass-production industry.
“He was born in Haysville, Ontario, Canada, on April 29, 1851, son of James Major and Eliza Margaret (Crotty) Brown. His father, a native of Londonderry, Ireland, had come to Canada about the year 1835, settling in Haysville where he became a merchant. Head of a large family, he was active in civic affairs and was highly regarded in his community.
“After completion of his education in Ontario, Francis C. Brown came to the United States in 1875. During that year, in New York City, he contributed his business acumen and the funds necessary to launch a new enterprise for the promotion of a stylographic pen, freshly invented by a Canadian named MacKinnon. The pen lacked the qualities for permanent success but, under Mr. Brown’s management, the enterprise flourished for a time. Mr. Brown’s outstanding career in the field takes on additional significance when set against the background of that industry’s early development. He himself has provided its historic background which we use to show the developments leading to Francis Cashel Brown’s invention of an urgently needed utility and to the creation of a wide-spread American industry.
“The origin of the fountain-pen, he relates, dates back to the mid-Nineteenth Century. The first product of the kind which met with public recognition was the Prince Protean Fountain Pen, invented by a Mr. Prince of New York in 1855. Its sale was considerable for a time; but, as it was made of a base metal easily corroded by ink, it was soon discarded in disappointment by everyone who had bought it. After a few years, Mr. Prince was forced to engage in another business. Encouraged by Mr. Prince’s temporary success with his pen, many tried to imitate it, but their products were soon cast into oblivion by disgruntled purchasers and, for several years thereafter it seemed as if no further attempt would be made to improve on the steel pen, the goose quill and the lead pencil–the only writing implements then in use in the Western Hemisphere. For the select few, a gold pen was being manufactured in a small way at that time and sold only to those Americans able and willing to pay high prices.
“This condition of the pen trade continued until 1875 when a Canadian, Duncan MacKinnon, conceived the idea of making a fountain pen with a stiff, round metal point. Having no capital, however, he was unable to manufacture it himself or to interest anyone with capital, in view of his predecessors’ failures. A year of vain seeking had passed when one day Francis Cashel Brown, then residing in New York, had his attention drawn to a newspaper article. Within a short time a business contract was drawn up between Mr. MacKinnon and Mr. Brown and a company formed in New York under the name of MacKinnon Pen Company. Its purpose was to manufacture the MacKinnon Stylographic Pen. To use the phrase “fountain pen” was considered inadvisable because it was of ill-repute with the public who had experimented with the fountain pens of the past. It may be here remarked that the prime obstacle in the manufacture of fountain pens in those days was the high cost of suitable material. Gold was the cheapest known substance that would not corrode or rust upon contact with ink, but a fountain pen of gold would be too prohibitive in cost for the general public, even in America. However, the stylographic was a novelty, sufficient in itself to recommend it to a nation always foremost in adopting a new product. The first stylo pens were also made of base metal. Despite this, they had a large sale from the start. Their life expectancy was short, however, and they were soon condemned in vigorous language as a delusion and a snare. The memory of the Prince Fountain Pen of twenty years previous was revived and a similar fate was predicted for the MacKinnon Pen.
“Up to this time, vulcanized rubber was a product little known in the world. Experiments showed it to be very satisfactory for fountain pen use. It proved to be a nonconductor, light in weight and a sure protection from “writer’s cramp” or “scrivener’s palsy”. But, for fountain pen holders, its chief merit lay in the fact that it is not affected by the chemical properties of ink. The MacKinnon Pen Company grasped at this product as a drowning man grasps at a straw but, happily, it provided the solution to their problem.
“The MacKinnon Stylographic Pen held undisputed control of the market for approximately three years. Although the cheapest pen cost four dollars, the demand increased so rapidly that the manufacturers could not keep pace with it. This encouraged numerous imitators and each initiation was offered at successively lower prices until by 1881 the price had fallen to one-fourth of the original cost. Quality and utility had declined with the price so that finally the stylographic pen became a by-word of contempt. Mr. Brown, who had pioneered this pen so successfully for five years, sold his interest in the MacKinnon Pen Company and engaged in the manufacture of writing ink. Its beautiful black color, suggesting a raven’s plumage, inspired the word “Caw”, the cry of the crow signalling a ripe corn field. Mr. Brown registered the word “Caw’s” with a picture of a crow perched on a bottle of ink as the trade-mark for his ink. Later, when he inaugurated the manufacture of his own pens, he adopted for them the same trade-mark. This is the origin of the name “Caw’s”, accompanied by a crow, and stamped on all Caw’s Fountain Pens.
“So closely allied are the pen and ink industries that Mr. Brown continued in touch with the writing public. Knowing the stylographic pen to be doomed to oblivion as soon as the novelty had worn off, he began experimenting with pens, using vulcanized rubber for the pen barrel, and for his pens gold nibs which he had tipped with the hard, precious metal, iridium, to assure satisfactory penmanship. This combination enabled every user to retain the individuality of his handwriting, a quality which had been sacrificed to the rigid point of the stylographic pen. Complaints had been widespread that it robbed handwriting of its character. Despite this and many other faults of the stylographic pens of that period they sold in very large quantities, both here and abroad, until after some years, the demand began to decrease with a rapidity that eclipsed the speed of their rise in popularity. But this temporary success of the stylo revealed the public craving for a pen that would hold ink for several hours of continuous writing, one that could be carried in the pocket like a pencil, ready for instant use.
“It was Mr. Brown’s knowledge of the public’s wants, acquired during his management of the MacKinnon Pen Company, that inspired him with the courage to proceed with his fountain pen experiments. So it was that by 1883 his efforts had been crowned with success, for he placed on the market his latest invention which startled the fountain pen industry. The new pen was called “Caw’s Dashaway Fountain Pen”, and it was so far in advance of anything which had preceded it that it was hailed with delight by the American public. The first “Dashaway” pen had its faults, but they were gradually overcome. Improvements in the manufacturing process, together with extensive advertising, won for the “Dashaway” a worldwide reputation.
“During this period, other inventors entered the field. The first to follow in Mr. Brown’s footsteps were P. E. Wirt and L. E. Waterman. Their inventions differed from the Caw’s Pen only in small details of construction. By this time, however, the American public had created such a market for fountain pens that Mr. Wirt and Mr. Waterman received a fair share of patronage. While Mr. Brown and his competitors were struggling for supremacy, many imitators appeared on the scene. With one exception, their products had nothing to recommend them save cheapness. Thus in a short time they were buried under public condemnation. The one exception, known as the “Swan” pen, was made in New York. Naturally, a strong rivalry sprang up among the manufacturers of these pens.
“Up to 1896, improvements in the fountain pen were confined chiefly to improved workmanship and careful attention to detail. Until then, a fountain pen had never been made whose ink was immune to evaporation and leakage. The latter defect, especially, was a serious drawback, staining clothing to the point of requiring several changes of linen a day and, in extreme cases, the wearing of gloves at mealtime. Notwithstanding these unpleasant handicaps, a large clientele submitted to them and endeavored to school themselves in the habit of placing the pen in the pocket right side up. Not a few, however, forsook the fountain pen in disgust, confining themselves to borrowing one on occasion.
“This, then, was the condition of the fountain pen trade in 1896 when Mr. Brown, who had been the pioneer in every fountain pen improvement for twenty years, astonished the world with an invention which amounted to a revolution in the construction of the product. This invention, named “Caw’s Safety Fountain Pen”, offered the long-desired protection from ink leakage and evaporation, it was so designed that, after retraction of the pen nib, it screwed tight so that ink could neither escape nor dry out under any conditions or in any climate. In consequence, it was always ready for use. Into this pen, Mr. Brown introduced a capillary system of his own device whose action controlled the flow of the ink to the pen nib, permitting fine or heavy penmanship, the flow of ink being regulated by the amount of pressure on the pen point.
“Europeans had adopted the use of fountain pens with more caution and discrimination than had Americans. It was not until the advent of “Caw’s Safety Fountain Pen” in 1896 that their faith in it was shown by a large demand which constantly increased. But in Europe, in contrast to America, the ambition to own a fountain pen had not, in Mr. Brown’s time, taken possession of all classes of society.
“In 1912, Mr. Brown produced what he regarded as the ultimate in fountain pen achievement, and he accordingly gave it the name “The Limit”. It combined the qualities of both the erect carriage “Dashaway” and the “Safety”. It could be carried upright in the pocket, ready for immediate use, or be quickly converted into a “Safety” when, in any position, it afforded immunity from disaster. Although the new pen won quick popularity, wartime conditions following shortly upon its introduction forced its withdrawal from the market. At the War’s end, with his extensive foreign markets in chaos, with materials scarce and uncertain in supply, Mr. Brown felt that he should not undertake the heavy burden of re-building his organization and gave his attention to other matters until his death in 1939. This marked the close of a distinguished career in the industry he inaugurated. His pens had won him first prize awards at the London Exposition 1905, the Paris World’s Fair Exposition in 1900, the Chicago World’s Fair 1893, and several other Expositions of note where, invariably, he won first honors.
“But little interested in clubs or organizational affairs, Mr. Brown preferred to spend his spare hours in the enjoyment of his family and his home. By nature deeply religious, he professed the Episcopalian faith.
“Of Canadian origin himself, Francis Cashel Brown married a young lady of French Creole family from New Orleans. She was Marie Francoise Elizabeth Laurie, daughter of Francis and Marie Elizabeth (Pradet) Laurie, the latter of the New Orleans branch of the Lyons, France, lselin family, established in the New World by two Iselin brothers escaping the French Revolution, the elder settling in New Orleans, the younger taking up residence in New York. Miss Laurie lost both her parents in early childhood. Her father, a Scot, was a portrait and landscape artist. She met Mr. Brown in Newport, Rhode Island where she and her aunt, Mrs. Camille Quesnal, were visiting friends. Some months later they were married in the Church of the Heavenly Rest in hew York City, the date being April 23, 1883. When their growing family led Mr. Brown to seek residence in the suburbs, he chose Staten Island and built a home at New Brighton. There they continued to reside until death–Mrs. Brown’s occurring February 18, 1923. The couple had the following children: Camille, now a resident of Washington, D.C., married George Clinton Miller and is the mother of three daughters, Mrs. William Haig Meyer, Mrs, Malcolm Ross, and Mrs. Bettina Hawthorne; their father, Clinton Miller, who died September 18, 1940, was senior partner of the Wall Street firm of Miller and Lummis, and since 1896 had been a member of the New York Stock Exchange; James Cashel, insurance broker, deceased, left two sons, James Cashel, Jr. and Owen Guy; Marie Iselin, a resident of New York City, has been associated with the William Esty Company Advertising Agency; Francis Owen, an economist, deceased, left no progeny; Edward Guy, father of two daughters, Mrs. Gordon Craig Ashford and Mrs. Charles Craig Bomont, is an executive of a Federal Savings and Loan Association and has his home in Portland, Oregon.
“Mr. Brown’s death occurred in New York City on February 1, 1939. Ever a man of rectitude and probity, he had striven, single-handed, to attain his goals and never resented the competition of which he became the object, although not all of his competitors had his sense of fair play, and legal action often became necessary to prevent encroachments upon his patents. Generosity always distinguished him, as well as a tolerance of the shortcomings inherent in human nature. Of events and persons, were they ever so frustrating, he never complained, but adapted himself to difficulties which he could not overcome. Always unassuming, shunning vain-glory, he was humbly aware of the significant role Providentially accorded him in industrial history by his serving to bring to mankind one of the most necessary and most universally used of devices–
the fountain pen.”
Photo from the New York Historical Society Archives, ca. 1917George Kovalenko.