[Posted on L&P on Aug 19, 2010.]
[And here’s the Francis Cashel Brown autobiography, also housed at the New York Historical Society Archives. It survives as a 3-page typescript that has been amended, or altered, in pen, perhaps in Brown’s own hand, perhaps in someone else’s. It does not have a typewritten title, but is given the title “The origin of the fountain-pen” by the archive, in the long-standing tradition, when a text has no title, of using the first few words of the text as the title. At the top, where the title should be, the words “By Francis Cashel Brown” are written within square brackets, and the date “1906” in the upper right corner, both written in a different, more-modern hand, possibly that of an archivist at the NYHS. From internal evidence, the text seems to have been written ca. 1901-06(?) as a third-person autobiographical sketch to be presented by someone else as a speech, or lecture, or press release, possibly at an exposition or world’s fair, somewhere in Europe, maybe in England, or Germany(?). It also appears to have been used, in part, by someone else as the basis for the biographical article that appeared in the Encyclopedia of American Biography in 1957.
The photocopy of the original typescript in the NYHS is in very poor condition, and almost looks like a carbon copy. It seems to be typed on thin paper, something like the onion skin paper that was used at the time for carbon copies. The single-spaced sheets were folded and refolded, roughly in the middle, and at different points in time, and this has resulted in multi-curled folds with the text obscured for a few lines within the curls of the folds. The archivists did not dare to straighten out the folds during photocopying for fear of further damaging the fragile papers, and where the text loss has occurred, I have taken the liberty of trying to reconstruct the lost lines, which are enclosed within square brackets. The biography in Pt. 1 acts as a parallel text that helps to reconstruct the missing portions. At other points in the text, I have inserted comments, suggestions, and interpretations in italics within square brackets.
Though it only represents Brown’s point of view, the text is quite telling on the subject of the spread of the popularity of fountain pens before the turn of the 20th century. To paraphrase Brown writing about himself in the third-person, “This was the condition of the fountain pen trade in 1895 when Mr. Brown, who had been the pioneer in every fountain pen improvement for twenty years, introduced what amounted to almost a revolution in the construction of fountain pens, the Caw’s Safety Fountain Pen. The Europeans have adopted the use of fountain pens with more caution and discrimination than the Americans, and it was not until the advent of the safety fountain pen in 1895 that their faith in fountain pens was shown by a large demand, which has been on the increase ever since, but the desire to own a fountain pen has not yet taken possession of all classes of society of all ages and both sexes in Europe as it has in America”. It’s quite the norm for most early penmakers to claim some grandiose achievements, and Brown claims that he was instrumental in helping to popularize the fountain pen in Europe. Not so self-effacing for a Canadian, after all. Although he was only promoting his own agenda in this sketch, what he succeeded in doing instead was to document the state of the popularity of fountain pens in Europe at the time. For as Brown also said, America is “a nation which has always been the foremost in the world in adopting novelties”.]
[Autobiography of Francis Cashel Brown]
“The origin of the fountain-pen dates back over fifty years. The first 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 short time, but being made of base metal which the ink corroded, it was soon discarded in disappointment by everyone who had bought it, and after a few years Mr. Prince was forced to engage in another business to avoid starvation.
“Encouraged by the temporary success of this pen, Mr. Prince had many imitators, but their products were soon cast into oblivion by their dissatisfied victims, 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, which were the only writing implements then in use in the western hemisphere, with the exception of the gold pen, which was being manufactured in a small way at that time and sold only to a few select Americans at very high prices.
“This condition of the pen trade continued until 1875 when a Canadian by name of Duncan MacKinnon conceived the idea of making a fountain pen with a stiff round metal point. But having no capital, he was unable to manufacture it himself, nor to interest anyone with capital in view of past failures in the same line, until a year later when the attention of Francis Cashel Brown of New York was called to his invention by a newspaper article which resulted in a business engagement between Mr. MacKinnon and Mr. Brown, and soon after a company was formed in New York under the name of the MacKinnon Pen Co. to manufacture the MacKinnon Stylographic Pen. It was considered inadvisable to use the term “Fountain Pen” because it was in bad odor [repute] with the public who had experimented with the fountain pens of the past.
“It may be here remarked that the great obstacle to the manufacture of a satisfactory fountain pen in those days was that the cheapest material known for pens that would not corrode and rust in contact with ink was gold, and to make a fountain pen throughout of gold would make it too expensive even for an American. But the Stylographic Pen was a novelty and that was sufficient to recommend it to a nation which has always been the foremost in the world in adopting novelties.
“The first stylo pens were also made of base metal, and although they had a large sale from the start, after a few months use they were 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.
“At this time, vulcanized rubber was a product little known in the world. Experiments were made with this product with very satisfactory results as every one now knows. It was found to be light in the hand, a nonconductor, and a sure preventative of writer’s cramp, or “Scrivener’s palsy”, but its chief merit for fountain pen holders lies in the fact that it is not affected by the chemical properties in ink, which was the most serious objection to the metal heretofore used. The MacKinnon Pen Co. grasped this [substitute for] metal as a drowning man grasps a straw, but unlike the proverbial straw, it [vulcanized rubber] proved a harbor of refuge.
“The adoption of vulcanized rubber laid the foundation of the fountain pen business of today, which has spread to every civilized country on the globe, and it is estimated that there were over one million fountain pens sold last year, and the rapidly increasing sales prove that the business is still in its infancy.
“The MacKinnon Stylographic Pen held undisputed control of the market for about three years, and although the cheapest pen was $4.00 each, the demand increased so rapidly the manufacturers could not keep pace with it. This encouraged numerous imitators, and each imitation was cheaper than its predecessor, until 1881 when the price had fallen to one quarter the original price. As usual, the quality and utility depreciated with the price, and the Stylographic Pens were again becoming a byword of contempt.
“Mr. Brown, who had pioneered the Stylographic Pen so successfully for five years, sold his interest in the MacKinnon Pen Company and engaged in the manufacture of writing ink, which on account of its beautiful black color he named Caw’s Ink. The word “Caw”, as you all know, is the cry of the crow when it espies a ripe field of corn as a signal to his mates to come and share in the feast. Mr. Brown registered the word “Caw’s” and a picture of a crow as the trade mark for his ink, and afterwards, when he re-engaged in the manufacture of fountain pens, he used the same mark on his pens. This is the origin of the name Caw’s accompanied by a crow, which is stamped on all the Caw’s fountain pens.
“The ink business is so closely allied to the pen business that Mr. Brown continued in touch with the writing public, and knowing that the Stylographic Pen was doomed to oblivion as soon as the novelty had passed away, he began experimenting with fountain pens, using hard rubber for the pen-holder combined with a gold pen, a combination which would enable every user to retain the individuality of his hand writing which was lost by the use of the stylographic pen. The latter having a round stiff point, it would not make the variations in penmanship taught in the schools, and complaints were made that it gave no character to one’s handwriting.
“But despite this and many other faults of the stylographic pens of that period, they were sold in very large quantities, and the demand, which until the year 1881 had been confined almost entirely to America, spread to other countries and continued to increase every year until about ten years ago [1891-93] when the demand in America began to decrease, and since then the decline has been even more rapid than the rise, [a rapidity that eclipsed the speed of their rise in popularity]. In Germany and England the sale of Stylographic Pens reached its zenith about the year 1900, then Germany and England followed America by showing a preference for the fountain pen, which being combined with a gold pen with an indestructible point [of osmiridium] that proved the most perfect implement.
“The success of the Stylo Pen showed the public craving for a pen that would carry ink in the holder for several hours continuous writing, and that could be carried in the pocket like a pencil, ready for use at any time or place, and Mr. Brown’s knowledge of the wants of the public acquired during his management of the MacKinnon Pen Co. gave him courage to proceed with his experiments with fountain pens, and in 1883 his efforts had been crowned with success. That is to say, his invention, which was soon afterwards put on the market under the name “Caw’s Dashaway Fountain Pen”, was so far in advance of anything that had preceded it that it was hailed with delight by the American public.
“The first Dashaway Pens had many faults, but these were gradually eliminated, and after a few years progress in the manufacture, and by extensive advertising, Caw’s Dashaway Fountain Pen won a world wide reputation.
“During this period other inventors were engaged in the same line, and the first two to follow Mr. Brown were P. E. Wirt and L. E. Waterman of New York. Their inventions differed from Mr. Brown’s only in details of construction, but by this time the American public was so hungry for fountain pens their appetites were hard to satisfy, and Mr. Wirt and Mr. Waterman got a fair share of patronage. While these three inventors were struggling for supremacy, many imitators appeared on the scene, but with one exception their productions had nothing to recommend them but cheapness, and in a short time they were buried under public condemnation. This exception is known as the “Swan” pen made in New York. [What about Parker, and Lancaster, and Blair?]
“It may be here remarked that the four Pens I have just mentioned were first sold at the same price as they are sold today, $2.50, and they have all stood the test of [one missing line]=[what the market will bear, and of the] scores of cheaper Pens put on the market, [almost every] one has succumbed after a precarious existence of from three to five years, which is pretty conclusive evidence that experienced users of fountain pens want only the best, and that the best cannot be made and sold at a profit for less than $2.50.
“Naturally, a strong rivalry existed between the manufacturers of the Caw, Wirt, Waterman, [Parker, Lancaster, Blair?], and Swan fountain pens, and instead of vying for cheapness their efforts were addressed toward improvements. Until about eight years ago [1893-5?], the improvements were not noticeable to the average public as they were confined to improved workmanship and careful attention to details. Up to that time [1893-5?], a fountain pen had never been made that could be shut up tight and made secure against the evaporation and leakage of ink. As they were then used almost exclusively by travelers and others as a pocket convenience, and used only occasionally, this was a serious objection because when taken from the pocket the ink had either coagulated and the Pen would not write, or the ink had leaked out on the clothing where it remained instead of remaining in the pen-holder where it was put. Some of the ink adhered to the pen’s holder [section], which made it unclean to handle. But notwithstanding these disagreeable characteristics, a large clientele submitted to them and tried to school themselves into the habit of putting the Pen in the pocket right end up so it would not leak, and changing the ink often so it would not dry up.
“A considerable portion of the public, however, after trying several different kinds and always with the same results, that they had to change their linen several times a day and wear gloves at their meals to look respectable, finally eschewed fountain pens except when they could borrow one from a friend.
“This was the condition of the fountain pen trade in 1895 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 almost a revolution in the constructions of fountain pens. This invention was immediately offered to the public under the name of “Caw’s Safety Fountain Pen”, and there is probably no pen that [one or two missing lines]=[offered the long-desired protection from ink leakage and evaporation. It was so designed that, after retraction of the pen nib, the cap screwed tight]. This Pen shuts up tight so that the ink cannot escape or dry up under any condition, or in any climate. [In consequence, it is always ready for use, and] it is [always] clean to handle. [The] arrangement of the feed is such that the ink is supplied to the nib in writing fine or heavy lines, the flow of ink being regulated by the amount of pressure on the point of the pen.
“The Germans [Europeans] have adopted the use of fountain pens with more caution and discrimination than the Americans, and it was not until the advent of Caw’s Safety fountain pen in 1895 that their faith in it was shown by a large demand, which has been on the increase ever since, but the desire to own a fountain pen has not yet taken possession of all classes of society of all ages and both sexes in this country [England, Germany, some other European country?] as it has in America.
“I shall give you an illustration of the popularity of the Caw’s fountain pens in America, especially in New York City, the home of the manufacturers:
“A few years ago, the Caw’s Pen Co. was spending large sums of money in advertising their Pens in the New York daily papers, and not knowing which paper produced the best results, they conceived the idea of making a test of the value of the different papers, and at the same time to test the popularity of their Pens. So one day they inserted an advertisement one column in length in all the New York daily papers [Times-Post-Observer-Tribune-Herald-Mirror-Daily News-Sun?] announcing that they would sell one of their celebrated pens at half price to everyone who called at their place of business the next day, between the hours of 9 A.M. and 3 P.M., and deposited in a receptacle prepared for the purpose the name of the paper in which he or she had read the advertisement. The effect of this was phenomenal and is described in a clipping from the New York [Times-Post-Observer-Tribune-Herald-Mirror-Daily News-Sun?], which I shall read to you. [Extract missing.] Here is also an enlarged photograph of the crowd in front of their store on that occasion. [Photo also missing, but it was used in this ad.]”