November 13, 2014

An 1856 Fountain Pen

[This was first posted on the Pentrace homepage in 2001, and then was moved to the Older Stuff, and it also appeared in The Pennant, Spring 2001, p.14.]
      Call me a “notesnatcher”, but an interesting auction item sold on Ebay on July 19, 2000, a letter written by a certain E. B. Coon in the southern United States in 1856.  This letter goes on about family matters at first, but the interesting portion, for our purposes here, is a short section near the end devoted to the fountain pen with which the author is writing the letter.  It
s an 1856 fountain pen!
      Before I quote the pertinent section, perhaps I should prepare you for its stilted, old-fashioned grammar and punctuation.  The writer doesn’t use a single comma or period in the whole letter.  For someone who doesn’t use a single period, it’s curious, however, that he does use the ironically serendipitous phrase “suit you to a dot”.  Instead of commas and periods, he uses dashes throughout equally as partial stops and full stops.  Many of the common, as opposed to proper, nouns in the letter have initial capital letters, even though they appear in the middle of a sentence.  All in all, the letter looks like the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  Well, at least it’s consistent and correct for its period.  There is also a quaint precursor to the word “itself”, some emphasis achieved through italicized underlining, a period contraction of the name William, and another even curiouser precursor to the word for “change”, as in “small change”, or “pocket change”, or “money in small denominations and coins received in exchange for money in higher denominations”.  So, these are the grammatical and semantic stumbling blocks to look out for.  Except for two minor errors, which I have corrected silently, the quote appears exactly as it does in the letter.

              Covington, Ky.          August 30th 1856                        
I am writing with a novel pen - It is the “Fountain Pen” - a Gold pen and Vulcanized India Rubber Holder - It pumps in Ink enough to write about 6 sheets [of] Foolscap and feeds its self uniformly - Therefore Inkstands become obsolete - It is a very splendid improvement - My pen is the $5.00 - though it cost me but a trifle - And it would suit you to a dot - I will send Wm his pen soon as I can get the exchange for a good one as there is now a poor supply -                 Respect to you all -                E. B. Coon
      The quote refers first of all to the two things that made the successful fountain pen possible, the gold nib with an iridium tip, and a hard rubber holder.  With the convergence of these two technological discoveries, the fountain pen industry simply took off.  In spite of this, he mentions that locally fountain pens are still hard to come by and in short supply.  And not only is it a fountain pen from 1856, it’s a self-filling fountain pen!  The pen “pumps in ink”, whatever that means, presumably by means of a piston, or a rubber tube or sac.  The letter doesn't say which, but in any case, it is not an eyedropper pen.  And as is usual throughout the early history of the fountain pen, the pen is praised for preserving us from the tyranny of the inkwell, a quality cited repeatedly in the 19th-century literature on pens, almost to the point of nausea.
      The writer calls it ‘the “Fountain Pen”’, not only in quotation marks, but also emphasized with italic underlining.  But that wasn’t its company name, or model name, like the “Duofold”, or “The Ideal Pen”.  The term “fountain pen” was still so novel that it needed to be flagged, and not just once, but twice.  The pen was, however, an “improvement”, implying that there were preceding pens that didn’t work as well.  So, to which pen exactly is he referring?  It’s a shame he doesn’t mention the penmaker’s name, but this was still the beginning of the fountain pen industry, and they were still figuring out how to market these newfangled writing instruments, so the pen may not even have had the maker’s name, etc., embossed on its barrel.
      There were five US patents for fountain pens before 1845, and another six between 1846 and 1850.  But any successful pen after 1851, the year of Nelson Goodyear’s first patent for vulcanized hard rubber, and indeed any pen as late as 1856, would definitely have been made of hard rubber.  Therefore, any patents before 1851 should be discounted as candidates for this pen, and certainly any pens before 1845.  The one notable exception is the 1848 patent held by A. Lyman & M. W. Baldwin, probably the very first for a pen with a rubber sac, or bladder.  Newell Prince held three patents for fountain pens, one in 1851 and two in 1855.  The first of the two 1855 patents holds the distinction of being the first US patent to specify that the holder should be made of hard rubber.  Charles Cleveland held an 1852 patent and another from 1854, and even though his 1852 patent doesn’t specify that hard rubber should be used, an article in The Scientific American that year states that the pen was indeed made of hard rubber.  H. K. McClelland held a patent in 1855, as did George W. White.  There are four other likely candidates, all dating from 1856, the patents of Henry A. Brown & James Wiley, A. F. Warren, Austin Goodyear Day, and Nelson Slayton.
      A closer examination of the patents and the advertisements for these early pens might definitely eliminate some of these prospects and elevate others as more likely candidates.  My best guesses are the pensmiths Prince, Warren, Day, and Cleveland, simply because these are the names with the greatest longevity in the early fountain pen industry.  Day held patents for both mechanical pencils and fountain pens, as well as for his own process of vulcanizing hard rubber.  Cleveland already held a patent for a fountain pen as early as 1833.  Prince’s pen, a piston-filler, was advertised well into the 1870s.  And Warren held four patents, the last issued in 1863.
      With early pens, all we have to go by, in most instances, is the paper trail left behind by and about these pens, not actual living examples of the pens.  And that’s what this letter is.  It’s part of the cryptic paper trail left behind by this unknown pen.

George Kovalenko.


      I searched for the name E. B. Coon in the 1850 US census on, but I found no one with those initials in Kentucky, and the only ones with the initial E. were all women.  I found one Emily, one Ellen, and three Elizabeths.  The only clue in the letter for a possible relative is the given name William, and of these five women only one, Emily, was related to someone named William.  In 1850, Emily was 15 years old, and her brother was 13 years old, and they were living with their family in Christian County, on the southern border of Kentucky.  But Covington is in Kenton County on the northern border of Kentucky, and on the southern bank of the Ohio River, across the way from Cincinnati, Ohio.  It’s a long shot that Emily and E. B. are the same person, and there’s no definite proof, but maybe in 1856, she had moved north to the big city to look for work.  By the time of the 1860 census, her surname disappeared, most likely through marriage, but William was still living in Christian County, and was married with kids of his own.  Maybe that idiosyncratic punctuation common to both the letter and to Emily Dickinson’s poetry is a female thing, or maybe it
s an Emily thing.