November 27, 2014

The Straight Pen

      Have you ever wondered where the term “straight pen”, as a synonym for “penholder”, or “dip pen”, originated?  If you don’t have enough information, you just blunder about.  But it all starts to become clear with a consideration of Copperplate script, or English round hand, which evolved into Platt R. Spencer’s version of the style, called Spencerian script, and the patents for writing instruments used for such scripts.  The angled nib required for Spencerian script lead to penholders that would hold an ordinary steel nib at an angle.  His son, Harvey A. Spencer, held two patents for such penholders along with co-patentee Robert S. Cutting.  US patent no. 89,354 from Apr 27, 1869 was for a penholder “for holding the pen with a hinge-piece, to swing on a pivot in a slot”, so that the nib was held at an angle for Spencerian script, and patent no. 285,578 from Sept 25, 1883 was for another oblique-angle holder for Spencerian script.  George W. Michael’s patent no. 346,670 from Aug 3, 1886 was also for an oblique penholder for Spencerian script.  Harlow C. Clark’s patent no. 554,503 from Feb 11, 1896 was for a penholder with both left-and-right-handed oblique angle nib sockets for Spencerian.  And Albert Jahn’s patent no. 878,004 from Feb 4, 1908 was for another Spencerian penholder, but with an ergonomic finger grip.
      The angle nibs were already quite common, and could not be patented themselves, but Bartlett M. Worthington’s US design no. 7,205 from Feb 24, 1874 shows an example of a design for an angle nib for Spencerian script, made so “a more graceful presented” to the writer while writing.  Ignaz Bergmann’s patent no. 431,245 from July 1, 1890 was for a variation on the Spencerian-type crooked nib with an extra-thin, elastic portion in the angled shank.  Albert Jahn’s patent no. 920,874 from May 4, 1909 was for another elbow-angled Spencerian nib that was also “cranked or angularly set off in regard to the shaft”.
      It wasn’t long before fountain pens were also devised to suite the Spencerian writing style.  James P. Hoyt & Ferdinand Bartram’s patent no. 325,211 from Aug 25, 1885 was for a fountain pen with a feed for normal nibs, but also one with a feed for a “crooked pen”, that is, a laterally shifted Spencerian nib and a “correspondingly crooked” s-curved feed to follow the nib.  Percy E. Pierce’s patent no. 655,731 from Aug 14, 1900 was for a
crooked fountain pen with a zigzag barrel at the nib end, so that the nib was offset obliquely for Spencerian, or Copperplate script.  [See the illustration.]  Felix L. Sturm’s patent no. 849,513 from Apr 9, 1907 was for a “Fountain-Pen Handle” with an awkward change of angle in the section, first upward and then back down.  It had a zigzag “elbow connection” like the angled Spencerian nibs, but offset obliquely upward, “a construction that will be at once efficient and commodious”.  But it was nothing of the kind, especially not the latter.  It probably took a lot of pensmithship to master the pen.
      And then along came William L. Gordon’s patent no. 904,059 from Nov 17, 1908 for a penholder with a nib socket that allowed the holder to be “adapted for use as either a straight or an oblique penholder”, that is, to hold the nib in line with, or at an angle to the holder.  Since my childhood I have wondered where the term “straight pen” came from, and the above patent revealed its etymological source in one fell swoop.  It’s a retronym that was created in response to, and in order to distinguish it from the term “oblique penholder”.  It’s a straight pen as opposed to a crooked pen!  And it all fits together and makes sense, now, and the universe is whole again.

George Kovalenko.