February 19, 2016

Thomas Jefferson’s fountain pen

  , or the William Cowen (or Cowan) fountain pen.


Fountain pen, quill pen, ink bottle, wax seal, and marble paper weights, one in the shape of a book.
All items at Monticello except the seal, courtesy of a private collection.  Photo by Edward Owen.

        I’m sick and tired of seeing this topic come up every few years.  The last time this cropped up was last November on Pentrace where two old friends, a couple of old fogeys, were discussing Thomas Jefferson’s 1824 fountain pen.  All those involved shall remain nameless to protect the guilty.  It was stated there that the pen was filled as an eyedropper and that the pen was non- functional because it had no feed, and there was nothing to keep the ink inside the barrel.  Someone else said that even though it was non-functional, you could still dip it.  Then they proceeded to discuss whether there was any way to install a feed so that at least one dip would give a few lines of writing.  They were beginning to drive me crazy with their casual banter.
        First of all, this pen was not filled with an eyedropper because it predated the invention of elastic rubber by 20 to 25 years, and it couldn’t have had a hard rubber feed because it predated the invention of hard rubber by 25 to 30 years.  It could only have been filled with a glass pipette, or by literally pouring the ink into the barrel using a funnel.  It is what is now known as a Bion-type pen.  Second, it is totally functional as a Bion-type pen.  It is an exact reproduction of Jefferson’s pen, and no parts are missing, so nothing additional is required to make it functional.  There is a tiny hole at the nib-end, and it has no feed because that’s the way Bion-type pens work.  The ink is kept inside the barrel by the surface tension of the liquid.  You prime the nib by giving the pen a single, little shake at a time, as required.  You could also prime the nib by gingerly unscrewing the monogrammed end cap to let in some air.  You could alternatively use a needle to break the surface tension and drag out the ink to get it started.  Of course it could get messy.  I’m not denying that.  It just takes a little pensmithship to get the priming just right.  But it’s not broken, for goodness sake.  You can see more pictures of such Bion-type pens in Michael Finlay’s book, Western Writing Implements In The Age Of The Quill Pen, p.81.
        Another time on Pentrace, this time on Dec 31, 2005, Ron Dutcher innocently posted the link to his
article about the Thomas Jefferson pen on his webpage about presidential pens.  Someone took him to task for his grammar and his orthography, which is a lost cause.  And someone else asked whether this pen had an ink reservoir, and how it worked, or whether it was a long-lasting dip pen.  “What about a feed, etc.?”, he asked.
        I finally had to chime in to say that the pen did have a reservoir, so it was a fountain pen, not a dip pen. At the barrel’s end there is a little oval flange, or elliptical end plate, with “TJ” engraved on it, Jefferson’s monogram.  It could serve as a wax seal, or stamp, except that the initials would be backwards in the wax wafer, so it’s just a decorative monogram, not a wax seal.  It would also serve to stop the pen from rolling off the desk top, sort of like the crescent on a Conklin, but in transverse position.  This end-piece unscrews for filling with ink, so it qualifies as a simple Bion- type fountain pen.  What it doesn’t have is an underfeed.  The nib was primed by shaking the pen until some ink got onto the nib, but that was a precarious process.  Often the paper and desk and floor and walls and ceiling ended up getting blessed with the ink as well.  The replica comes with a cheap gold-plated steel nib, but the original had a gold nib without any tipping material.  It could, alternatively, have had a quill slip nib, which would have been ideal.  They offer superior writing properties, no corrosion, and can be sharpened with a penknife and replaced at will.  The original pen was made by a jeweler named Cowen in Richmond, Virginia in 1824, and the pen should more properly be called the Cowen pen.  Being made in the 1820s, the nib doesn’t have any iridium tipping, nor any other kind.  The pen is referred to in an 1824 Jefferson letter, which is how we know the penmaker's name, and the original pen is on display at Monticello.  As far as I know, the replica is an exact one, except for the nib.  The reproductions of these pens were being sold a few years ago by the gift shop at the Monticello Center, in the Monticello Museum Shop, for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, but they are now sold out.  They were also sold through Levenger’s, and later by Ray Adams at
Wood ’n’ Dreams in 1999.  Here’s the sales listing, which reproduces the text from the paper insert.  And here are some more photos.
        A big part of the confusion was caused by the Monticello Center itself, or at least the Monticello Museum Shop, which called it a dip pen on the paper insert in the box with the pen.

Thomas Jefferson’s Silver Dip Pen
      Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote approximately twenty thousand letters during his lifetime.  In the early 1820’s, Jefferson purchased a sterling silver pen, which he described as “one of the best I ever saw”.  The pen was manufactured by William Cowen, a watchmaker in Richmond, Virginia.  After Jefferson’s death in 1826, the pen was inherited by his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who gave it to her son-in-law, Nicholas P. Trist.  It descended through the Trist-Burke family and has survived in the Monticello collection.
      This reproduction sterling silver pen faithfully follows the original design of Jefferson’s cylindrical writing instrument.  Turned from solid bars of .925 Sterling silver, the pen features a removable cap that can be threaded off to expose a gold nib.  The elliptical head, which is also removable, has been engraved with the initials of Thomas Jefferson, “TJ”, in the same cipher style as the original.  The pen has been hand buffed to a brilliant finish and is an authorized reproduction of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc.

Diameter 0.69", Length 4.75"

made by
Van Cort Instruments, Inc.
29 Industrial Drive East
Northampton, Mass.
        Nowhere on the paper is the pen identified as a fountain pen, even though it is referred to as such by Jefferson.  In his letter of May 13, 1824 to Col. Bernard Peyton, his agent in Richmond, Virginia, he ordered a copy of the pen to be made by William Cowen (1779-1831), a Richmond watchmaker.
I saw yesterday in the hands of Mr Dyer a fountain pen, one of the best I ever saw.  He said it was made for him by Mr Cowan [Cowen], a watchmaker of Richmond, and cost him 5 dollars.  The outer tube was of silver, but the two leaves of the pen were gold, and no other metal will resist the corrosion of the ink.
Silvio Bedini in his book Thomas Jefferson And His Copying Machines, published in 1984, mentions this letter, which is now in the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Papers, in the Massachusetts Historical Society.
        Mike Stevens wrote a
review of the repro pen in 1999 for Stylophiles, an online magazine for pen lovers, and all of this led him to also title his article “The Thomas Jefferson Dip Pen”.  And so the confusion grew.  He also got some other things wrong.  Nicolas Bion published his illustration of his pen in 1709, and the 1758 book is a republication of Edmund Stone’s 1723 translation of the original French book.  He then goes on to deny that the pen is a fountain pen, and says, “I don’t know if I would go that far, I would describe it as a ‘dip pen with a self-contained ink supply’”. But that’s the definition of a fountain pen!  In other words, because there was no feed of any kind on this pen, he denied it the privilege of being called a fountain pen.  The ink had to be delivered to the nib manually by giving the pen a slight shake, so it’s not a fountain pen, according to him.  Gad Gur-Ari also wrote a review of the pen where he called it “a very plain looking dip pen”.  But then he discovers that “this little dip pen has an ink reservoir!”, and he redeems himself by calling it a “Fountain Dip Pen!”.  Well, he redeems himself only halfway.
        Mike Stevens goes on to say that, while the pen is being filled, the end cap is removed only with the other cap in place.  One of the caps must be sealed at all times.  You then screw this cap firmly back in place, remove the main cap, and give the pen a little shake, to allow the ink to drop down into the nib.  When not in use, the pen seals up nicely with no leaking problems at all.  The pen requires a bit of practice to get used to it.  It needs a bit of a jiggle every few words to keep the ink flowing.  It’s not as simple to use as a modern pen, but it must have been a lot better than a conventional dip pen.  You have to get into the habit of keeping the ink moving.  The only part of the pen that’s disappointing is the nib. While the iridium tip is very smooth, the rigid steel nib has absolutely no expressive quality on paper.  Mike replaced the plain, generic nib in the pen with a “super-flex Waterman’s #2 nib, and the results were amazing, in terms of the line”, but you could also exchange it with an italic nib.  Either one would probably be “a lot closer to the original”, and would make it much more fun to use.  Jefferson understood this and was truly the pensmith of happiness, or at least he was pursuing the happiness of the pensmith.

George Kovalenko.