At the Sign of the Swan

I have kindly been given sight of historical material relating to Mabie Todd. (thank you Paul L!) It includes correspondence between the company and Mr R Ridgill Trout, a publisher who wished to produce a history of writing materials. Whether that history was ever produced I know not, but his company produced other materials and is reasonably well-known.

The correspondence, typed and dated 1938 is in the very stilted formalese of the time. It is so remote from how people speak that I suspect one had to decide what one wanted to say and then translate it into the language of business correspondence. In any case, Mabie Todd were keen to help and provided a very detailed history of the company’s pen production and its moves and expansions. They also included a company brochure entitled, “At the Sign of the Swan, Your Pen and Ink” by SPB Mais. Though he died in 1975 – not so very long ago – he is completely forgotten today despite having written over two hundred books on all sorts of subjects. His writing style is pleasant, informal and humorous, very much of its time.

The brochure covers the making of Swan ink in Liverpool, the production of gold nibs, how the barrels and caps were made and it ends with a description of Sunderland House, which the company had recently acquired and made its headquarters. In hindsight we know that Sunderland House was doomed to be demolished by German bombs in a few years. It is sad that the illustrations of its elegant rooms are of spaces soon to cease to exist.

I knew already how the various parts of fountain pens were made but Mais’s account is so well done and so detailed that it is almost as if one is there.

These are precious documents, wherein the company gives an account of itself at the very height of its prosperity. We know the wonderful, high-quality pens that were being produced in the mid-thirties and the company’s pride in its product is justifiable. They had been making splendid pens for many years and had every reason to expect it to continue. History records that, in the longer term, it was not to be, due first to enemy action, then the overpowering success of the ballpoint. It’s nice to dwell on these earlier, more optimistic times.

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11 thoughts on “At the Sign of the Swan

  1. How great. What an interesting historical vignette .
    Would that it were available in PDF for all to see 🤗

    1. As it happens, I do have a full set of scans of this booklet. At present, it is intended that it be included in full as one of the appendices to Steve Hull’s forthcoming book ‘The Swan Pen’ – which no doubt you will all be buying….! Whether or not it makes the final cut remains to be seen, it all depends on how many pages are available for appendices once the layout of the main body of the book is complete. If ultimately it is not included, Steve may say it is OK to make the scans available as a pdf, in which case it would then be available for download from the englishpenbooks.co.uk website.

      The book is still on schedule for an October launch at the LWES. It has been a massive project, including more photographs of pens and ephemera than any of Steve’s earlier books (to date, 1300+ pictures and 300+ scans of advertising leaflets, etc.) but it is finally expected to go to press in June.

      1. I’m just confirming that ‘At the Sign of the Swan’ has made the cut and it will be reproduced as Appendix V in the Swan Book, complete bar a few blank pages in the original.

    2. First of all, the material isn’t mine to publish and secondly I don’t have a scanner. Even if I were to be permitted to share the material, making a decent copy with a camera would be very demanding – probably beyond the capability of the equipment I have.

      It was a difficult post, quite different from the book reviews I have done, in that those reading it would be unable to go out and buy it. It seems you may all have sight of the brochure, at least, later in the year.

  2. thanks for that Andy – yes, this one is a must, and I think the world and his wife are looking forward with great anticipation.

  3. This was included in the WES Journal over three issues:

    At the Sign of the Swan, Your Pen & Ink. 1. Ink, S.P. Mais, 60 p48-52. 2. His (or her) Nibs, 61 p45-47. 3. Harlesden: the home of the holder, 62 p16-19. 4.

    If you are a member (I hope everybody who reads this is) you can order PDFs from the Librarian. I remember reading it at the time, its pretty dry stuff

    1. Hi Simon,

      It’s a matter of taste. I didn’t find it dry at all, rather the reverse. I used to be a WES member but I came to the conclusion that sharing information freely is better.

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