Stephen Hull: The Swan Book – Mabie Todd in England 1880 to 1960

I have many fountain pen books. Several are really coffee-table books: photographs with a short paragraph of text. Those are perhaps marginally useful for identification purposes or to give a vague outline of fountain pen history, but no more.

Beautifully bound, illustrated and presented though it is, Stephen Hull’s The Swan Book is no coffee-table book but a repository of years of research and familiarity with Mabie Todd pens. It does not only cover Swans but also Blackbirds and Jackdaws, ephemera and shop window displays.

Mabie Todd in England was a large, valuable and complex company. Brief biographies of the most senior people involved are part of the story and this gives an idea of how the company developed under changing management.

Since I first became enamoured of British fountain pens, Swans have been central to my interest. I gathered as many Swan advertisements as I could which helped a little with dating but I remained unsure of the issue dates of many pens. This book solves that problem. It moves through the decades presenting the pens as they came along. That chronological progression makes the story easy to follow and it helps to find the pen you want. Indexing a book about fountain pens will almost always be difficult because, as in this book and the Conway Stewart one, the pens are identified by numbers rather than names. Again, the chronological order of the book makes consultation easy. The book is both an engrossing narrative and a reference work – one I use almost daily.

All our much-loved pens are here: the eyedroppers, self fillers, Leverless pens and Visofils to name but a few. They are beautifully illustrated by excellent photographs. It’s wonderful to see them all gathered together in one place, almost – but not quite – as good as having them all.

As we all know, the popularity of fountain pens has gone through a steep and deep decline. They have gone from being the primary writing instrument to a niche interest. This book enables the reader to live in the glory days of one of the best fountain pens ever produced: the Swan.

The Swan Book is central to the story of the fountain pen. It gives unmatched access to historical and technical detail. It is, perhaps, Stephen Hull’s masterwork, a splendid addition to his previous volumes. My advice is – buy this book! It’s a wonderful read and the most useful reference in my library.

8 thoughts on “Stephen Hull: The Swan Book – Mabie Todd in England 1880 to 1960

  1. It’s a terrific read as well as a useful resource. It is rather expensive (a high quality production that will probably sell in hundreds rather than tens of thousands) and I use it constantly. Most collectors will know that Mabie Todd’s factory and its Mayfair office were destroyed in the blitz along with the company’s record, so that what Steven Hull has learned about the early days is remarkable. The takeover of the company by Biro is recorded and the sad final days of 1958 when Biro Swan ceased the fountain pen side of its business. A much recommended book with hundreds of wonderful photograph and some fascinating appendices.

    1. Yes, these books are unavoidably expensive but considering I frequently spend more on a single pen… I am just delighted that Steve and Andy Russell have found a way to get these books published, making all the essential information available in such an enjoyable format.

      1. Thank you so much for making that point Deb – people who have thousands of pounds worth of pens in their collection still frequently grumble about paying £70 or so for a book that tells them the history of them all. I’m sure they cannot appreciate the amount of ‘up front’ money required to produce a book like ‘The Swan Pen’, not counting the many years the author has spent assembling the original material.

        I noticed in the recent ‘Sharing Pen History’ topic on FP Geeks that contributors were saying how expensive pen books are generally on the second-hand market – this will always be the case when print quantities are necessarily limited. The moral is surely therefore to buy them when they are new! Despite this, the only English Pen Books title that has (recently) sold out is the Conway Stewart book ‘Fountain Pens for the Million’, and that was published in 2010. For this reason, print quantities of the subsequent books have been significantly reduced as each new title appeared, and only 400 copies of ‘The Swan Pen’ were produced. It is highly unlikely there will ever be any more after these have gone.

      2. I’m sure that it is very expensive to publish high quality books that won’t sell many copies. Prices are not going to compare with latest John Grisham. I recntly paid nearly £40 for a niche-market historical work which had been reviewed in the Times Literaray Supplement and similar US publications, guaranteeing it sales in the thousands. Comparatively, Steve’s book and yours are not expensive, given their real value and tiny market. I think now that I should have emphasised that more in the reviews.

  2. Deb, I couldn’t agree more ! The book is a masterpiece.
    Between it , and ‘Mabie in America’ there’s not a lot more one could ask for in a reference volume, and for straight up interesting reading , it just doesn’t get any better.

    Now if only someone could tell me anything about a BCHR clipless ‘Swan safety pen’ with C4PM on its barrel end, and one huge gold cap ring , I would be very grateful !!

  3. Andy, I also think that part of the problem with pen books not selling is more than just people not wanting to pay that much. Another problem is promotion. I am still discovering more and more fountain pen related books all the time that are or were supposedly big sellers but I had never seen them or heard of them nor saw any mention of them in forums. I don’t see production costs having anything to do with books on the aftermarket. People in all forms of collectible markers who buy books on the subject just expect to get what they paid for them or at least close to it just like the collectible the book is about.
    I am a fine art photographer. I am working on doing a good quality coffee table book. Going to an actual publisher will always result in a book being expensive if it is a higher risk and lower production run. I have chosen to use one of the vanity press websites for my book. It won’t cost me a single cent for anything. They do all the printing and shipping and just take a small percentage out of the sale of each copy. This is something those who write books on pens may want to consider.

    1. As for not knowing what pen books are available, you only have to visit Uri Orland’s website ‘Books about Pens’ http://www.booksaboutpens.com/catalog_en/index.asp?category=1 which lists pretty much everything available. From there, Googling any title of interest will almost certainly find you a seller.

      As for your other points about costs, publishing and distribution, I couldn’t disagree more with just about everything you say. I wish you success with your ‘vanity press’ project, but that won’t be a route we adopt for any of our forthcoming projects.

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