A Dip Pen With Stanhope

This pretty dip pen has a Stanhope of the Crystal Palace. Such pens were popular in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This fine example screws apart to reveal the nib, set in a holder decorated with lines and stars.

There is a difficulty with it. The best of these were made from elephant ivory. Others, then and later, were copied in inferior materials such as walrus, hippopotamus or mammoth ivory, vegetable ivory, bone, celluloid, casein and later plastics. Determining which material this example is made from is a matter for an expert, something I most decidedly am not. However there are some tests that can be carried out and I went through them as well as I could.

Under considerable magnification bone and ivory have characteristic markings. Under a 20x loupe I did not see either. Chemical tests were beyond my ability as I don’t have the necessary materials. The final test, which has to be carried out with care in an area not usually seen, is with a red hot pin. I tried that and the pin did not sink into the material and there was no smoke. It did not smell of burnt hair which would have indicated bone.

The tests didn’t the suggest which material the pen is made from. My guess would be that it is either celluloid or a later plastic but I could easily be wrong.

Regardless of the material or the date of manufacture, this is a very attractive pen. The Stanhope of the Crystal Palace is clear and the carving (or moulding) is detailed and the pattern is consistent. The condition of the metal part, somewhat darkened and discoloured, suggests age. I don’t see any marks of a mould but they may have been removed by final work. As well as its considerable aesthetic attraction, it makes a practical dip pen, and because the nib can be reversed and screwed into the body of the instrument it is portable.

Some mystery remains with the pen because I am unable to say what its material is with certainty but it is a charming piece.


The Selfit Nib

Paul L kindly informed me about this Selfit nib which appeared as a replacement in a much better pen. I’d never heard of Selfit but as ever Stephen Hull came through with the information in his The English Fountain Pen Industry 1875 – 1975. Turns out the nib started life in a Wyvern Selfit pen of 1935.

This peculiar nib is plated steel. What makes it such an oddity is the presence of two tabs and a cylindrical base. These surround the feed and hold it in place. The feed (I assume it is original) is a very primitive thing for 1935, by which time feeds had come a long way.

Wyvern had been around for a long time by 1935 and was highly experienced in pen making. Why did they turn out such a crude nib for the Selfit pen? Did the pen require these unusual devices to hold nib and feed together because of poor tolerances? Was it just an experiment towards a new style of nib? How effective was it in delivering ink in its original pen? I have plenty of questions but no answers.

Though I can’t remember which pen it was I have seen a nib with tabs before, but never the cylindrical part. Considering that almost every other manufacturer managed perfectly well keeping everything together by the pressure of the nib and feed wedged into the section, where was the necessity for such a design? A patent might give us some answers.

What’s Next?

A sense of proportion is a useful thing to have but it doesn’t always fit with our hobbies and obsessions.

Writing has been around for a long time and it has been done in a variety of ways. When we fill in a form in block capitals it’s a memory of the chiselled letters on Roman memorials. A little later monks were creating Books of Hours and copies of the gospels like The Book of Kells with quills and paintbrushes. This isn’t a history of writing; I don’t plan to go through every way letters have been formed or ink laid on paper.

Clerks like Bob Cratchit got through lots of steel nibs in the nineteenth century. Lawyers had something approaching a writing factory turning out legal documents. The written word was of supreme importance.

When the fountain pen came along it solved a few problems. No more constant dipping. Portability was improved. It became a status symbol and an item of personal jewellery. It had a fairly short life as the primary writing instrument, though. Roughly 1890 to 1960, then we moved on to the next thing in that long chain of writing tools, the ballpoint.

Taking all that into account, does it matter if the world’s writing comes out of a laser printer in Times New Roman? Whether it does or not that’s how it is and how it will be until the next thing comes along, whatever that may be.

In the meantime I continue on with my fountain pen, taking pleasure at the formation of letters at the tip of my nib. If that makes me an anachronism, so be it. I’ve been called worse things.

My Title Bag Is Empty

We love our pens and so we should: they are small objects of desire. Indeed, if we didn’t love them we wouldn’t be here, but from one person to another the pens that we love are different. My hands are small but that doesn’t mean I can only work with small pens. What I can’t manage is heavy: those Chinese pens with brass barrels and caps or, sadly, Italix Pens which have rather nice nibs.

Equating weight with quality is a modern idea. I would go so far as to say that it is entirely mistaken. Historically many of the best pens, Onotos, Swans, Duofolds and Pelikans weighed very little and did not tire the hand in extended periods of writing as some modern metal-based pens do. Metal, of course does not need to mean heavy. The wonderful overlay pens of the early years of the twentieth century weighed very little, as did Wahl Eversharp’s metal pens and even Parker’s much more recent flighters.

So what do I like specifically? First and foremost I’m a Mabie Todd person and most pens that came from their factories suit my hand very well. That’s because those were very well-made pens that would suit any hand. From the small SM1s of the late forties and fifties to some of the much larger pens from the twenties and thirties they all suit me very well and a pen that is comfortable in the hand encourages one to write and enables one to write well.

I like Conway Stewarts too, particularly the hard rubber ones from the thirties. They are among the most weightless of pens and the original nibs are very good – not necessarily flexible – but that isn’t a requirement for me. I appreciate their colourful pens from the forties and fifties too. It gives pleasure to own and use a brightly-patterned pen, though it probably doesn’t add anything to the writing quality!

I’ve had a fondness for the De La Rue Onoto from the beginning. I had one that was incapable of being repaired, long ago, when parts were unavailable. I used it as an eyedropper filler for a long time. It had a wonderful oblique stub nib which improved my handwriting immensely. When parts became available again I had the pen restored and later, in a moment of inexplicable insanity I sold it – a foolish action I have regretted ever since.

I’ve had several US or Canadian-made Duofolds, full-size and Junior. These too are splendid writers as also are their Newhaven cousins. Whether to write with or restore, the high manufacturing quality of Duofolds make them a pleasure. The same is true of Sheaffers, particularly before they became enamoured of odd filling systems.

I must limit myself because, truth be told, there are few vintage pens that I don’t enjoy. Modern pens don’t appeal to me in the same way though I don’t entirely dismiss them. In today’s output, pens from Japan have nibs that work well for me – and it’s all about the nib.

Bad Practice

It has been a week of bad practice. My sources tell me that there was an unedifying debate in FPN on the subject of gluing sections in place with shellac. I’m sure that some of you will know where that particular piece of bad advice came from. The proponent of this nonsense shellacs sections in place so that the pens’ owners can’t get in there where they have no right to be. This is a fine example of the weird thinking that is abroad in the world.

Yesterday I took a trip through eBay to see what I could find. I managed to pick up a nice Leverless, one of my favourite pens. As I flicked from one page to the next my eyes were suddenly assaulted with astounding brutality. The offending weapon was a colourful 1930s pen, polished within an inch of its life until it gleamed like the Koh-I-Noor diamond. There were several of these shiny, shiny pens, all emanating from the workshop of the same “restorer.” They were mostly cheap pens to begin with but once The Shining had been imposed upon them I would think they were utterly worthless to any collector of that period.

I’m not going to publish the pen destroyer’s name here. That would be a little harsh, but if anyone wants enlightened just drop me a PM. What made this most amusing is that the seller boasts that his pens are “professionally machine and hand polished.” So it seems that in addition to the traditional professions: lawyers, clergy and doctors we now have professional pen polishers.

“What do you do for a living, Mr Pen Seller?”

“Why, I’m a Professional Pen Polisher!”

“My goodness! That must have taken a lot of study!”

“Yes, four years undergraduate study and another two years to complete my doctorate. My thesis was on the effect of varying speeds with a Dremel and a cotton mop.”

All very impressive. He then goes on to say that his pens are completed with “museum finishing wax.” About five years ago museums and other bodies stopped using Renaissance Wax and other similar preparations. Originally thought to be a harmless polish, they turned out to contain chemicals that were injurious to many materials, including those that pens are made from. It also proved well-nigh impossible to remove. Avoid wax at all costs.


It has been suggested to me that I have fallen behind the times; that text blogs are a thing of the past and the future lies with the video blog.

These blog entries that I write: reviews, opinion pieces or whatever they may be, the method suits me. A written narrative with photos where appropriate works for me whether I am writing or reading. When I’m reading other blogs I can go back over any part that requires further consideration. I can study photos for as long as I need.

The opposite, to my mind, which rarely works for me, is the video blog or review. The exception, I would say, is SBRE Brown who goes about his videos in a structured, disciplined way and has the vocabulary and experience to get his message over.

Most video blogs are not like that. The bloggers ramble and have no structure. Often they lack the linguistic ability to explain well. Some are self-indulgent. The medium, when poorly used, does not give the opportunity to easily spend more time on an aspect as a written work does.

You don’t know me and you will never be exposed to my accent or annoying mannerisms (though of course I probably have some written ones.) Distilling my opinions, such as they are, into text on a page removes many of the distracting incidentals that afflict the video blog.

The video blog potentially does have benefits. I’ve already quoted the example of Stephen Brown’s work. A pen can be shown from all possible angles which would take up too much space in a text/photo work. Aspects of repair – when done properly – can be better illustrated in a video. There was a period when I did consider it but I decided against it because I know I lack the necessary professionalism in that medium. I have written in one capacity or another all my life and I think it’s best to stick with what I know.

A Pitman Made By Waterman

You may remember our recent discussions about the Pitman’s pens. We concluded that most – indeed all the earlier ones – were made by Waterman.

These photos of a rather handsome Pitman are evidentiary, I would say. There is a possible quibble and it is this: Waterman sacs may have been provided for repairers who had some agency relationship with the firm. I raise that possibility because someone else probably will but I personally don’t believe it. I’ve come across quite a few petrified Waterman-branded sacs and they have all come from pens that did not look as though they had ever been opened before. In other words I believe the only Waterman sacs out there are the ones installed during production.

The only possible evidence stronger that this would be a contract between Waterman and Pitman. Oh how we wish…

Thanks to Peter Greenwood for pictures and information.