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An 1856 Fountain Pen

from the fountain pen of George Kovalenko

        Call me a "notesnatcher", but an interesting auction item appeared on
eBay last July, a letter written by E. B. Coon in the southern United States in
1856. This letter goes on about family matters at first, but the interesting
portion, for our purposes here, is a short section near the end devoted to the
fountain pen with which the author is writing the letter, an 1856 fountain pen!
        Before I quote the pertinent section, perhaps I should prepare you for its
stilted, old-fashioned grammar and punctuation. The writer doesn't use a
single comma or period in the whole letter. For someone who doesn't use a
single period, it's curious, however, that he does use the ironically serendipitous
phrase "suit you to a dot". Instead of commas and periods, he uses dashes
throughout equally as partial stops and full stops. Many of the common, as
opposed to proper, nouns in the letter have initial capital letters, even though
they appear in the middle of a sentence. All in all, the letter looks like the
poetry of Emily Dickinson. Well, at least it's consistent and correct for its
period. There is also a quaint precursor to the word "itself", some emphasis
achieved through italicized underlining, a period contraction of the name
William, and another even curiouser precursor to the word for "change", as in
"small change", or "pocket change", or "money in small denominations and
coins received in exchange for money in higher denominations". So, these are
the grammatical and semantic stumbling blocks to look out for. Except for
two minor errors, which I have corrected silently, the quote appears exactly as
it does in the letter.

                                                             Covington, Ky. August 30th 1856
I am writing with a novel pen - It is the "Fountain Pen" - a Gold pen and
Vulcanized India Rubber Holder - It pumps in Ink enough to write about 6 sheets
Foolscap and feeds its self uniformly - Therefore Inkstands become obsolete - It
is a very splendid improvement - My pen is the $5.00 - though it cost me but a
trifle - And it would suit you to a dot - I will send Wm his pen soon as I can get
the exchange for a good one as there is now a poor supply -
                                                              Respect to you all               E. B. Coon

        The quote refers first of all to the two things that made the successful
fountain pen possible, the gold nib with an iridium tip, and a hard rubber
holder. With the convergence of these two technological discoveries, the
fountain pen industry simply took off. In spite of this, he mentions that locally
fountain pens are still hard to come by and in short supply. And not only is it a
fountain pen from 1856, it's a self-filling fountain pen! The pen "pumps in
ink", whatever that means, presumably by means of a piston, or a rubber tube
or sac. The letter doesn't say which, but in any case, it is not an eyedropper
pen. And as is usual throughout the early history of the fountain pen, the pen
is praised for preserving us from the tyranny of the inkwell, a quality cited
repeatedly in the 19th-century literature on pens, almost to the point of nausea.
        The writer calls it 'the "Fountain Pen"', not only in quotation marks, but
also emphasized with underlining. But that wasn't its product name, like the
"Duofold", or "The Ideal Pen". The term "fountain pen" was still so novel
that it needed to be flagged, and not just once, but twice. The pen was,
however, an "improvement", implying that there were preceding pens that
didn't work as well. So, exactly what pen is he referring to? It's a shame he
doesn't mention the maker's name, but this was still the beginning of the
fountain pen industry, and they were still figuring out how to market these
newfangled writing instruments, so the pen may not even have had the maker's
name, etc., embossed on its barrel.
        There were five US patents for fountain pens before 1845, and another
six between 1846 and 1850. But any successful pen after 1851, the year of
Nelson Goodyear's first patent for vulcanized hard rubber, and indeed any pen
as late as 1856, would definitely have been made of hard rubber. Therefore,
any patents before 1851 should be discounted as candidates for this pen, and
certainly any pens before 1845. The one notable exception is the 1848 patent
held by A. Lyman & M. W. Baldwin, probably the very first for a pen with a
rubber sac or bladder. Newell Prince held three patents for fountain pens, one
in 1851 and two in 1855. The first of the two 1855 patents holds the
distinction of being the first US patent to specify that the holder should be
made of hard rubber. Charles Cleveland held an 1852 patent and another from
1854, and even though his 1852 patent doesn't specify that hard rubber should
be used, an article in the Scientific American that year states that the pen was
indeed made of hard rubber. H. K. McClelland held a patent in 1855, as did
George W. White. Warren N. Lancaster was said to have had a pen in 1855,
but no patent was issued for the pen. There are four other likely candidates, all
dating from 1856, the patents of Henry A. Brown & James Wiley, A. F.
Warren, Austin Goodyear Day, and Nelson Slayton.
        A closer examination of the patents and the advertisements for these
early pens might definitely eliminate some of these prospects and elevate others
as more likely candidates. My best guesses are the pensmiths Prince, Warren,
Day, Lancaster, and Cleveland, simply because these are the names with the
greatest longevity in the early fountain pen industry. Day held patents for both
mechanical pencils and fountain pens, as well as for his own process of
vulcanizing hard rubber. Cleveland already held a patent for a fountain pen as
early as 1833. Prince's pen, a piston-filler, was advertised well into the 1870s.
Warren held four patents, the last issued in 1863. And Lancaster held patents
as late as 1906, but his 1855 pen is still undocumented in the patent system.
        All we have to go by, in most instances, is the paper trail left behind by
and about these pens, not actual living examples of the pens. And that's what
this letter is. It's part of the cryptic paper trail left behind by this unknown pen.

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