Pen Museum Birmingham gun-shaped inkwell Helgoland
Pen Museum Birmingham - treen inkwell in shape of books
Pen Museum Birmingham - travelling escritoire c1844

Those were the days, when you could flaunt and vaunt through the thrill of the quill.

The investment of time and effort was huge, however.  Having learned you would have to stop every few lines to re-sharpen the nib, an action that echoes in ‘pen-knife’, I have new respect for the people who wrote millions of pages of letters, documents and books with such a penderous process.

The Pen Museum in Birmingham (UK) is in a brick-built Victorian former pen factory, with gold-patina wooden display cases and a mock Victorian classroom, suitably Dickensian.   An interesting feature of the building is that they used the top floor as a public Turkish bath, using the waste heat from the factories below – eco-efficiency before anyone talked ‘eco’.

Birmingham was apparently the world centre for pen making in the 19th century, creating a number of self-made millionaires such as Joseph Gillott who came from Sheffield in the 1820s when the cutlery business was cutting back.   According to the museum, at its peak Birmingham produced three-quarters of all pens worldwide, and 18,000 could be produced in a ten hour day.   Initially metal-nibbed dipper pens, the museum has a row of original presses for the various stages of cutting, pressing, and curving the nibs. Fountain pens came later, but it seems that the invention of the biro more or less blotted out the industry in Birmingham, though it isn’t clear why it didn’t adapt.

There was a parallel industry in ink wells, blotters and other penphernalia. I was arrested by the thumping ink well made of metal from a captured German ship, tastefully wrought to resemble a ship’s gun.   More in my style was a treen travelling ink well, resembling a row of books with another book stacked on top as the lid.   And two tiny travelling ‘escritoires’ – leather cases containing thimble-sized ink bottles, blotters, nibs and a candle the size of a birthday candle for your sealing wax, not to mention a handy almanac. The whole thing would fit into the palm of a hand.

The pen makers were almost exclusively women.   The museum had a video interviewing them, along with a historian.   The historian insisted that married women were able to work there, unusual at the time, allowing an extra income for couples.   A nonagenarian lady interviewed wryly said it was all unmarried women, though she preferred to call them ‘unclaimed treasures’ than ‘old maids’.

May your handwriting flaunt you, your pen always flow and your treasures be claimed to your delight.


With warm thanks to the dedicated people who created and maintain the Pen Museum in Birmingham, UK.

Note: ‘treen’ means ‘of a tree’ and refers to small household objects made of wood, as opposed to furniture or other big objects.

Quotation source: Molly Peacock The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins her Life’s Work at 72 (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 243


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