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Information is gold; sometimes more than figuratively.
We came across a lovely Victorian pen catalogue in our favourite collection, archive.org. Titled, in fine Victorian fashion, History of the invention and illustrated process of making Foley’s diamond pointed gold pens with complete illustrated catalogue[ ]
The first half of the book is an excellent catalogue of Foley’s products: dip pens & holders, propelling pencils, toothpick & ear spoon combos (yes, really), and other treasures. There is some lovely information to be parsed from these pages. For example, did you know that some pen holders were designed to have the tail end pulled off, so that the two pieces would fit into a leather fitted box? Or that propelling pencils were originally referred to as “pencil cases”?
But what really shines for us is the second half of the book (about 40 pages), where Foley happily explains each step in the manufacture of gold nibs. With seventeen illustrations of workers at their benches, with their tools! (To be fair, one is of accountants and the boss. But close enough.)
Being a product of the Victorian age, rhetoric abounds; being a product of America, there is plenty of flag-waving British denegration. And taking place at the birth of real salesmanship, there are a few gems, such as the apparently well-known ‘fact’ that users of steel pens (as opposed to gold pens) lose the use of their writing hands due to errant electrical currents! Nonetheless, this book is still an important resource for us today.
Most of the tools used at that time are quite simple, and can be had very affordably by us. Many 19th century nibs were used for decades, and are still very sound today. The methods used in manufacturing those high-quality products are proven here to be quite simple, which belies the voodoo-like claims of many modern manufacturers.
In fact, our convictionafter reading Foleyis even stronger: newly-manufactured pens have only a shadow of the quality they once had. Sub-standard modern materials, bad design, and shoddy workmanship plague even the highest-priced pens.
Reading these descriptions, and seeing those tools, is an empowering thing. There is no reason why anyone with a quick mind and stable hand cannot accomplish even the most demanding of manufacture, or repairs. Pens and pencils weren’t born, they were made. They can be un-made, and they can be re-made. And, most of all, they can be appreciated.
A complete copy of Foley can be found at https://archive.org/details/historyofinventi00fole. It is a large file, best reviewed on a more powerful computer. Despite the fact that some enterprising people sell it, it is in the public domain; this copy came from the US Library of Congress. You can legally download it, copy it, distribute it, and irritate profiteers with it.