The following passage comes from the author's A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain, which is reviewed on this site. — George P. Landow

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he robust Birmingham pen manufacturer Joseph Gillott rose from a family background of cutlery-making in Sheffield to become the wealthiest and most successful maker and supplier of pen-nibs in the world. Gillott cleverly grasped the obvious — that written records for trade were essential and would only grow; that growth in education demanded writing; and that expansion of the opportunities in travel required at the very least that somebody write out a ticket for somebody else. The common factor here was the pen-nib, and Gillott joined the competition to make and improve pens and their nibs. No network of goose farms could possibly hope to produce enough quills to meet the exponential rise in demand for a reliable instrument to transfer ink to paper, so a small shaped piece of treated metal at the end of a fashioned stick was the answer. When Dickens's Mr Merdle killed himself with a penknife — that is, a knife designed to trim goose quills into pens—the 'Man of the Age' was employing old technology.

Gillott moved to Birmingham aged twenty-two in 1821. Beginning in the buckle-making trade, his grasp of miniature metalworking and his cutlery background gave him a rich understanding of the qualities of flat metal. With the availability of thin sheet steel, he was able to develop means to stamp out nib forms, give them a simple lateral curve, and, crucially, split them lengthways to create a channel and a small reservoir for ink. This is not a complex industrial process; its simplicity allowed the pen-nib to evolve from primitive appendage to near-perfection in a few short stages. While a goose-quill pen might hold enough ink to write two or three words and make a blot, a steel pen, properly curved and cut, could hold enough for a complete sentence — and not blot.

By 1829 Gillott was advertising his pen-nibs and assorted calligraphiana, and had set up in Newhall Street, amidst a plethora of small trades in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter Bv the end of the i83os he had expanded into his new factory, the Victoria Works on Newhall Hill. From there he turned out 490,361 gross of pen-nibs in 1842, a figure that nearly doubled the next year. One gross is 144 individual units, so his factory was making more than 70 million nibs in 1842, and more than 100 million the following year - that is, a quarter of a million pen-nibs a day. Gillott's pens sold across the nation, filling goods wagons on the railway lines now beginning to fan out from Birmingham, and barges on the canals. He was among the earliest entrepreneurs to travel on Brunel's steamship the Great Britain to New York, where he opened first an agency in Chambers Street and then a US manufacturing base in New Jersey. Gillott's profits were monumental — his personal income beyond the dreams of avarice, the tentacles of his trade drawn in long, thin pen-and-ink lines across the world's map. [63-64]


Hamilton, James. A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain. London: Atlantic Books, 2014. [Review by George P. Landow]

Last modified 15 October 2014