Saturday, 22 December 2012

Happy Holidays


Arranging the nibs, dear Readers, in the shape of a Christmas tree is an attempt to get into the festive mood which it seems is a requirement and even a duty this time of year: buying presents for the children, festooning one's home interior as best as one can, trawling the markets for appropriate edibles and beverages. Only the Christmas lights seem to Palimpsest a bit dim this year, a bit forced, like the smile that one assumes in front of a camera out of habit or to construct the present moment as a happy one and preserve it as such for the years to come. I don't know. In any case: onwards with the celebrations - have a good one, be merry, enjoy, season's greetings.

I, dear Readers, will continue to remain obscure. I will continue, like Robert Fulford, having a vested interest in palimpsest. (Thank you to Lexikaliker for bringing Fulford's article to my attention).

Monday, 10 December 2012

Stephens' Ink Scarlet Writing Fluid No. 451




The dark fluid that faintly gleams with a hint of red wouldn't perhaps look so appealing if it wasn't for the elaborate Victorian paper label on the glass bottle that contains it and the dark red stopper where the iconic script is imprinted: Stephens’. Henry Charles “Inky” Stephens was the inventor in 1832 of the blue-black writing fluid which was to become Stephens’ Ink, an English household name for some 130 years.  This bottle was made in the ink factory in Aldersgate London from where Stephens moved in 1872. This is a seriously old ink.

It is hard, dear Readers, to avoid the (admittedly) sentimental analogy with memories: old, obscure, forgotten, gleaming darkly under their tattered labels yet should they be allowed to surface their colour is unchanged. Dipping a paintbrush in Stephens’ Scarlet and spreading the ink on paper the most unexpectedly luminous red emerges. Scarlet! An astonishing red orange undiminished by age. Scarlet Writing Fluid No. 451 looks as bright as it was the day it was born.

The ink flows easily from the tip of the steel pen, and wonderfully saturates the paper. Mr Stephens, it has been a pleasure.

30ml samples are available to buy from Inklinks, Etsy. Hurry while stocks last. 





Friday, 30 November 2012

Platignum 1930s Fountain Pen Review





There must have been a day in history when pen companies decided to phase out flexible nibs. What induced them to dispense with this marvel of writing technology I cannot begin to fathom but a sad day that was, dear Readers, in fountain pen chronicles when the flexible nib was no more. 21st century penthusiasts can only turn to the fountain pens of old to experience a nib that yields to pressure, that springs back, that converses with the letters. Such a nib is fitted in the fine Platignum specimen which has recently found a temporary home at Palimpsest.


Platignum traces its beginnings in 1919 when the English pen company changed “the world of pens with the self-filling gold-plated nib.” This pen was purchased in 1935 and had fallen in a state of disrepair over the years until it was restored to its former glory by pen wizard Henry Simpole. It features a button filler mechanism and a 14CT broad flexible nib. It writes like a dream.

Marbled effect barrel with a black top which unscrews to reveal the button mechanism, gold decorative filigree band on the screw-on cap, and gold clip, this Platignum measures 11.5 cm unposted and 14.5 posted. It’s lightweight, comfortable to hold and the nib glides on the paper. It was inked with Mont Blanc Mystery Black and it went on with the business of writing straight away - no skips, no hiccups - without minding that it hadn't been put to use for decades.

Platignum 1930s fountain pen button filling mechanism


Platignum 1930s fountain pen: 14 CT gold broad flexible nib


Its owner was barely 9 years old when he was given it - a school boy who didn’t yet know that he would be drafted to the German army at the final stages of the war. The pen found its way back to England and it will travel back to Germany to serve its owner once more in times of peace.

And the winner is...

And the winner of the Palimpsest 3 year giveaway is:

Parvum Opus!


Congratulations! You win the Waterman (Paris) Inspired Blue ink and a discount voucher from Inklinks (Etsy). Please contact Palimpsest to claim your prize. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Three Years of Palimpsest


Three years of blogging, dear Readers. Palimpsest celebrates its three years of existence and hopes to continue inking away for many years to come. No anniversary would be complete without a giveaway to say thank you to readers regular and random, to those who linked to the blog and those who tweeted about it. This year the giveaway is a bottle of Waterman Inspired Blue ink and a 10% discount coupon to use against any purchase from my Etsy shop Inklinks - Vintage and Handmade Desk Supplies.

From the posts published this year the top ten most popular ones (Blogger Stats inform) are as follows:

1. TWSBI 540 Diamond fountain pen review

2. Noodler's Ahab fountain pen review

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy pen spotting

4. Platinum Plaisir fountain pen review

5. Stationery Store Series: Brachard Papeterie and Pen Shop, Geneva

6. In praise of Pilot Pluminix

7. Pencil Archaeology

8. Stationery Store Series: Hennig of Düsseldorf, Germany

9. Mont Blanc Turbo Ballpoint Review

10. Waterman Ideal 1909 fountain pen rescued

Readers who care to leave a comment below will be entered in a draw which will take place on Tuesday 27, 5pm UK time. Winner must contact me with their address details. I will post internationally.
Those of you who have participated in previous draws will surely be looking forward to see the Grand Master of Draws in action again (see his previous performances here and here). I wonder what he'll have in store for us this year. 

Thank you and good luck.

Monday, 19 November 2012

How Authors Write

One of Palimpsest's older posts about Marcel Proust's paperoles was unearthed and linked to by Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review's editor, in his fine piece on How Authors Write.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Geo. W. Hughes Million Pen



In the era when ballpoint pens were unknown and fountain pens were just beginning to make an appearance in the writing technology scene the steel pen reigned supreme and the English town of Birmingham was the world capital of the steel pen trade. Famous pen manufacturers such Joseph Gillott, Hinks and Wells, William Mitchell, Macniven & Cameron (to name only a few) thrived there and alongside them George W. Hughes thrived too. He set up business around 1840 and his knowledge in metallurgy was instrumental in the company’s production of very high quality pens. Among them the “Million Pen”, a pointed flexible nib, Palimpsest was lucky to acquire.

George W. Hughes’ factory is derelict today, a piece of industrial archaeology, a monument to obsolete technologies. The factory in 3-5 Legge Lane was built in 1893 in brick and terracotta by Essex, Nicol and Goodman who were leading terracotta designers. Previously Hughes made his steel pens in St Paul’s Square and it is from that older site that the Million Pen nib box comes from. The company closed down in 1960. 

Hughes’ Million Pen still circulates though and its name is as puzzling as the illustrations on the box: £1,000,000 is printed in red in the middle of the cardboard container and is flanked by a blackbird and white dog licking its paw. On the side of the box there is the company’s trademark against a red background: a winged dog (or wolf) running with a fish in its mouth.



Was Hughes hoping to sell one million pounds worth of steel pens? Was the name an allusion to the pen’s “priceless” quality? And what’s the meaning of the creatures? Box is marked Geo. W. Hughes Million Pen Made in England No. 304 F. At the back a word of “Caution” against imitation pens: “None are genuine but those with his signature, thus-“


The nib performed wonderfully straight out of the box. Great flexibility and ink retention, I’ve tested it with Mont Blanc Mystery Ink, J. Herbin Anniversary Ink, Rohrer and Klingner Sienna, J. Herbin Lie de The  and Waterman Havana Brown. Now if someone could explain the winged wolf bearing fish…






Geo. W. Hughes Million pen nibs are available in Inklinks.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Pelikan erasers


To write ~ to remember. To erase ~ to forget. Every writing instrument or writing technique  requires the possibility - and carries the tendency - of correction, erasure, deletion. The scribe turns his stylus around to smooth the wax, erase his writing and re-use the writing surface anew. The ink is scratched out, or eliminated with erasing fluid, the pencil markings are rubbed out, the electronic text is eradicated with the Delete button. 

Inside a bottle of 1950s Pelikan ink a paper fold-out ad contained all the possibilities of deletion in the shape of anthropomorphic erasures:









Friday, 26 October 2012

The Reed Pen of Erasmus




A writing instrument is not only a tool of writing but it is itself written on - writes Sonja Neef in her Imprint and Trace: Handwriting in the Age of Technology.

A writing instrument is a tool, a device manufactured by historical processes of writing cultures, a representative of writing technologies. It is a tool of remembrance, it writes the past along with the future. A writing instrument describes a history written by it as it is a product of the history it describes.

Erasmus is portrayed by Hans Holbein the Elder holding a reed pen: “Erasmus’s calamus is a Janus-headed writing instrument. In a reverse direction it looks back to the ancient culture of writing, in a forwards direction it sets its sights on a future that is in the hands of writers to come.” Bequeathing his pen to Wilhelm Nesen, Erasmus wrote a poem in praise of the calamus (1516):

Little reed pen I am, I wrote so many
large volumes all by myself, though I was
guided by the finger joins of Erasmus.
The Nile produced me, Reuchlin gave me to
Erasmus, and now, honourably discharged,
I belong to Wilhelm. And he preserves me as
sacred to the Muses and dedicated to Apollo,
a dear token of eternal friendship, lest I, who
made so many names known to posterity,
names never to be wiped out in the long
course of time, should perish in obscurity.

“As a tool of remembrance Erasmus’s hand draws its trace of writing in both temporal directions, it blazes its trail for a journey through time and into the great Western archive that as it were writes the past along with the future - or: posterity."

From Sonja Neef, Imprint and Trace Handwriting in the Age of Technology, London (Reaktion Books) 2011: "The Calamus of Erasmus", pp. 81-83.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

John Sheldon Escritoirs



It is fitting that John Sheldon, the Victorian pencil maker, toymaker and silversmith would live and flourish in the English city of Birmingham, the 19th century’s “workshop of the world", city of a thousand trades and centre of the industrial revolution. If other inventions (steam engine comes to mind) that took place in Birmingham were much more impressive and far reaching than Sheldon’s, his also made an impact in the development of the writing technologies of the time. Between 1841 and 1853 Sheldon registered a total of ten designs relating to writing equipment, among which the Unique Pocket Companion and the Pocket Escritoir.


John Sheldon escritoir. Photo provided by B. George
Photo provided by Brian George

Palimpsest became acquainted with the man and his work in the London Writing Equipment Society show 2012. Specimens of Sheldon’s inventions were displayed in a glass cabinet under the supervision of avid Sheldon collector, Brian George. Brian is extremely knowledgeable in all things Sheldon and has even written a book about the “Birmingham master of manufacture and innovation.”

Brian George's John Sheldon collection

Palimpsest was impressed with Sheldon’s escritoirs which took pride of place in George’s excellent collection. Escritoirs are miniature writing desks, described as Cabinets of the Million and Wonder of the Age, and contain all writing essentials a Victorian gentleman or lady would wish to have handy at any given moment during travelling or in the home. Sheldon offered six sizes -from 3’’ x 2½’’ to 6’’ x 4½’’ and a selection of finishes - plain burgundy, dark green morocco leather, japanned. These portable miniature desks contained up to 50 sheets of paper and envelopes, an almanac, blotting card, memo pad, wax lights, inkstand, sealing wax, 12-inch measuring tape, wax tapers, penholder with letter balance, steel pens, India rubber and wafers.

When sold, Brian George explains in his book, the Escritoir came with 9 steel pens, 50 gum medallions or wafers, 3 sticks of sealing wax, 2 wax tapers and 50 Wax Lights or Promethean Lights. The latter were candle-like contraptions which gave an instantaneous burst of flame when the acid contained in a tiny glass seal came into contact with the chemicals in its tightly wound paper covering (a nightmare scenario for today’s Health and Safety police). Escritoirs, thus provided the Victorian gentleman or lady not only with the means of writing but with instruments of illumination as well. They sold for 7s to 10s in 1843, that is, £33 to £47 in 2008 values. They must have been the latest word in portability and a must-have for any cultivated member of the prosperous middle classes of the Victorian times.

Brian and Shirley George and John Sheldon collection at the London WES show 2012.
John Sheldon manufacture and writing instruments.

All information on John Sheldon comes from Brian George’s book, John Sheldon, Toymaker, Pencil Maker & Silversmith. Many thanks to Brian George for photo of Sheldon and Sheldon ads.

Friday, 12 October 2012

London Writing Equipment Society Show 2012




If you ever wanted to hear the praises of Parker 51 sang with aplomb, discuss a Waterman, admire a Snorkel, handle an Onoto, caress a Wahl, test drive an Omas, have your nib ground by the expert, or see a fine collection of John Sheldon’s miniscule escritoirs, and do all this things without leaving the room, then there is no place better than the London Writing Equipment Society’s show.

This is not a show of the leaflet-brandishing fancy-stall parading kind. Pens are serious affairs here and they are treated with the respect they deserve. You can see the pen knowledge dripping like secret nectar from every stall. I say secret. There is an atmosphere of a benevolent secret society here, an antiquarian scent, a reverence. The pens are laid out on velvet lined cases and those browsing look like they are in the know. Some are looking for specific models, looking for elusive nibs - there is a revered man examining a pen’s feed under a strong lamp. The owner of said pen is hanging on his every word. There is a couple listening in awe at an impromptu lecture on the innovative breakthroughs of Parker 51; a vintage pen repairman delivering his verdict on a 1950s fountain pen.

Pen shows have something of a museum - only that the exhibits, though getting rarer, can still be bought at a price. In a dizzying variety of materials, shapes, designs, colours, caps, jewels, clips and nibs, the pens look increasingly like talismans. As such they are sought after, venerated, fed with bottled writing fluid, expected to deliver strikes, to banish the fear of the blank page.

The Onoto stall - WES 2012

Pick a Pen - WES 2012
Conway Stewart specimens - WES 2012
WES 2012 fountain pen stall
Swan, Conklin... WES show 2012
In praise of Parker 51 - WES 2012

Brian George's collection of John Sheldon escritoirs

London Writing Equipment Society Show at Holiday Inn, Russel Sq. 6 October 2012

Friday, 5 October 2012

Post a Stub: On Mirado Black Warriors and Marginalia

One of Erika's Alvin inkwell-shapreners and a newly sharpened Mirado ready for action



Erika Stefanutti from boutique bindery parvumpus.com contributes to Palimpsest’s Post-a- Stub series a piece about her favourite Mirado Black Warriors. Erika writes on desk accessories and decorative arts on her blog Parvum Opus and sells her creations on Etsy.

On Marginalia and Mirado Black Warriors

The choice of the humble pencil rather than any of my beautiful and worthy fountain pens seems somehow fitting given the thousands of hours we've spent together conversing with the great (and a few not-so-great) authors. Whenever I sit down to read, one of my dozens of Mirado Black Warriors accompanies me. I have several snug reading spots in my home, and each is equipped with a pencil cup crammed full of my graphite companions, an Alvin inkwell-shaped pencil sharpener, a pile of handmade bookmarks, a small commonplace book for important notes, and a coaster for my tea. With all of my tools at the ready, the conversation between scribbler and author can begin!

Palimpsest’s readers will already be familiar with the Mirado Black Warrior, and I agree with the legions that it is a very fine pencil. Its line is crisp and dark, it sharpens beautifully, and importantly, the eraser does its job efficiently with hardly a trace left behind. Brilliant.

One of my pencil cups, holding dozens of freshly jacketed Mirado Black Warriors

Some years ago, I began jacketing my pencils in the fine papers left over from my bindery commissions, and now any pencil in my collection seems naked without the addition of these beautiful papers. The paper wrapper makes the experience of reading and of scribbling in the margins denser, more tactile, pleasant, noticeable, celebratory.

A thicket of paper-wrapped Mirado Black Warriors




Scribbles new and old: new notes in my Baudrillard, and perhaps the oldest notes in my library, from my ca.1790 edition of the complete works of Rabelais. This five-volume set has an added bonus: two ex Libris plates—a fantastic find!













As to the author-reader conversation, I wish I had the words to convey the romance of it for you, but thankfully for all of us, I need not try.  Thank you (again), Billy Collins!

Marginalia - Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.


Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.


Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.


Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.


And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.


We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.


Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.


And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.


Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page


A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."



- Billy Collins






Friday, 28 September 2012

Pencil Archaeology




There is an archaeological pleasure in tracing the origins of old markings on obsolete objects; a pleasure akin perhaps to playing detective to one’s own past, though without the risk of nasty surprises. The pencils on which said markings were observed came in an old cardboard box wherein they have previously existed in the higgledy piggeldy company of steel pens, broken nib holders and pieces of chalk. They bore the marks of use, were tortured by knife and tooth and endowed with the grime of hands which time has purified. Relics.

F. Chambers pencil

Round-barreled pencil number one looked like an unmarked wartime pencil save for the markings which have barely escaped the sharpener’s blades of deletion: F. Chambers. The name is imprinted in script, next to a “Made in England” in tiny capitals. Google results yielded that the firm was established in 1913 by Stanton Iron Works foundry manager, Fred Chambers and Nottingham timber merchant Brown. The two men were joined by pencil wise man Professor Hinchley, a chemist by trade. The outbreak of the First World War increased pencil demand, and  in 1915 Chambers bought Brown out and formed F. Chambers & Co Ltd. The company established itself in an old lace factory at Stapleford Nottingham where it remained until 1973. In 1991 it was bought out by Lyra and exists today as Chambers Pencils (who knew?).

Royal Sovereign Co. Ltd pencil

Royal Sovereign Co. Ltd pencil

Pencils numbers two and three were made by Royal Sovereign to which Palimpsest has dedicated more than one post (here’s an example). These unpainted pencils - one round, one hexagonal - look like war pencils, too. “The Royal So…” says the hexagonal one faintly; “..al Sovereign Pencil Co. Ltd” affirms the round one more strongly and it leaves a confident black graphite mark too.

George Rowney No. 820 pencil

As for the George Rowney pencil one will be excused to believe there are no markings at all on the barrel. George Rowney & Co., known to have supplied artists such as J.M.W. Turner, was established in 1832 and incorporated in 1924. Painted red this pencil has suffered from chips and dents but still manages to write through its knife-sharpened lead. And there, there (the eyes are straining to see) in the faintest of letters is the mark No.820 George Rowney Co. Ltd Made in England.




 Date of manufacture unknown. Exercise in pencil archaeology over and out.