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.


  1. Dear Lito,
    Thank you for this very intriguing post! I'd like to think that rather than merely random images, the symbols and slogans used here are a secret code of hieroglyphs, just waiting to be decoded...Curious!
    Best regards,

  2. I saw the Hughes factory photos. As a young man with a photography bug, I likewise searched shut-down factories, abandoned homes, disused farm machinery, etc., for interesting photos. What was the feeling, the vibe? I'm not sure. Maybe it was something like intruding on a post-Apocalyptic world, a view on things breaking down, etc. Think of Max Ernst's "Europe After the Rain" (hope I remembered the title correctly).

    There's an American art photographer who's done an extraordinary book of photographs of the horrors of Detroit, including one photograph of trees growing from books in, I believe, an abandoned school building.

    Parvum Opus, I sold advertising. A packaging designer will look for visual cues to distinguish his product's package from the other guy's. There's plenty more, of course, such as packaging that appeals to a certain demographic category. Secret hieroglyphs are thinkable but unlikely, because the package face is limited and every square centimeter has to sell. (American packaging is already clotted with federal disclosure requirements, regional distribution codes, factory location codes, visual markings for production line scanning equipment, etc.)

    BTW-I tried imagining a "$1,000,000,000/Billion Pen" in today's world. Maybe, with appropriate packaging, a novelty pen could be sold under that name. But, the association of writing literacy with wealth, for example, didn't work for me. Jack/USA

  3. That looks like tiny shorthand at the top and bottom of the box top. I wonder if it explains the animals?

  4. Alan, you have a hawk's eyes, too. I'll guess they're something copied from an ancient inscription to add visual interest to the package. Palimpsest says the box predates the 1893 factory. If I wanted to play a hunch, I'd guess the package illustrations are at least somewhat imitative of popularized archaeological finds from the Middle East, Greece, North Africa, etc. Anyone know better? Jack/USA

  5. Looking at that 'winged dog and fish', I think the wings are actually the body of a bird slung over the dog's back and the fish is its head in the mouth. "The Fox and Goose" is a common pub name in England, I wonder if the hieroglyphs are nothing more than the factory-workers' locals?

  6. Alan, you are right! It is not a winged dog and fish, but more like a Fox and Goose, or even Dog and Duck. But why on a box of nibs?

  7. The fox and goose is Geo. W. Hughes' trade mark; the only logic I can think of to this is that the fox is quick and clever, and he does away with the goose (quill).

  8. Like many businesses in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Hughes possibly advertised his retail outlet s "at the sign of *insert name of neighbouring coaching Inn*. Frequently, these associations made the way into trade marks and insignia that remained long after the business had moved on.

  9. Just found this article while researching family history. I am related to George and the Wadsworth side of the family. The W stands for Wadsworth his mothers maiden name. Thank you for helping me to put another piece in the puzzle of my family history

    1. I've just found this too, I'm also related to George via his father in law. Joseph Brittle Wadsworth ! It's a small world. I'm obsessed with this generation. Ironmongers, foundries etc.