Friday, 4 January 2013

The Flying Scotsman Pen

Looking at Macniven & Cameron’s Flying Scotchman pen nib Palimpsest tends to think that the producers of the Mont Blanc luxury writing instruments may have something in common with the Victorian steel pen manufacturers after all. Nevermind that the Birmingham pen magnates turned out thousands of nibs for the masses while Mont Blanc's clientele is rather more select. Both subscribed to the same marketing technique: give your products such names as to appeal to certain sections of the market. What’s in a name?

The few that can afford Mont Blanc’s limited edition fountain pens with their precious resin bodies, bejewelled caps and 18-karat gold nibs are given an additional incentive to part with their money: the literary types can own a Charles Dickens or a William Faulkner; classical music lovers can write with a Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein; Beatles fans can copy down the lyrics of Imagine with an exclusive John Lennon pen; those nostalgic of the great divas of the past can console themselves with a Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo, while seriously rich history buffs can put down their musings with a Lorenzo de Medici or Elizabeth I fountain pen of choice. What’s in a name?

In the saturated steel pen market of the 19th century, pen manufacturers too applied the same marketing method to produce that special pen appeal. As Nigel Hall writes in his Letter Writing as a Social Practice, the names given to steel pens was a means of marketing: Victorian pen manufacturers relied on the pens’ appeal to particular social interests. For instance, steel pen magnate C. Brandauer produced a nib called the Lancet pen, after the famous medical journal founded in 1823. The Lancet journal was named after the surgical instrument (precision) as well as after a window’s lancet arch with its “light of wisdom” connotations. A well-formed (arched) pen which promised to produce precise writing and spread the word of wisdom fitted well with Brandauer’s marketing idea and his target market: the medical profession. Equally the Legal pen and the Law pen sought to attract the practitioners of the legal professions.  

Macniven & Cameron Waverley pen

On their part MacNiven & Cameron boasted of their pens in the well-known marketing ditty: “They come as a boon and a blessing to men the Pickwick the Owl and the Waverley pen”. The nibs were named after the literary bestsellers of the time: Sir Walter Scot’s Waverley (1814) and Charles Dickens’ The Picwick Papers (1837). The appeal was evident. The Waverley pen was to become Rudyard Kipling’s favourite.

The Pickwick, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen: Macniven & Cameron's advertising  

Macniven and Cameron’s Flying Scotchman pen, was a tribute to the famous Flying Scotsman passenger train, which was made in 1862. The nib was probably intended to appeal to the Age of Steam railway enthusiasts as well as to those with a flair for travelling. Its name indicated progress and efficiency as well as promising ease of writing. It was advertised as a firm, fluent pen - with a reservoir attachment which promised to retain sufficient ink to write 300 words. The advert appeared in the 1889 Illustrated London News and the Post Office Edinburgh and Leigh Directory in 1909. And if steel pen punters still had their doubts as to the efficacy of the steel pen (“steel pen is the root of all evil”), the advert of 1907-8 reassured them that the broad point nib which was “flanged to retain the ink” was in fact “the steel brother of the Quill.”

Macniven & Cameron Flying Scotsman pen

Salvaged from an old writing case this Flying Scotchman specimen was fitted to a black wooden nib holder with a golden tip marked “Eagle Pencil Co. New York.” The nib is quite curved and does indeed run pleasantly on paper. It retains the ink well though I am yet to achieve 300 words. I’m certain however that in the time it would take from London to Edinburgh Waverley (and it hasn't improved much since the 1900s) I would be able to write a short treatise on the importance of reducing train fares.


  1. Great post! I love the marketing for these old pen nibs. Many times I have wished that our modern manufacturers had the same sort of creativity in marketing ordinary writing instruments as they do in marketing the higher end products.

  2. Randall, I think the last time I saw a costly television ad for a low-end writing instrument was in the 1960s. A Bic (priced then at USD $0.19) was shot from a rifle into a block of wood. The pen's barrel disintegrated, but--golly!--the ballpoint still delivered ink to paper.

    I'll guess that narrow operating and profit margins, saturated markets, etc., pretty much rule out major promotional campaigns for low-end writing gear.

    These are nice examples, Palimpsest, of product bootstrapping, hitching one's own product to another for better sales.

  3. BTW-that's my comment above, Jack/USA. Also, I'll agree with anyone who says writing gear manufacturers need to think about arguments that some folks are making in the States that penmanship training be significantly downgraded in primary school curricula.

  4. What's in a name indeed — Scotch or Scots? Nowadays there are those who will tell you that 'Scotch' is to be used only for whisky, but Scotchman was OK for Macniven & Cameron in 1899. When was the pen first produced? I read that the train service established in 1862 was originally called the 'Special Scotch Express' and only renamed to 'Flying Scotsman' in 1924 when the famous locomotive of that name was introduced.