I'm in the process of writing for my blog the history of the Washington Medallion Pen Company, one of the early, successful pen companies, and the only one of the early ones who lasted well into the golden age of steel pens (1860-1920).
They were founded in 1855 as The American Steel Pen Manufacturing Company, and then the founders incorporated the Washington Medallion Pen Company in 1857 after one of them, Albert Granger, a former dry-goods store owner, was granted a design patent for his Washington Medallion Pen.
They made the Washington Medallion pen for a few years before outsourcing the actual manufacturing of the pens to a couple of English toolmakers who had been working for them: George Harrison and George Bradford, in 1862.
At the end of 1863, Harrison and Bradford realized that the design patent had run out, so Albert Granger, for whom they had been making pens under contract, and from whom they had purchased all of the tools, dies, etc., no longer owned a patent on the design.
So, they decided to make the Washington Medallion Pens for themselves, and started marketing the same pens under the name "Harrison & Bradford Washington Medallion Pens." They made them in their factory in New York City, and sold them through Eberhard Faber's stationery store. They started marketing them early in 1864, and were quickly served with a cease and desist order from the courts as Albert Granger and the Washington Medallion Pen Company was suing them. The injunction was lifted in July of that year, and they continued to make pens until the suit was settled in early 1866.
Harrison and Bradford were not only prevented from selling any more Washington Medallion Pens, they were ordered by the court to pay back to Washington Medallion any profits they had made from the sale. The court assigned an investigator to determine how many pens H&B had sold, and what profit they made.
This document, recovered from the archives of the Clerk of Courts in New York City with the kind help of FPN'er Welch, is a unique look into exactly how many pens were made at the time. We get statements at various times of the numbers of pens made by Esterbrook or Hunt, but those are within the context of marketing and always should be taken with a grain of salt. In this case, we have a court-appointed investigator looking at actual records. And this was also at a critical time, right on the cusp of the major development of the steel pen industry in the US.
Now, this was one manufacturer in New York City, selling pens through Eberhard Faber from about April 1864 to about April of 1866, minus a few months in 1864. So, call it just under two years of sales. The pen already had a solid reputation prior to 1864, and there was not a lot of competition from other US manufacturers. Esterbrook was brand new (1860) and nowhere near the powerhouse they were to become in the next decade. Most of the competition at that time was from the British. They were, by-far, the top sellers of steel pens in the US. In some of Washington Medallions' early ads from 1856-57, they claim that the US spent $500,000 annually on British pens.
With all of that context, here's what the investigator found in 1866.
- In less than a two-year period, Harrison & Bradford sold about 185,000 gross of pens (at 144 per gross, that’s 26,640,000 pens in less than two years!)
- They made a profit of about $0.10 (ten cents) per gross on a price of $1.50 per gross (margins were so low because they were competing with British manufacturers who had much lower manufacturing costs so could sell their pens cheaper). In another decade Esterbrook was selling their top-seller, the 048 Falcon, for $0.75 per gross)
- the court found Harrison and Bradford liable for a payment of $18,000
This gives us an interesting look into the size of the pen market in the US at the dawn of the golden age of steel pens.
To compare numbers with what was happening in Britain, in 1846-47, all of British pen manufacturers made approximately 300,000,000 pens. The growth of these companies increased rapidly. In 1849, Birmingham produced 65,000 gross weekly, which would make for 487,000,000 yearly. And it only increased in both numbers and the speed of growth into the 1850's and 1860's. It wasn't until an economic crash in 1871 that the growth in Britain slowed, in time for tariffs to be placed on British pens, and American manufacturers to ramp up to the size where their production costs lowered enough to compete.
It wouldn't be until the 1880's and 1890's that Esterbrook would start to approach such numbers as we see in the large manufacturers in Britain of the 1860 and 70's.
Washington Medallion may have won the lawsuit, and continued making their Washington Medallion Pen into the early 1880's, but it was very quickly overwhelmed by the new kid, Esterbrook.
George Harrison and George Bradford managed to survive the lawsuit, and made their own pens under Harrison and Bradford until Harrison left in 1875 to co-found Turner & Harrison with another English pen maker brought over, John Turner, who was one of the initial British pen experts Richard Esterbrook imported to help start his company. George Bradford carried on for another few years before trying to make his own branded George Bradford pens for a year or so. He then sold the whole factory to Miller Brothers Cutlery Company and became Superintendent of their brand new pen division in 1882.