When Birmingham Led the World in Pen Nib Manufacturing

Today, as part of National Stationery Week it is Fountain Pen Friday. In honour of this, we take a look back to a time when Birmingham led the world in pen nib manufacturing.

Back in 1820, pen nib manufacturing started in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. The initial small workshop soon developed into a mass production industry.

In the 1850s more than half of the world’s steel pen nibs were made in Birmingham.  New techniques enabled the cheap mass production of pens. This in turn encouraged the global development of education and literacy. At its height, there were over 100 pen nib companies across the city.

People, Pens and Production

A book written by historian Brian Jones: People, Pens and Production in Birmingham’s Steel Pen Trade describes the workplaces and the workers from Birmingham’s pen nib manufacturing era.

Around 70% of the 8,000 strong workforce was female. With men employed in the skilled roles, the women, many of whom ironically were illiterate, were poorly paid in unskilled work such as hand press operators. They would make 18,000 pens a day earning just 7 shillings a week. Strict working conditions were in place and Jones notes that there was:

“…no talking, no singing, no wasting the metal and no being late or you lost money”.

However, the introduction of the ballpoint pen by Laszlo Biro in 1938 saw the beginning of end of the pen nib industry in Birmingham. Manufacturers could not adapt to the new technology needed to produce ballpoint pens. By the early 1960s the pen nib industry in Birmingham had more or less disappeared.

The Pen Museum

Pen Museum Birmingham

If you want to know more about the industrial past of pen nib manufacturing in Birmingham, the Pen Museum is well worth a visit. Incidentally, Brian Jones is the founder of this museum.

It celebrates the steel pen nib trade of Birmingham and also the history of writing. Situated in a former pen factory, you can learn all about the companies who were involved in the industry and view over 5,000 items.

In addition, you can also try your hand at making your very own pen nib and experience the tough working conditions of those Victorian workers. The museum also runs calligraphy workshops to enable you to practice your handwriting skills.

For more information on opening times and how you can plan a visit, go to the Pen Museum website here.

Related Articles You May Also Like

China Ballpoint Pen Manufacturing Breakthrough

Fountain Pen Resurgence

Dyson Reinvent the Ballpoint Pen

Sam Rose