Ever wonder how some of these beautiful Mordan writing implements were made “back in the day”? Well, wonder no more… I recently stumbled upon a mid-Victorian era periodical online, called “Hogg’s Instructor“, dating to 1853, and digitized by Google. Among the myriad of articles, essays, poetry, etc. in this particular issue, was the following article, describing a tour of the Mordan & Co. factory in London. The article provides such a fascinating glimpse into the mid-19th century Mordan workplace that I decided to reproduce it in its entirety here.
The footnotes are mine, added where additional information/clarification is available. The gold Mordan pencil pictured was made between 1845 & 1852, and the Mordan leads pictured are from the latter half of the century.
Pencils and Pencilcases (1853 – author unknown)
“If there be any one art the possession of which more than any other distinguishes the civilized nation from the savage, it is surely the art of writing. The savage can talk, it may be, with as great volubility as ourselves, but he cannot write. He cannot communicate the thoughts of his own mind to his fellow-men, except by actual converse with him. The possession of the power to write in any manner whatever, is a sure sign that some degree of civilization has been attained.
Thus, we are told that the Mexicans, even when first visited by the Spaniards, were accustomed to delineate events by pictures, and that in this way the Mexican king was made acquainted with everything of importance that transpired in his dominions. For, even at this early time, the Mexicans were in many respects a cultivated and civilized people. But nations as they advance invent other ways of writing – more artificially it may be, in structure, but easier in practice. By degrees the cumbrous mode of communicating with one another by representation gives way to the more simple art of communicating by arbitrary signs. Wondrous, indeed, is the progress that has been made in the materials for writing. Once the sandy ground served for paper and ink, and the finger for a pen. Once the block of stone or the bare rock was graven with the iron style. Once the bark of a tree or a piece of reed was made to answer for a book. Even the Greeks and Romans, in spite of their high civilization, must, cogente causa, be satisfied with waxed tablets or skins, upon which they slowly traced the symbols of thought.
But writing materials such as these could never be endured in the present age of electricity and steam. They would never keep pace with the progress of thought. Hence the skill of man has found out other contrivances. Paper has taken the place of skin. The quill has taken the place of the style. But now even the quill is too slow in its operation. We cannot bear the waste of time in mending it. Hence we have invented the pencil and the steel-pen. Still, even the pencil can scarcely satisfy our wishes, for that requires occasional pointing. This difficulty, however, has at length been overcome, and we may now write to our heart’s content. The only limit to the power of writing is the limit to the fertility of the brain, or to the strength of the hand; and how little these are limited, this book-making age evinces.
Such were the thoughts that, a few weeks back, obtruded themselves upon us, as we were walking down the City Road. The subject of a bill in a shop-window had attracted our attention; and, in obedience of the exhortation of Captain Cuttle, we took out our pencil case to make a note of it. What an easy and simple thing, thought we, by the aid of this little instrument, to make a note of whatever we may see. No longer can we feel the annoyance – so often experienced before we purchased it – of finding the point of our lead broken off in our pocket, just at the moment we wanted to use it. So, being in rather an idle mood, we found ourselves, before we were aware of it, in the train of thought we have outlined above. The convenience of our writing materials engaged our attention.
And now, as we walked along, and happened to cast our eyes upwards, the name of Mordan & Co. met our gaze. We had seen it hundreds of times before, but it had never attracted us as it did now. We at once called to mind, what our readers will call to mind also, that this name is intimately associated with pencils and pencilcases. So our eyes once more reverted to the convenient little instrument we still held in our hand, and we felt a large amount of gratitude to Mr. Mordan, as we reflected upon the comfort derived from his invention. Then we thought we should like to know more about pencilcases; how these little handy things are manufactured; how the leads are so nicely rounded. In short, we then and there determined, on the first opportunity, to visit Messrs. Mordan’s factory, for the purpose of being duly initiated into the art and mystery of pencil and pencilcase-making. This mystery we purpose now to unfold for the benefit of the world, i.e. our readers.
But, first, a brief historical notice of pencils will be expected of us. Pieces of lead are known to have been used as pencils more than a thousand years ago, for lines drawn by such means are still visible on manuscripts of that early period. But Professor Beckmantells us, in his ‘History of Inventions’, that the first authentic account we have of the use of pencils at all like our own is the year 1565. ‘The pencil,’ he says, ‘consisted of a piece of lead, or perhaps plumbago, in a sheath of wood.’ It appears probable, too, that during the same century plumbago was introduced into the drawing-schools of Italy. But the method of erasing marks by the use of India-rubber was only discovered 20 or 30 years ago : previous to that time the crumb of bread was made use of. A mixture of lead and tin was also used as a pencil by the Italians in early times; in later, black and red chalk also.
The ever-pointed pencilcase was invented by the late Mr. Mordan, and patented by him in the year 1822. The patent was taken out for the application of plumbago, in very small cylindrical pieces, projecting from conical cylinders. It is familiarly known that the cases are so contrived that the leads can be continually replenished, and that they may always preserve a point sufficiently sharp for writing.
Mr. Mordan readily gave us permission to inspect his factory. Accordingly, on a Thursday morning, we directed our steps towards the desired spot. We entered the gateway, and walked up the yard, which, although surrounded by workshops, gave us no adequate idea of the number of workmen employed, or of the extent and variety of the operations that were going on within; for its contents were simply a truck, a pile or two of old boards, and a few other odds and ends we did not care to examine. We soon found ourselves under the able guidance of the foreman, entering one of the doors, ascending a few stairs, and looking down into a kind of pit, some eight feet square. This is the chamber in which the first operation in pencilcase-making is performed. It is the melting room. In it is the furnace by whose aid the precious metals are melted down. By what we afterwards saw, we should judge that its operations in the course of the year are of very considerable extent. But into it, as there was no work going on, we had no wish to descend.
We were now, therefore, conducted into the shop in which the pencilcases are manufactured. Almost every process they undergo in their transition from the state of rough gold and silver to that of the beautiful and highly finished articles which they are when they are sent out by the firm, is here carried on. Only some special kinds of ornamentation are performed in another room. One may, therefore, well-nigh see at a glance the entire manufacture of pencilcases. At the period of our visit, there were about 30 men at work in this room. The principle of division of labour seems to be carried on to a considerable extent, for we could scarcely observe any two engaged on the same part of the work. The precious metals are first rolled out to thin sheets, varying from the thickness of a card to that of a half-crown. The sheets are then cut into strips, about ¾” in breadth, not after the old plan, by shears, but by a very simple and efficacious machine. Its construction is similar to that of the common lathe, worked by a treadle. This causes the rotation of two small wheels of steel, about for inches in diameter, and the quarter of an inch in thickness, which work so that the edge of one slightly overlaps the other. As they thus turn, the action is precisely that of a pair of scissors. A stop can be fixed at any required distance from the wheels, and this regulates the breadth of the slip of metal. The metal is pushed forwards against the wheels, and the cutting is effected with surprising rapidity, and with very little expenditure of labour on the part of the workman. By this machine hudredweights of metal may be cut up in the same time and with far less labour, than pounds can be by shears. The strips of metal are next bent round an iron rod, and soldered together, so as to form tubes. After this they are annealed, by being heated in a fire, and then allowed to cool gradually. By this means they are rendered softer, and capable of being drawn out without breaking. In this state, the tubes look very rough, unsightly things, varying in length from one foot to eighteen inches.
The next process is that of drawing. The rough tubes are conveyed to a workman, who superintends a strange-looking machine, consisting of a wooden wheel with a number of long spokes. In appearance it is very much like a large star-fish, with about twice the orthodox number of arms, and these, being very long, afford great leverage to the hand. There are also several pieces of connecting machinery, and an enormous metal chain, big enough for a ship of 120 guns, and having a pair of vice chaps at the end. The workman now took one of the silver tubes, and, having forced an iron rod into it, proceeded to put one end through a hole in a thick metal plate, similar to those used by wire-drawers; and then, having rested the plate against a strong iron support, and placed the end of the tube that had been pushed through it in the vice, his assistant turned the wheel, and it was soon drawn through. We now took up the silver tube, and found that it has not only been forced into a circular shape, but also had something of a pattern impressed upon its surface. After being pulled in this manner through two more holes, each smaller than the one before, the drawing process was complete, and the tube which forms the outer casing is made. Of course tubes are drawn of a great variety of patterns and sizes, while some of them are left quite plain. The rough tubes do not appear to be made with much reference to the size of the case for which they are intended, for, by the drawing process, they can be rendered as small on the outside as may be required, while the size of the interior can be regulated by the rod that is inserted. Thus the tubes used for making the pointed extremity are as large as those for the outer case, but are of much thicker material; for otherwise the drawing process, while it lengthens them out, would make them too thin. Some of these tubes, of only a foot in length, are, when drawn out, at least twelve feet. In drawing them, since the process is necessarily often repeated, and the metal in consequence rendered hard and brittle, the annealing process must be performed several times during the operation. The tube we had previously watched was now stamped with the manufacturer’s name, at intervals of three or four inches, so that each case might be marked. This was done before the iron rod was withdrawn from the inside, that the case might not be bent in. It was then divided into pieces of the required length – in this case three and a half inches – by a circular saw, which cut it up with great rapidity. The external case, the inner case, the little cylinder to form the tapering point, and the slides, are all produced in a similar manner, and then cut into the proper length for each.
The outer cases were now submitted to the skillful manipulation of another workman, who, by the aid of files and other instruments, touched up the grooves and flutings in those parts that were not quite sharp and perfect. The points were made tapering, and brought to the right size by means of the chisel and the lathe. In the same manner the slides, and the cap that screws on top of the case, were reduced to shape and ornamented. The screws were made in the usual way by means of the screw plate, the worm in the inside of the cap being cut by turning into it a steel screw of proper size. In a wonderfully expert manner were all these operations performed. It seemed to us, unsophisticated as we were in such matters, to be an easy thing to make pencilcases. We fancied we could almost accomplish the task ourself. But such is ever the case when one witnesses the ingenious contrivances and skillful manipulations to be found in large factories.
We saw so many men about us engaged in the various operations of turning, filing, scratching, rubbing, and polishing little cylinders, or strange-looking lumps of gold and silver of every size and form, that we felt not a little puzzled to understand what they were all about; but, since our readers understand quite as we the nature of these common operations, we shall not inflict upon them a tedious explanation, which, perhaps, in lexicographic style, might only serve to make that which is simple obscure. We noticed, however, that all these men were sitting down at their work, and had leather aprons fastened just under their work-tables, in order to catch the scraps, that nothing might be lost. As we were leaving this room, we caught sight of a youth with a heap of strange-looking articles before him. Each consisted of a little bit of iron wire, with a small flat piece of brass soldered to the end of it. The idea that suggested itself to our mind was, that they were very like the drawing-shovels one might imagine the bakers of Lilliput to have used. But, not satisfied with this as an explanation, we applied to our guide, and his intelligence soon put us right. We learnt that they were the little instruments by which the leads are made to protrude from the point. By means of the flat piece of brass they are connected with a screw in the inner case, which is provided with a top, so that it can only move backwards and forwards within a certain range. When the case is turned round, as is well known, the wire may be made to advance, and push out the lead for use.
One more process now arrested our attention – the setting of the gems in the top. This is done upon the lathe. The workman took up one of the little silver caps, which, though turned into its proper shape externally, was yet solid; having fixed it to the lathe, he proceeded dexterously to scoop out with a chisel a conical hole in the top to receive the gem. When the little bit of cornelian was accurately fitted, he placed some powdered chalk in the cavity, to bed the stone, and at the same time to improve its whiteness; he then quickly turned a little edge of silver over its margin, and in half a minute the whole process of setting was performed.
We were now escorted to another room, where we found some dozen men engaged in putting the last touch to some of the more highly-finished cases. Here was one engaged in chasing a number of gold caps and slides. We observed that these were embedded in lumps of a pitchy-looking substance, in order to keep them steady. The chasing is entirely effected by the use of punches. None of the gold is cut away, as it would be if engraved. Beside our friend lay a large assortment of punches – sufficient, one might imagine, to form an ironmonger’s stock of the article. We could not help admiring the dexterity with which he discovered in the heap the particular punch he wanted, and how, after a few seemingly light taps, the ornament was brought out.
Here, too, was a machine for imparting various kinds of figuring to the case, such as cannot be effected by the drawing process. We noticed that the case was fixed perpendicularly upon a small steel rod, attached to an odd-looking machine, which was made to revolve by means of a wheel, which at the same time raised and lowered the pencilcase. The case was also made to vibrate slightly from side to side; and being at the same time pressed against a sharp cutting-point of steel, that zig-zag cutting was produced which is so often seen on these cases.
We were curious to know how this vibratory motion was effected, and, upon inquiry, learnt that it was caused by a massive-looking solid cylinder of gun-metal, which had a number of indentations in rings around its circumference. This cylinder, by means of a powerful spring, is kept tightly pressed against a steel point, fixed at the side to the framework of the machine. Now, when this presses against the hollows and projections in succession, as the cylinder turns, it causes the cylinder itself to vibrate horizontally in a slight degree. A variety is obtained in the vibrations by rings of greater or less indentations upon different parts of the cylinder, to which the fixed point can be applied. Thus variety of pattern can be obtained. We conjectured that these little projections would soon wear off by contact with the steel point, but were informed that the machine had been in use more than twenty years, without this having taken place.
The last process that the cases undergo is that of cleaning and polishing. This is effected by means of wheels, with leather round the rim for plain cases; but, for the others, the wheel is armed with hog’s bristles, forming a circular brush. They are used with whiting and other substances, and by this means every crevice in the case is reached by the cleaning and polishing process.
The pencilcases are now complete; and beautiful articles they seem, as we stand and gaze upon a case containing at least five hundred of them, of every size and price. In the course of their manufacture, they have passed through the hands of nearly forty workmen, and the more interesting of the operations performed by them we have endeavoured to describe.
We could not help noting how clean and neat all the pencil-case makers in Messrs. Mordan’s factory appeared. The greatest order prevailed around. There was no bustling and driving; the workmen were seated at their benches, and went about their work as if it were an easy and gentlemanly occupation of their leisure hours. It almost justified what we have sometimes heard said of them by London workmen – ‘that the laws of their shop required every man to wear at least two clean shirts a week, and imposed a fine of half a crown upon any unhappy individual who should show himself so fond of work as to be seen with perspiration on his brow.’ Just outside the door of the workshop we noticed a trough with water in it, looking like a horse-trough before the door of a roadside inn. Our indefatigable guide enlightened us upon its object. Every man is bound by the rules of the factory to wash before he leaves the building. By this means, every particle of the precious metal that clings to his hands is rescued. It of course sinks to the bottom of the water, and is afterwards collected. The produce of this trough, we were informed, averages £50 a year. Finding so much realized from this apparently trifling source of revenue, we were not surprised to hear that the sweepings of the shop are carefully preserved, and the metal therein as carefully gathered.
We are now conducted to that part of the factory where the manufacture of the ordinary lead pencils is carried on. Here we saw the cedar cut up into pieces of the appropriate length, and, by the aid of a lathe and circular saw, reduced to strips of the appropriate breadth. Those of them which are to receive the lead are then taken to another lathe, to which is attached a horizontal brass plate, with a guard running along one side and one end. Through this plate the sharp teeth of a small circular saw are seen to project about the twelfth of an inch. The slips are rapidly run along close to the guard at the side, and the groove is instantly formed; the guard at the end preventing its being cut more that two-thirds along the pencil. They are now ready to receive the lead.
The best pencil black-lead, or, more properly, graphite, has for an unknown period been procured from the celebrated mine at Borrowdale, in Cumberland. It is a peculiar form of carbon, containing iron and other mineral substances. This, being the only mine in the world where plumbago could be obtained pure, has been a very lucrative concern. The value of the material formerly caused the folks around to plunder the mine to a vast extent. But now it is guarded by a strong building erected over the entrance which leads to the mine. The miners change their dress, under surveillance of the steward, before they begin their work, and again when they leave it. Securely locked up in one of the rooms, several men are at work sorting and dressing the plumbago, while the steward sits on guard, armed with two blunderbusses.
The mine is the property of a company, who, till within the last few years, only allowed it to be worked during six weeks of the year. Its produce, in this time, has frequently amounted to £30,000 or £40,000. Once a month the plumbago from this mine is sold at auction at a house in Essex Street, Strand. The price varies greatly, but may be taken at an average of 30s. per lb. The cost of plumbago from other places is scarcely more than that per cwt. Hence the deceptions which are so often practiced in black-lead pencils, and hence, also, the great variety in their price.
About fifty years ago, an enormous mass of plumbago was suddenly met with in the Borrowdale mine, which produced 70,000 lbs. of the material. Since that time, the mine has almost failed, and manufacturers have had recourse to purifying the impure Cumberland lead; also the varieties obtained from Ceylon, Bohemia, Greenland, and elsewhere. This consists in reducing the material to powder, and then freeing it from grit. It is afterwards, by a secret process, discovered by Mr. Brockedon, compressed in a dry state under atmospheric exhaustion, at the enormous pressure of 5000 tons, which renders it as compact as it was in its natural state.
We saw a number of these blocks 2 ¼ inches long, 2 inches broad, and 1 ¼ thick. They looked so firm, that we could scarcely conceive that they had once been in a powdered state. By means of a small saw, they are cut into thin slices, and are then ready for the workman, who puts them into the cedar. This operation is very neatly performed. A small quantity of glue is laid upon the edge of the lead, which is then passed into the groove and immediately cut off by a sharp steel point (very like a shoemaker’s awl) being drawn along it on both sides. Thus there is no danger of breaking the lead, which there would be, if it were cut off before being fixed in the groove. Two of these insertions complete the work; and the workman then hands it to his fellow, who cleans off any superfluous lead and glue. The upper piece of cedar is then glued on, and, in four-and-twenty hours, it is ready for rounding.
In this state, of course, the pencils are square; they are next passed through a small machine, by which they are completely rounded and polished off in a single operation. This machine consists of three or four crooked knives, which are made to revolve by means of a larger wheel. The pencil is placed upon and flat plate, and gently pushed forwards between guards on either side. It then comes into contact with these knives, and is shaved away and polished with great rapidity. When it is nearly through, the workman, to save his fingers, pushes it on with a piece of metal; at the same time, he takes hold of the pencil, as it emerges at the back, with a pair of wooden pincers. The knives, we were told, make 3200 revolutions per minute; and thus, in a second or two, they produce the smooth and polished pencil, which then only requires to be stamped with the maker’s name. This last process is performed in the same way that the bookbinder puts his lines and figures on our library volumes, by running along them a metal wheel, upon whose edge is cut the name of ‘Mordan & Co.’
The ever-pointed leads, we observed, were cut out of the same material as that employed for the cedar pencils. Thin slices of the like kind are used; only, in this case, they are cut up into little parallelepipeds of lead, by the edge being inserted in a small groove in a piece of brass, and then cut off is the same manner as they are by the pencil-maker. The little pieces are then passed one by one through a small machine, being put in on one side, and taken out at the other. After they have been pushed through in three different places, they come out a beautifully rounded form. This process looked so much like wire-drawing, though we well knew that plumbago would not bear drawing out, that we begged to be enlightened as to the precise means by which rounding was effected. Accordingly a brass plate was taken out of the machine, and we were shown three rubies set in it, with small holes in the centre. Through these the leads passed, and by them they were cut. This cutting by rubies is found to be the most effectual method that can be adopted, so as not to break the leads. It was curious to see the dexterity of the manipulator, who, with hands like those of a counterfeit Othello, handled these delicate little articles with a rapidity that seemed to threaten their destruction, yet never caused it. The leads are now ready to be separated into three pieces, and then placed in little glass bottles, and packed up for sale. Since the process of compressing plumbago has been invented, the dust from sawing, etc., is no longer wasted. It can again be manufactured into blocks, equal in purity to those to which it formerly belonged.”
 Captain Cuttle was a character in Charles Dickens’ book Dombey and Son, and at one point states “When found, make a note of”.
 Sampson Mordan had died in 1843 and the company was then taken over by his sons Sampson (junior), and Augustus.
 Professor Johann Beckman was a professor of economics at the University of Gottingen (Germany) and the English translation of his book was published in 1846.
 Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins are jointly credited with the first patented propelling pencil, in 1822.
 William Brockedon (1787-1854) was known as a painter, writer, and inventor. Among his inventions and patents were the oblique pen (jointly with S. Mordan, 1831), a machine to compress graphite powder to produce pencil lead (1843), and shortly thereafter this technology was adapted by the pharmaceutical industry to produce pills.