Yore Write!

Mordan’s 1848 Catalogue “Unplugged”

For many collectors of Victorian pencils & penholders, the 1898 Sampson Mordan Catalogue is a familiar reference resource. Reproduced and published by Jim Marshall (The Vintage Pen & Pencil Gallery), this 28 page booklet provides a fascinating insight into the breadth of Mordan’s offerings at the turn of the 20th century.

In addition, there are many single page advertising examples for various Mordan & Co. products that can be found online dating to various decades throughout the 1800’s which can also be helpful in identifying and dating various items. 

And more recently, I came across a complete catalogue of S. Mordan and Co’s product offerings that dates to 1848… 

Front Cover – 1848 Catalogue*
Inside Front Cover – 1848 Catalogue* 

Since I don’t live in the U.K., the majority of my research efforts, as they relate to my collection, are conducted via the internet and existing published resources. In recent years, more and more research libraries and local/regional archives have made their collection catalogues available for online searches, greatly improving the opportunity for discovery of hidden gems. 

Every now and then I get the urge to spend a day, or three, wandering through some of these libraries and archives online, and last year the stars aligned for another round of sleuthing thanks in part to the recurring pandemic lockdowns.

While flailing around in one of many rabbit holes, I stumbled across a reference to an interesting collection of documents in the Cheshire Archives that had been donated by a member of the local Lowe family. Included in the catalogue for these family papers was a reference entry for an 1848 price list of Sampson Mordan & Co’s products. As I had never seen, or heard of, this price list before, the possibility that a complete catalogue existed that pre-dated the 1898 catalogue by 50 years immediately caught my attention! 

Several weeks later, and at a cost approximating that of an actual Mordan pencil of the same year, I received a download of high resolution scans of the complete 1848 catalogue, 72 pages in total, containing illustrations and pricing for the Mordan product line from 174 years ago.

Included in the catalogue are descriptions and pricing for a wide range of their products – pencils (silver, gold, figural, etc.), penholders, quill pens, steel pens, postage scales, copying presses, safes & locks, inkstands, perfume bottles, vinaigrettes, medicine chests, and more. The first, and largest section of the catalogue is focused on the “Patent Ever-pointed Pencil”. With almost a third of the catalogue being devoted to their line of pencil cases, it is clear that this was Mordan’s “bread & butter” product line at the time.

Silver Pistol Cases – 

3 sizes of Pistols in silver & gilt*
Example of silver pistol from my collection 

The “Victoria Pattern” silver pencil cases had 21 variations available – 

“Victoria Pattern” 21 options*

“Victoria Pattern” combo from my collection

Mordan’s “Gothic” gold pencil cases offered the discerning buyer a range of 2 styles in 3 different sizes, and as the catalogue points out, they are “A most elegant Article” – 

Gothic Gold Case*

Gothic Gold Case from my collection

Copying Presses – 

Mordan copying press from my collection
Overview of available copying presses*

Portable leather Travelling Inkstands – 

Portable travelling inkstands*
Mordan travelling inkstand from my collection

There are of course many, many, more pages in the catalogue, covering quite an extensive range of items. The inside back cover page of the catalogue provides a nice overall summary, and the outside of the back cover offers the reader “A Peep Into The Manufactory” (an illustrated look at the 13 steps involved in the production of the Mordan steel pen).

Inside rear cover*
Outside rear cover*

The above images are simply intended to “wet the appetite” by providing a few examples of pages from the catalogue, along with some similar examples from my collection. Other collectors will have even better examples of these and many other items found in the catalogue, I’m sure. The 1848 catalogue is intriguing not just for its age, but it also provides a broader, and more interesting, insight into what writing equipment was most sought after by the “buying public” at the time. While it may help fill in some blanks for some of us collectors, it also raises new questions (at least it did in my case).  

The introduction to the catalogue’s pencil section includes the following assurance to prospective buyers – “To avoid all inconvenience, the following caution will insure the purchase of a genuine article :- See that each Pencil has the name, “S. Mordan & Co.” stamped, on the body of the case.”  I found this interesting as the makers mark commonly associated with the years 1845-1852 is “S. Mordan & Co. Makers” with “S. Mordan & Co.” not becoming the mark until 1853.

I was also curious as to who the “Lowe’s” were and why they would have had a copy of a Mordan catalogue in their family records. Apparently, the Lowe family has been a well known Chester family of jewellers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and assayers, for past 250 years or so. Lowe & Sons was established in 1770 by George Lowe, and while the business is no longer owned by the family, the business still carries on under the same name. The Mordan catalogue would have likely been used in the jewellery shop and then kept in their files for some unknown reason, eventually finding its way into the Chester Archives.

The catalogue also included a few oddball items that seemed rather incongruous, until you delve a little further into Sampson Mordan’s personal history. 

A variety of cabinet and other locks*
Lathes & self-centering chucks*

At the beginning of his career, Sampson Mordan was an apprentice with Joseph Bramah. Among Bramah’s inventions was the famous (at the time) Bramah Lock. Mordan developed his own lock making skills during this period, and Mordan & Co. eventually became well known for their locks. Another of Mordan’s accomplishments was the invention (or perhaps the refinement of an existing invention?) of a self-centering lathe chuck specifically designed to address production issues in his pencil factory. In 1828, the Royal Society of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce awarded Mordan “The Large Silver Medal for his self-centering lathe chuck”. More info on Mordan’s professional connections and how they helped shape the Mordan product line over time can be found here.

And lastly, included in the catalogue are several versions of a “Styloxynon”… What the heck is a Styloxynon? Hint : The oldest surviving example of this device was patented in the UK in 1833, and any of us that have ever used a wooden pencil have also used a more modern version of it…

* All images from the 1848 Mordan catalogue have been used with permission from the Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, Cheshire Record Office, Chester. My thanks to all the staff at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies for their assistance in finding, retrieving, and copying the original document for me, as well as their patience in answering my many questions associated with the process.  

Sources :

Sampson Mordan 1898 Catalogue – The Pen & Pencil Gallery, ISBN 978-0-9562711

S. Mordan & Co’s List of Prices – January, 1848 – Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, ZCR 24/23 

Lowe Family History Information – The Monuments at Bunbury Church, Cheshire, Part 2,  pages 103-104, 1918, The Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire

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