Friday, March 15, 2019

Brief history of pens

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

my favorite pen is a permanent ink, black felt-tip marker made in Japan. Easy to hold, it makes crisp clean lines, and is always reliable. If it wears out, I know I can replace it with another pen just as trustworthy. Throughout history, pens haven’t always been as easy to take for granted.

In ancient Egyptian times, people wrote with pens made from plants. Long stiff reeds were cut into smaller lengths, and one end carved to a narrow writing point. Here’s an example of a similar pen made from bamboo.
Bamboo pen
They wrote with inks made from ground minerals and water mixed together, and wrote on rough surfaces, which usually consisted of papyrus or wood. All this meant reed pens didn’t last too long. Metal tipped pens existed but were rare and expensive, and made individually from precious gold, silver, or brass. 

As writing surfaces became more refined, pens changed. Animal skins were used to make vellum and parchment. These surfaces were much smoother to write on. Around the 6th century, writers started to use feather quills as pens and "penna" is Latin for feather or quill. The most desired feather for a quill pen came from a large bird, often a goose. Shaped a little like reeds, quills lasted longer than reed pens. Quills were also more flexible, and this flexibility let writers create great flourishing marks to show off their penmanship skills. Our collection has some fine examples of goose feather quill pens dating from the mid-1800s.

Goose feather quills, mid-1800s
Preparing the writing end, tiny feathers near the point were shaved off, and the end was cut to a V-shape. An additional capillary cut was made to allow the pen to wick up ink. By today’s standards, quill pens held only a small amount of ink when dipped. Both reeds and quills would only make marks if held in one direction. This forced writers to form each letter carefully.  This was, and continues to be, the only way to avoid spoiling your message with unplanned blots and splatters.

Technological changes in the early 1800s improved pen tips. In Baltimore, jeweler Peregrine Williamson invented a reliable and financially successful way to manufacture great quantities of pen nibs out of steel. Nib is the name of the writing tip or point that’s dipped into ink. Having a steel nib or point instead of the easily damaged quill meant fewer splatters, and a longer pen life. Nibs could also be made in a variety of sizes, which would create a variety of lines. Williamson’s invention became popular right away.

Pens with nibs, like the ones Williamson invented, might have looked like these 1910 dip pens from our collection.

circa 1910 dip pens
The pens have metal tips, handles made from bone, and are trimmed with pearl and gold embellishments, and suggest a wealthier owner who didn’t have to write with cheaper feather quills.

Today artists and calligraphers still use dip pens with pigment-binder based inks. These inks either contain more carbon, which makes the darkest black, or they’re made from other ground up minerals in order to produce pure and vibrant colored inks. Modern colored synthetic inks mimic these hues.

This advertisement from an Elmira stationary store, circa 1914-1946

Local advertising notice

shows a picture of steel nibs for dip pens, and evidence they were still being used well into the 2oth century. With these sturdier nibs, writers didn’t have to replace pen tips as often, making them more reliable than feathers. However, dip pens still used free-flowing ink, and this was often messy. (Ask my father about the time I spilled ink on our wood floor. Twice.)

A fillable fountain pen first showed up in France in the mid-1800s. While it was more expensive, it was also more convenient. It held ink in a reservoir which eliminated constant dipping and inadvertent splattering. Later pens would hold cartridges of ink making filling the pens with ink unnecessary.

Writing was still somewhat slow. Having a similar V-shaped tip, these pens needed to be held one way to work properly. That changed when the ball point pen came along. The first patent for a ball point pen appears in Hungary in the late 1880s, but the pen’s popularity didn’t take off until after World War II. Ball point pens have a tiny free-rolling ball that turns in a socket and picks up oil-based ink from a reservoir which it deposits on the writing surface. 

Ball point pens from Chemung Canal Bank's 150 anniversary
Felt-tipped pens arrived in the 1960s. Their porous fiber tip distributes ink when pressed on a surface. The 1970s brought Rollerball pens which leave smoother marks because they use thinner water-based ink. And along came Gel pens which show up in the 1980s. Gel isn't ink at all, but water-based gel which is opaque and works best on darker writing surfaces. However, this fluid takes longer to dry and can often smear.

Technology has changed the way we write and what we use. The variety of pen options today can be mind boggling, which is why when my pen wears out I plan to replace it with the very same kind.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Elmira’s Suicide Epidemic of 1920

by Erin Doane, Curator

**In this post, I will be writing about cases of attempted and successful suicide. Suicide is a serious issue and has been throughout history. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.**

In the past, I have had a blog post or two that have unexpectedly veered off into dark territory (like the A Tragic History of Tiny Stoves, for example). I went into researching this post, however, knowing very well that it was a dark topic. While searching for information on something else entirely, I randomly came across a headline from December 14, 1920 that read: “Another woman takes mercury tablet; she refuses to state reason for act.” I was instantly intrigued. I was also quite aware that I was diving headfirst into a story on potential suicide. Just an hour into research, I found articles about seven possible cases of suicide by mercury bichloride poisoning over the course of six weeks in Elmira.

Star-Gazette, December 14, 1920
Mercury bichloride is a deadly poison. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was used as a wood preservative and in photographic processing. In the home, it was used as a disinfectant, insecticide, and fungicide, and as a rat poison. Medically, it was used as a topical treatment for syphilis. While tablets were widely available in pharmacies without a prescription, by the late 1910s, bottles were clearly labeled poison and the tablets were made in the shape of little coffins to drive home that point.

The first report in this series of seven poisonings appeared in the Elmira Star-Gazette on November 23, 1920. Leona was taken to Arnot-Ogden hospital after mistakenly taking a mercury bichloride tablet. When ingested, mercury bichloride is absorbed into the bloodstream and organs where it damages kidneys and the intestinal tract, causing internal bleeding. It can take five days or more before doctors can tell if a victim will survive the poisoning. On November 26, it was reported that Leona’s condition had worsened but by December 2, she was finally recovering. The newspaper continued to report that her poisoning was accidental.

On November 30, it was reported that 22-year-old Anna was taken to St. Joseph’s hospital after swallowing a mercury bichloride tablet. At first, she claimed that it was a mistake, but later she declared that she did not know why she had taken the poison. She had recently moved to Elmira from Niagara Falls after having divorced her husband. The owner of the hotel at which the young woman worked said that she had been despondent recently and that may have been why she took the poison. Anna died in the hospital two weeks later.

Star-Gazette, December 10, 1920
Harry, a World War I veteran suffering from shellshock, wrote a letter to his estranged wife on December 2 and then swallowed a mercury bichloride tablet. In the letter, he wrote that he was so lonesome without her and could not stand it any longer. There was no mistaking his intention. After a relatively short stay at Arnot-Ogden hospital, Harry recovered and was discharged.

On December 6, Rena was in St. Joseph’s hospital “in serious condition as the result of her attempt to suicide,” according to the Star-Gazette. The 19-year-old mother of a 9-month-old baby had been acting in an unnatural manner, according to her husband. After they had a disagreement about Christmas plans, she swallowed a mercury bichloride tablet. She was the fourth to do so in Elmira in two weeks. She did recover and was discharged from the hospital on December 11.

Just a day after Rena returned home, on December 12, 17-year-old Mary took the same poison and refused to give her reason why. It is interesting to note that Mary lived on the same street as Rena, just eight houses down. She was expected to recover.

Star-Gazette, January 3, 1921
The report of a seventh victim of self-ingested poisoning was reported on January 3, 1921. (I never did find the sixth case. Whether it was not officially reported or the newspaper simply got their count wrong, I do not know.) Katherine spent a cheerful New Year’s Eve chatting with her boardinghouse landlady, Minnie. She wished Minnie a happy New Year just after midnight and went to her room. Around 1am, the landlady heard groaning from Katherine’s room. She had taken one mercury bichloride tablet. After divorcing her husband, the 27-year-old had to place her two children, aged 5 and 7, into other homes. It was believed that was why she had taken the tablet. Katherine was in the hospital for a week before recovering enough to be discharged.

There is the idea that suicide is contagious; that a person already on the edge reads or hears about someone taking their life and then takes action themselves. It feels like that may have been what was happening between November 22, 1920 and January 1, 1921. The deadliness of mercury bichloride had been public knowledge for years. In September 1920, just a couple months before the incidents in Elmira, 25-year-old silent film actress Olive Thomas died in Paris after ingesting mercury bichloride. Her husband had been using it as a topical treatment for syphilis. It was never determined if her swallowing the poison was an accident, suicide, or even murder, but the case became a major Hollywood scandal and appeared in local newspapers. Could her very public death have inspired others who wished to kill themselves?

We will never know why so many people in Elmira poisoned themselves over such a short period of time at the end of 1920. One can speculate on the reasons in hindsight, but I’m sure even those at the time were shocked by the news. Suicide is one of those fundamentally human things that connects us to everyone else around the world and throughout time. My hope is that by exploring this bit of local history, as difficult as it may be, perhaps someone out there may realize that we are all part of a larger community with shared experiences and know that they are not alone.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Fives Ladies, Five Objects


By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In honor of women’s history month, I thought I’d shamelessly steal Smithsonian Magazine’s idea of sharing five objects from our collection associated with five local women.

1. Hannah Marshall’s Cape 


Hannah Marshall (1819-1890) of Horseheads worked as a Quaker preacher for decades. During the 1800s, Quakerism was one of the few Christian sects which encouraged the active participation of women as preachers and spiritual leaders. Hannah is one of the only local women known to have preached here during the 1800s. She never married and was widely respected in her community.

2. Fanny Brooks’ Blouse 



Fanny Brooks (1836-1906) was born into slavery in the south. She, her husband George, and their two children moved to Elmira in the late-1860s. They were part of a northward wave of migrants which tripled the city’s African American population following the Civil War. Fanny was an active member of the Douglas Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church and was a financial backer of the church they constructed in 1890. Although the building is gone, a stained glass window bearing her name remains. She and her husband had four children, the youngest of whom became the first African American to graduate from Cornell.

3. Dr. Rachel Gleason’s Medical Case 




Dr. Rachel Gleason (1820-1905) graduated from Central Medical College in Syracuse in 1851, just two years after the first woman to graduate from an American medical school. In 1852, she and her husband Dr. Silas Gleason opened the Gleason Water Cure on Elmira’s East Hill. They ran it together until 1898 when Silas’ health began to fail.  Rachel specialized in women’s health and published a book and several articles on the subject. She sponsored and offered training positions to other female physicians including her sister and daughter.

4. Esther Williamson Ballou’s Concert Program 



Esther Ballou (1915-1973) was a musician and composer. She began studying piano at age four and started composing music in her twenties. She attended Bennington College, Mills College, and Julliard, where she also later taught. She also taught at Catholic University and The American University, both in Washington, D.C. She composed dozens of pieces, including one which was performed at the White House in 1963.

5. Jennie Fassett’s Ball Gown




Jennie Fassett (1860-1939) was the wife of area Congressman J. Sloat Fassett. During the couple’s years in Washington, D.C., she advocated for stronger child labor laws. Locally, she helped establish the Women’s Federation for Social Services. She was a member of the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and the Board of Trustees of the Steele Memorial Library. She was also a major financial backer of Elmira College.