Pen-Wipers: An Important Writing Tool of the 1800s

Pen-wipers were popular throughout the 1800s, which meant that people like Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Hetty Green, or Jane Austen likely used them. Pen-wipers were popular items because anyone who wrote anything needed help to keep the nib of a pen, whether it be a dip or fountain pen, in perfect working order. This could be accomplished by cleaning the ink from the nib so that the pen would not clog, and pen-wipers helped in that task.

Metal-handled Embroidered Pen-Wiper from 1878, Author's Collection

Metal-handled embroidered pen-wiper from 1878. Author’s Collection,

Pen-wipers were originally pieces of fabric, often felt, and the portion the pen was wiped upon was generally black in color. This was noted by one writer in the 1830s:

“Pen-wipers should always be made of black flannel or broadcloth: other colours soon get spoiled by the ink.”[1]

Butterfly Embroidery Pattern, 1859

Butterfly embroidery pattern, 1859. Author’s collection.

There were numerous references to pen-wipers in school-related books published throughout the 1800s. For instance, in 1841, a report by the Board of Commissioner of Common Schools in Connecticut noted that “each desk should also have a sponge, pen wiper, and pencil holder.”[2] The Teacher’s Assistant, published in 1859, provided the following instructions to students:

“Never touch the point of the pen with the fingers, nor wipe it on the hair, but on a pen-wiper, made of some kind of cloth. It should be wiped often, and always when you lay it aside.”[3]

Pen-Wiper from 1831, Author's Collection

Pen-Wiper from 1831, Author’s Collection

Pen-wipers were also common enough to be referred to not only in relation to schools but also in women’s magazines and novels. Additionally, similar to buttonhooks or shoehorns popular in the later portion of the Victorian Era, pen-wipers were frequently used as promotional aids to advertise a business or a sentiment. For instance, at one anti-slavery fair in the 1830s, on one side of the pen wiper abolitionists wrote, “Wipe out the blot of Slavery” and on the other side was imprinted “Plead the cause with thy Pen.”[4]

By the mid-1800s, numerous patterns were available for homemakers to create their own pen-wipers. One interesting pen-wiper pattern was something young girls could create to “delight their papas.” The outline of a beech tree leaf was copied, and six leaves cut from flannel. The leaves were then snipped at the edges into tiny points and the leaf’s veins created with a chain stitch from golden-colored floss. The upper portion of the leaves were then combined together and the top finished with a small bow of ribbons.

Pen-wipers were also popular as pin cushions and in 1891, Ingall’s Home and Art Magazine maintained that “the latest fads in this direction are the tiny ‘cosies,’ also those in the form of a small pair of bellows or an oyster shell.”[5] There were also Japanese looking pen-wipers made to resemble fans, pen-wipers created to look like bird nests and butterflies, and pen-wipers created from old playing cards that were covered with crape resembling a book with pages. Sometimes pen-wipers were crocheted or knitted, and sometimes they were embroidered, as was the pen-wiper shown below with the labrequin points.

Embroidered Pen-Wiper with Labrequin Points from 1878, Author's Collection

Embroidered pen-wiper with labrequin points from 1878. Author’s collection.

Another novel pen-wiper created in 1835 involved sewing fabric rounds together, thereby creating a small cushion that was trimmed with silk tassels at the edges and filled with fragrant lavender flowers. In the center of the cushion “a very little Dutch doll [was] dressed fashionably … [and] placed in a sitting posture upon the cushion with a small piece of cardboard tied to the hand on which the words ‘Allow me to wipe your pen’ [was] … printed in small letters.”[6]

Instructions to make another type of pen-wiper in 1885 was found in a book that gave directions on how to produce over three hundred “decorative and fancy” articles. It stated:

“Make a pen-wiper, either book shape or round, as you prefer, and fasten on the right-hand side of the splasher, half way between the top and bottom, or across the upper corner. Chamois skin is the best material to use for the leaves of the pen-wiper, and should be finished at the edge of being cut into regular, small points.”[7]

Throughout the nineteenth century, pen-wipers were frequently donated to charitable organizations to be used in fund raisers. For example, at a charity fair for the blind in Boston in 1833 Parley’s Magazine reported:

“The visitors of the exhibition were very liberal, and a great many purchases were made. One person gave two hundred dollars for a pen-wiper, and another fifty dollars for a pair of slippers.”[8]

Although pen-wipers were often homemade, that was not always the case. For instance, there was the gilded lead one shown below. It was produced as a campaign novelty that substituted a pig’s head for Grover Cleveland’s. He would serve as the 22nd (4 March 1885 to 4 March 1889) and 24th (4 March 1893 to 4 March 1897) president of the United States and his opponents decided to patent this pen-wiper in opposition to his first bid on 22 April 1884.

Pen wiper substituting Grover Cleveland’s head for a pig’s. Courtesy of Live Auctioneers.

Despite this gilded led pen-wiper begin used a pun, pen-wipers were frequently given as gifts and could often be found for sale at bazaars and fairs. They were so popular they could still be purchased into the twentieth century, partly because they were considered a practical and useful item. However, they fell out fashion and became outdated when dip and fountain pens were replaced by more modern writing tools.

References:

  • [1] Child, Lydia Maria Francis, The Girls Own Book, 1833, p. 221.
  • [2] Third [-Fourth] Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of Common Schools, 1841, p. 58.</li
  • [3] Northend, Charles, The Teacher’s Assistant, Or Hints and Methods in School Discipline and Instruction, 1860, p. 180.
  • [4] Schomp, Virginia, American Voices from the Women’s Movement, 2007, p. 16.
  • [5] Ingall’s Home and Art Magazine, Vol. 4, 1891, p. 68.
  • [6] The Wreath, or Ornamental Artist, 1835, p. 77.
  • [7] Hale, Lucretia Peabody and Margaret Eliot Harding White, Three Hundred Decorative and Fancy Articles for Presents, Fairs, Etc., Etc. ; with Directions for Making, 1885, p. 65.
  • [8] Parley’s Magazine, Vol. 1, 1833, p. 88.

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