Last time I was in Birmingham I visited the lovely Pen Museum. That’s right, there’s a whole museum dedicated to the humble pen. And it’s AMAZING.
The museum is on Frederick Street in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, just around the corner from my old flat. Based within the ornate former Brandauer’s Pen Factory established in 1863, the museum’s dusty interior is a time capsule evoking Birmingham’s glorious past at the epicentre of the pen trade.
I found the museum’s invitation to ‘immerse yourself in pens’ oddly irresistible. Brilliant volunteer Subhu demonstrated how to produce templates using historic machinery and even gave me my own nibs to take away.
Fun facts abounded as I was offered an insight into the history of this most essential piece of stationery. The fountain pen was first patented in the 1880s and famed Birmingham philanthropist and chocolate manufacturer George Cadbury owned one with a 14-carat gold nib.
At the peak of production, over 75% of everything written in the world was written by a pen made in Birmingham. The city was a powerhouse of industry in the nineteenth century and technological developments led by Brummie industrialists enabled the production of cheaper pens, contributing to a significant increase in literacy across the world.
Women made up the vast majority of the pen production workforce. Not only were they cheaper to hire but they were also considered more patient than men and their daintier hands were better suited to the fiddly work. They earned 50p a week for nine-and-a-half-hour days, producing a daily minimum of around 14,000 nibs.
It was highly skilled work requiring specialist training but conditions were hard and sometimes perilous. Workers risked cuts, burns, losing a fingertip or getting a chest infection from the dust in the air.
Thankfully women’s trade groups soon began to form, fighting for better pay and working conditions, including the Pen Workers Union.
I do love a good quality pen. One of my favourite Christmas presents as a schoolgirl was a burgundy Parker fountain pen with my name engraved on it. It came in a velvet box and sadly disappeared years ago but I’ll always remember the distinct pleasure of popping a new ink cartridge.
If anyone ever needs a gift idea for me, then I would love to own a Parker pen once again. Hint, hint!