By Ron Dutcher
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A tall man, well dressed and proper, walked into the Caw’s Pen Shop at 233 Broadway, New York City. He might have been handsome if it were not for his enormous ears which reddened as he examined the pens in the glass case. He looked up at the elderly woman by the cash register and at a man sitting behind the counter reading a newspaper. The tall man pulled out a five dollar gold piece and slapped it down on the counter.
"I'll take this one", he said, pointing to a slender black chased hard rubber pen with an over feed.
The woman working the cash register removed the pen from the case and boxed it for the man. She handed the man his change.
“I also need a receipt with today’s date and your signature,” said the man.
The woman looked over to the man with the newspaper, who was making a show of ignoring the exchange. He shook his head.
“I am sorry, but I can not give you a receipt,” said the woman politely, the soft music of French Arcadie in her voice.
The tall man’s ears turned a darker shade of red. “I bought the pen. I paid you its price. Now you must provide me with a receipt.”
“No. Mr. Wirt,” she said with quiet formality. “Now I think you had better leave.”
Paul E. Wirt’s hands trembled slightly, but he controlled them. He hadn’t expected to be recognized here. “Very well,” he nodded to the woman. Then turning to the man with the newspaper, “And Mr. Brown,…it is Brown isn’t it,… I shall see you in court.” With that Wirt turned and left with his evidence.
Few pen makers are more misunderstood than Francis Cashel Brown, the man with the newspaper in this exchange. Few pen collectors even recognize the name today, but Brown was at the center of most of the great pen advancements. Some pen historians believe his importance derives from his genius; others chalk it up to his conniving schemes.
Brown was born in Haysville, Ontario Canada on April 29, 1851, the son of James Major and Eliza Margaret (Crotty) Brown. His father, a native of Londonderry, Ireland, immigrated to Canada in 1835 and prospered as a merchant.
Brown first appeared on the pen scene in 1876. According to Brown in his autobiographical notes later compiled into a biography by his son, he discovered Duncan MacKinnon that year after reading an issue of Scientific American that featured the MacKinnon pen. MacKinnon, a fellow Canadian from Ontario, had the patent in hand, but lacked the funds to begin production nor could he convince anyone to invest in his pen. Brown explained that in 1851, Newall A. Prince’s Protean Fountain pen had been released and for a short time was widely popular. However, the first Proteans’ holders were made of steel and quickly corroded in the acidic ink of the day. They soon stopped writing — not that they wrote well to begin with. Brown also states that MacKinnon’s original pen was made of base metal, and like the Protean, would quickly corrode. Nevertheless, the Protean had sold phenomenally well for a short time, and Brown suspected that he could pull the same thing off with MacKinnon’s Stylograph.
Brown’s writing is so full of boasts that it is hard to determine just what is fact and what isn’t. For example, in Brown’s advertising he claims to have invented the Stylographic pen himself, though in his biography he concedes that it was MacKinnon. Brown also claimed to be the inventor of the name “Stylographic Pen” explaining that because the first fountain pens had been dismal failures, a new name was needed to avoid negative associations. In fact, MacKinnon applied that term to his pen in his patent a year before he and Brown met. Brown further claims that it was his idea to make the first pens ever using hard rubber for the holder. His claims are certainly exaggerated. In Newall Prince’s 1855 patent, Prince specifies that the holder should be made of hard rubber. Brown was appointed Secretary Treasurer to the MacKinnon Stylograph Company. His name appears with that title on the company’s stationary. Brown did supply the funds for Mackinnon to begin production. The MacKinnon Pen Company assembled its own pens from hard rubber holders bought from Day Rubber in Connecticut and nibs bought from John Holland in Ohio. In fact, it is probable that Alonzo T. Cross saw MacKinnon holders at the Day Rubber factory, saw the promise of such a pen and made a few improvements, and then patented his own stylographic pen.
MacKinnon made similar improvements, and, ironically, on March 8th, 1882, Cross won a suit against MacKinnon for patent infringement. Just three months latter, on June 9th, Duncan MacKinnon died of heart failure — a testament, perhaps to the stress and frustration he experienced in his venture.
Brown and another partner, A. M. Sutherland, continued the MacKinnon Pen Company until 1890, steadily making a few new improvements on the Stylograph. Brown says in his biography that by 1886 imitations were so common and underselling the MacKinnon by so much that he decided to sell his interest in MacKinnon and go into business for himself. But by then he could afford to make a change.
On April 23, 1883, just a year after the MacKinnon trial, Brown married — and he married well. His bride was Marie Françoise Elizabeth Laurie, a member of a wealthy aristocratic family that had escaped the French Revolution by fleeing to New Orleans. Marie lost her parents early in life and was taken in by an aunt, widowed in the Civil War, Camille Quesnel. Census records show that Mme Quesnel was independently wealthy. Interestingly, Camille signed as a witness on many of Brown’s patents, leaving us to wonder how much of her money was funding his ventures. Though it’s not clear how much Brown lost from the MacKinnon defeat, his marriage had him on his way again. The Browns and Aunt Camille moved to New Brighton on Staten Island, New York, where Marie Françoise bore him four children.
Early in 1886, Brown joined the Fountain Ink Company of 62 Cliff Street, New York, as a trustee. Here he fell in love with their crow-colored ink and devised the name “Caw’s.” By October Fountain Ink suddenly went broke, and Brown bought the assets in a bankruptcy sale. He changed the name to “Caw’s Ink and Pen Company”, and named his wife its President. Besides ink, he quickly started manufacturing and advertising the Dashaway pen that he and David W. Beaumel patented in November, 1886. Brown also opened a store at 233 Broadway where he employed Aunt Camille to handle the retail business.
All was going well, but for one thing. Brown’s Dashaway was nearly identical to the pen Wirt patented on Feb 3, 1885, nearly two years before. Wirt, a lawyer before entering the pen industry, lost no time in filing suit against Brown for patent infringement. The boastful Brown biography claims that Wirt and Waterman copied his designs, though the patent dates speak for themselves. The Wirt-Brown trial of February 1887 proved to be interesting. Exhibit A was Wirt’s overfeed pen; Exhibits B, C, and D were Brown’s pens, the last being the one purchased as this history began. Wirt testified that he bought identical pens from the store himself and that Quesnel, the woman at the register, refused him a receipt.
Brown arrived an hour late for his testimony and, when on the stand, conveniently had difficulty remembering incriminating dates on which he made his pens. Brown even denied at first that his pens used capillary attraction to insure a constant ink flow. After several of Wirt’s expert witnesses, including Lewis Waterman, testified that Brown’s pen worked the same as Wirt’s, Brown’s counsel attacked Wirt’s patent. They claimed that Wirt’s design was not original and should not have received a patent in the first place. Ironically, this would also mean that Brown’s nearly identical design shouldn’t have received a patent. Brown’s lawyers presented dozens of earlier American and English patents covering anything that looked like Wirt’s pen. They even tried to sneak in a few irrelevant patents dated after Wirt’s. The only patent of any significance was Marvin C. Stone’s 1882 feed patent. Wirt’s design differed only in that his feed protruded into the ink reservoir where Stone’s stopped at the section. Later, Wirt would acquire the rights to the Stone patent and imprint that date on his pens, so that his title was clear.
In the end, Judge Benedict ruled in Wirt’s favor, saying “The pens made by the defendant are identical in principle with the pens made by the plaintiff. The Complainant is therefore entitled to a decree and an injunction.”
This defeat did little to slow Brown. He quickly created some new feed designs and published even more aggressive advertising.
Some of Caw’s first pens made were stylographics nearly identical to the MacKinnon. Lapham & Bogart Company, makers of “The Rival” pen, produced them under contract and was sued, in turn, by Wirt for their trouble.
Besides marketing heavily in America, Brown was working hard to find markets in England and France. He won a first place medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for his pens and stylographics where Marie Françoise and Aunt Camille’s French served him well. He also managed to contract with the Maruzen Import Company of Tokyo, making the Caw’s Stylographic pen one of the first fountain pens imported into Japan.
While Wirt advertised his pens with Mark Twain’s endorsement, Brown courted presidents. Both ex-President Benjamin Harrison and President Grover Cleveland used and endorsed the Caw’s Dashaway #130, a huge pen whose nib resembles a garden tool more than a writing implement. Cleveland said, “I find Caw’s Dashaway Fountain Pen very valuable as a signature pen.”
Harrison wrote, “The second Dashaway Fountain Pen received and suits me. The first one I gave to Mrs. Harrison, and she is using it with great satisfaction.” No other pen in history has been publicly endorsed by two US presidents.
By the 1890s, scores of pen makers were entering the industry, but little had changed in the way of design. Most of these pens were filled with an eyedropper and all suffered from leaks and caused ink stains. It was expected, and people joked about it. In 1893, the New York Times published a little joke that read “I would never trust him, he is as treacherous as a fountain pen.” Another common joke was “No, not all gushing letters are written with a fountain pen.” Brown sought to change this. In 1895 Francis Brown patented a spiral-cam safety pen. Much as he had done with the Fountain Ink Company a decade before, he bought up the assets of the failed Horton Pen Company of New Haven, Connecticut, and commenced production of the Caw’s Safety Pen in 1896. Also in that year he worked with Morris W. Moore on improvements to Moore’s 1893 safety pen design. Later the Waterman Company acquired these patents to become the most successful safety pen of the 20th Century. Brown received almost no money from Waterman for his patent rights but was paid in job lots of unmarked Waterman pens that he could imprint and sell both in the United States and in Europe.
Francis Brown’s pens were always at least interesting and often innovative. One pen in the Caw’s catalogue and one of which Brown was most proud, was called “The Limit.” The owner could convert it from a safety to a normal eyedropper fountain pen. Another interesting Caw’s pen is “The Easy,” which was Caw’s entry into the “jointless” pen fad of the turn of the last century. “The Easy” is identical in principle to the slightly later Jay G. Rider pen. It fills with an eyedropper, but the pen has no section. The barrel is one piece. The nib and feed are pulled out to fill the barrel. Brown began selling more and more pens in Europe as the U.S. market grew more competitive and his share of the U.S. market dwindled. When found at all today, his contract pens from Waterman often come from France and the Low Countries. The chaos of World War I destroyed the last remaining markets for his fountain pens. Frank Brown left pen manufacture for good, making a living as an insurance salesman until his death on February 1, 1939.
Finding any Caw’s pen today is not easy. If you have one, consider yourself lucky. After four years of constantly watching eBay and sending emissaries to pen shows for me, I have only found three of them, none of which were cheap. My beloved Wirt pens are much easier to find than Caw’s, but I consider them an important part of my collection, and I’ll keep hunting.
For more information, see the entry for Caw’s in the Glossopedia.
This article is part of the Manhattan Pen Makers Project, originated by Ron L. Dutcher. Except for typographical corrections, the text is as Ron published it. Ron wanted to include photos of advertisements or pens from each maker; he had some photos, but the gallery was far from complete. Photos here are a mixture of what Ron had and what I have been able to add from my own photo library. As with other reference articles on this site, you should not take this information as absolutely authoritative or complete.