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By Ron Dutcher
One of the most interesting early pen makers. Not only was he a fine gold pen maker, but he had an intense abhorrence for injustice no matter how big or how small. When Foley learned that one of his traveling salesmen had been padding his expense account, Foley hounded the legal officials constantly until they arrested the man. The officials noted then that they thought Foley was “a little too sensitive,” but this goes to show what kind of man he was. The most famous case of injustice he dealt with led to the down fall of the infamous Boss Tweed.
Below is an interesting biography found in the 1888 book New York's Leading Industries. It tells the Gold Pen Origin story involving Isaac Hawkins and Levi Brown, as well as the Boss Tweed story. The Foley portrait is from an 1871 Harper’s Weekly article that discussed his involvement in the Boss Tweed scandal.
The cry of reform is heard on all sides, and it cannot be repressed, either.
—John Foley, 1876
John Foley, Manufacturer of gold pens, No. 2 Astor House, Broadway:
It was in 1848 that Mr. Foley laid the foundations of what has grown to be the leading business of its kind in the United States, and justly so in view of the talent, energy and perseverance of the subject of this sketch. The first practical experimenter with gold as a substance adapted to the manufacture of pens was a Mr. Hawkins in England, the first gold pen with an iridium point being made in 1834. The third pen of the kind which he made he sold in April, 1834 to Mr. Vine an eminent London Merchant engaged in the Russian trade and he soon procured several orders for the pens from St. Petersburg for the use of the czar and others. Thus began the manufacture and sale of these invaluable articles though they were then crudely made and bore but a faint resemblance to the beautiful and reliable “Daimond-Pointed Gold Pens” now manufactured by Mr. Foley. In August, 1835, Mr. Hawkins transferred all his right and title to his process of gold pen manufacturing to Aaron Porter Cleveland, of New York, for the sum of three hundred pounds sterling, and a percentage arising from the sale of the pens. Mr. Hawkins intending retiring from the business and to settle at Bordertown, New Jersey and pursue his profession of a civil engineer, but Mr. Cleveland induced him to continue making the pens in London, while he (Cleveland) proceeded to New York and founded the business in America, and in which Mr. Simeon Hyde took part. In October, 1836, Mr. Cleveland taught Mr. Levi Brown how to make the pen. In Mr. Brown’s employ were Mr. George Barney and other ingenious workmen, who thoroughly learned the art and contriving several labor-saving tools, much improving all the process of manufacture. Mr. Barney and other workmen from time to time left Mr. Brown and began working upon their own account, and in 1848 Mr. John Foley possessed of ample practical experience, founded his present universally known establishment. Out of fifteen houses engaged in New York in 1849, Mr. Foley’s is the only one still in existence that confines itself to the original branch of trade. Mr. Foley from the start spared no pains or expense to secure the utmost perfection of workmanship. He employed none but the most skilful and progressive workmen, constantly exercised the closest personal supervision, and with the most satisfactory and enduring of results he has invented, or brought into his factory, all the improved and perfected labor-saving machinery in existence in this trade, and it is the best equipped of any to produce the finest and most reliable pens. His enterprise has found numerous collateral channels for its manifestation, and he has published a magnificent quarter volume, profusely illustrated, and which gives a complete and accurate history of gold pens, who invented them, when and where, and to which we are indebted for all of the facts embodied in the first portion of this sketch. The book likewise contains a complete and detailed description of “Foley’s Diamond-Pointed Gold Pens” telling how they are made, about the machinery used, what the diamond (iridium) points and their great value, and how applied. The whole being profusely illustrated, containing nearly five hundred splendidly executed engravings, and the whole work printed as it is on a wide margin plate paper cost the enterprising publisher several thousand dollars.
Mr. Foley’s factory is conveniently situated in Ann Street, a few steps only from his eligible office and store which are located at No. 2 Astor House, Broadway, and directly central to the most important business section of New York. He here makes the finest and most magnificent display of gold pens in the world, and which are the best ever manufactured, their superior value having been tested by all the leading business and professional men in the United States during the past thirty-six years. Our leading bankers, brokers, merchants and insurance men all join in expressing their high opinion as to the merits and permanent usefulness of the Foley pen. The Judges at the American Institute Fair awarded Mr. Foley their prize medal for the best gold pens and pencils. Mr. Foley manufactures a full line of goods, including his famous “Bank” gold pens, his patent diamond-pointed stylographic pen, his new patent iridium-pointed fountain pen, and a full line of novelty pencils in solid gold, plated, ivory, pearl, silver, rubber, and celluloid mountings. Mr. Foley’s trade has developed to proportions of magnitude worthy alike of his energy, enterprise and integrity. Mr. Foley was the first tax-payer who had the moral courage and force of character to heard the notorious Tweed ring in its stronghold, commencing his memorable fight against the corruption when he was elected to the board of supervisors in 1869, and which he never ceased till he had secured the downfall of Tweed, and rescued the civic treasury from further plundering. Mr. Foley was the first and only man to discover and expose the great frauds of Tweed and his ring, which he did in a letter published in August, 1871, and his facts and figures, as sworn to in his famous injunction suit, were the foundation of all the subsequent legal proceedings, both civil and criminal, against the late W. M. Tweed and his thieving supporters. Mr. Foley pressed the good fight with great pluck and perseverance. He presided at public meetings, fearless of the hosts of Tammany and Tweed’s backing, and sound public opinion supported him. The Supreme court granted the injunction, and Comptroller Comolly was forced to resign, being followed soon after by Tweed and other leading officials. It is but just to remark that Mr. Foley was the only citizen of New York fearless enough to incur the great risk and gave responsibility of instituting proceedings at law declaring that Tweed and his gang were thieves, and winning the most magnificent victory for justice and honor ever on record, saving millions of dollars to the struggling rate payers and earning the everlasting thanks of all right-minded, honest Americans. He has never failed to speak out fearlessly, as becomes the honest and intelligent private citizen, and advocated not only purity in municipal politics, but such great measures as rapid transit, increased water supply, ect. The first man to kick against the Tweed ring, he is possessed of intuitive common sense, and his remark to the Herald interviewer in 1876 is as forcible and appropriate now as then. He was speaking of Mr. S. J. Tilden’s splendid qualifications for the presidency and remarked: “The cry of reform is heard on all sides, and it cannot be repressed either.” These words are as true and applicable today as in ’76, and Mr. Foley is still the true and tried reformer of that class which is, alas, far too small in our midst. His integrity is unsullied, his talents undimmed and his mentality as keen as ever, and he well deserves the need of praise and honor silently and universally accorded him by his fellow citizens as a faithful manufacturer and a public spirited American and an honest man.
For more information, see the entry for Foley 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.