In the age of the computer hand-written letters and notes are becoming increasingly rare. If we need pens or pencils we buy cheap packs of mass-produced, throw-away items, that is the modern way. In the Georgian and Victorian era these pens and pencils were expensive and beautifully made and they have become desirable collectors’ items. One of the most famous makers of propelling pencils was Sampson Mordan. He was born in 1790 and not a great deal is known about him, but he founded his first company in London in 1815 and entered his first silver hallmark in 1823.
In 1822 Mordan got together with the inventor Samuel Hawkins and they developed a mechanism for a propelling pencil that became known as the ‘ever-pointed’ pencil. Mordan then bought out Hawkins’ share of the rights and sold them to stationer Gabriel Riddle in order to finance the production of the pencils. By 1836 he was not only making propelling pencils but also vesta cases, perfume bottles and other items, always in silver or gold and excellent in form as well as function, but the ‘ever-pointed’ pencil always remained at the core of the product range. Mordan died in 1843 and the company was run by two of his sons with great success. They were at their peak in the late 1800s, but by the beginning of the 20th century people became interested in the coloured plastic fountain pens that were now available.
Tragedy struck during WW2 when the factory was bombed and the company’s archives were destroyed along with the factory. It is therefore very difficult to know the full production range, the only catalogue to survive is from 1898. Most of the propelling pencils that were produced during the 19th century are simple, elegant silver cylinders, decorated with fluted or reeded columns. They have ring sliders to extend the pencil mechanism and they can fetch between £30 and £300, depending on period of manufacture and condition of the item. Many of these pencils are not hallmarked and sellers often do not realise that they are silver, therefore bargains are to be had.
Mordan propelling pencils made in the 20th century are more affordable and you can often pick them up between £10 and £30. Watch out for dents, splits and missing parts, as it is almost impossible to get them repaired. The 19th century silver pencils are very desirable, especially the ones with hand-engraved scrolling vines, flowers or leaves. Have a good look at the terminal at the opposite end of the lead holder, which unscrews to reveal lead storage cylinders. Elaborately cast examples, which should echo the design of the slider ring are the most sought after and therefore the most expensive. Nearly all have stones set into the end and are sometimes engraved with a seal or monogram. You would have to pay between £100 and £350 for one of these.
Gold, ivory and tortoiseshell were also used. These were primarily made in the second half of the 19th century and they would fetch between £70 and £150, depending on size and decoration. The most desirable Mordan pencils are the enamelled ones – they are very rare and very desirable and a finely detailed enamelled gold faceted pencil would easily fetch above £1,500.
Mordan’s propelling pencils did not just excell in decoration, they were also extremely innovative, some contain small knives, while others have bodies that act as rulers. There is a rare sheath pencil that has a case for a compass and thermometer. You should also look out for the three colour-pencils where the slider ring is divided into enamelled sections, each containing a different colour lead. Among the most easy to find are his pen and pencil combinations – they have two sliders, one moving the lead holder out, the other a pen nib holder. Prices for these are between £60 ad £150 for a simple, late 19th century example and between £300 and £600 for an early example fitted with a rare ‘Bramah-type’ swivelling nib holder.
The most popular and also most expensive among the Mordan range are the novelty-shaped pencils, which were the company’s speciality. There were many different themes, including animals, sports, weapons and many others. Prices are high and you would need to pay between £300 and £1,500. Animals are highly sought after and include owls, pigs and fish. Other rare examples include a pistol, a range of enamelled Egyptian sarcophagi, champagne bottles and a very rare sword.
If you want to become a collector it is quite easy to date Mordan propelling pencils and you should look out for the following marks:
- SM/GR Hallmarks – Mordan was in partnership with Gabriel Riddle from 1824-36. These are very rare
- S Mordan & Co Makers and Patentees – Used from 1836 to c1845, following the split from Riddle
- S Mordan & Co Makers – 1845 to c1852, these are hard to find
- S Mordan & Co – the most common mark, used from c1852 into the 20th century
- The ‘Mordan Arrow’ – it was only recently discovered that the arrow mark identifies a 10ct gold piece made by Mordan.
Unfortunately, the company never recovered from the fire at the factory and they finally shut their doors in 1952.