Collecting Mordan Propelling Pencils

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.

Tips on Collecting Pie Funnels

When it comes to collecting I’ve often noticed that what once were utilitarian objects and present in just about every house have now become highly desirable and are often used for display. Pie funnels were once an everyday object and while they are still being used today they are also very collectable.

The pie funnel, also known as pie ventilator, pie crust support, pie preserver or pie bird, as the Americans like to call it, is a late Victorian utensil.  They were designed to prevent the juices spilling onto the pastry or the floor of the oven and also to support the pie crust and stop it from sagging.

The first recorded pie funnel was manufactured in 1880 by Dean and Morris and it was made in three sizes.  Since then 44 different patents and registered designs have been recorded in Britain and many of these can still be bought today.  One of the earliest recorded figures was a blackbird, registered in 1933 in Australia by Grace Seccombe as a Pie Crust Lifter.  A J Wilkinson (Clarice Cliff) registered a blackbird pie funnel design in 1936 and many of these were produced, including the all white wartime version – some were stamped Wilkinson, Newport Pottery or, later, Midwinter.

Before the appearance of the pie funnel people would have used an egg cup or even a stick of macaroni.  As pies come in different sizes and depths so do funnels and they were often produced in sets.  Among these sets are the Adcock Crust Support, Ventilator and Fountain.  These early pie funnels often had wide chimneys for venting the steam from beneath the crust, but also for adding additional stock to the pie during the long, slow cooking process.

If you want to collect pie funnels you are in luck as once upon a time every household in Britain would have had one or several of these.  As diet and cooking styles have changed over the last twenty years the pie funnel is no longer an everyday object and is probably stuck somewhere at the back of a cupboard or drawer.

Some pie funnels have fetched quite high prices but you should be able to start a collection for a small amount of money.  Check out your local auctions and car boot sales and you should be able to get some of the plain pie funnels quite cheaply.  You might also want to check out the internet auction sites as these are useful for researching prices.

Some of the famous china manufacturers such as Spode, Royal Worcester, Denby, Shelley and Grimwade have all produced pie funnels on a commercial basis but it was Grimwade that produced the widest variety of designs, five of which are patented or design registered.  Among them are the ‘figural elephant pie funnel/ring holder’, which was produced in white and grey, to the ultimate ‘Bleriot Pie Divider’ produced in three different sizes, which separated the pie dish into two parts so that two different meats or fruits could be baked in the same pie.  Each of these dividers came with their own specific patented pie dish.

‘The Improved Pie Funnel’ was produced by Grimwade and it is quite rare and it sold so well that an updated version was produced and named ‘The Improved Popular Pie Funnel’.  These came in various sizes, advertising early grocery and china shops as well as department stores around the world, from T W Robinson Co Ltd of Moose Jaw in Canada to Ritchies of Dunedin in New Zealand as well as from all over the UK.

While the majority of pie funnels are made from pottery there is also quite a selection made from Pyrex glass, aluminium and plastic.  The majority of the early examples were produced commercially by larger potteries that manufactured a wide range of white ware, but later the smaller potteries produced limited editions of real works of art.  In the forefront was Stuart Bass, who has produced over 300 different designs since the mid-1970s.

A book called British Pie Funnels has been produced to try and fill in some of the gaps concerning the tradtional British pie funnel as there has been little written on the subject.  This provides a handy background for any new or experienced collector and some of the illustrations should prove useful when identifying the various pieces.