Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, History, Museum, Vintage, World War One

The Pen Room Museum – Birmingham

The Pen Room Museum located in the former Victorian pen factory of W. E. Wiley & Co, built in 1863.
The Pen Room Museum located in the former Victorian pen factory of W. E. Wiley & Co and built in 1863.

Recently, the UK’s ‘last typewriter’ was manufactured at Brother’s factory in Wrexham, North Wales.  This was a sad day for both typewriter and Brother.  This ‘last typewriter’ has been donated to the Science Museum in London and is now officially a relic of the past. I have a lot to thank Brother for, in the 1990s one of their typewriters (LW series) helped me through my undergraduate and post-graduate studies. I churned-out countless essays and a dissertation on my trusty Brother, it never let me down.  A faithful companion throughout the night when essay deadlines loomed heavy. I miss it.

Salter Standard No. 10 typewriter, c.1908. The Pen Room.
Salter Standard No. 10 typewriter, c.1908. The Pen Room.

The typewriter was invented in the United States in 1830 by typographer William Burt (1792-1858).  However, the first patent for a ‘writing machine’ was granted to Henry Mill (1683-1771) back in 1714. It wasn’t until the 1870s that typewriters were first mass-produced by the Remington Company, commercial success swiftly followed.

A rare example of an Underwood typewriter, model. no. 5. 1922. The Pen Room.
A rare example of an Underwood typewriter, model. no. 5. 1922. In the early 1920s, two million Underwood typewriters were sold around the world. The Pen Room.

The Underwood Typewriter Company was another important, early manufacturer of machines and accessories, including typewriter ribbons and carbon paper which they also supplied to Remington. The first Underwood typewriter was invented by Franz Xaver Wagner (1837-1907) and produced in 1896. Early Underwood machines are similar in design to those available today.

Fox portable typewriter, model no. 1 (USA). 1917. The Pen Room.
Fox portable typewriter, model no. 1 (USA). 1917. The Pen Room.

During World War One, portable typewriters proved invaluable and were used in the trenches to produce typed reports and correspondence.

19th Century pen nibs. The Pen Room.
19th Century pen nibs by C. Brandauer & Co. Ltd. This Birmingham based firm made pen nibs from 1862 until 1977.  The Pen Room.
Historic pen nibs on display at The Pen Room.
Vintage pen nibs on display at The Pen Room.

The Pen Room Museum is located in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.  The Pen Room has a wonderful, eclectic range of objects on display, from examples of quill pens to steel nib and fountain pens. Other types of historic writing equipment in the collection include an early Braille-writing machine invented by A. H. Wayne and a large collection of vintage typewriters.

An early Braille shorthand machine invented by A. H. Wayne at the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind.  The six keys allow one to write any combination of the six dots in one action. The Pen Room.
An early Braille shorthand machine invented by A. H. Wayne at the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind. The six keys allow the typist to write any combination of the six dots in one action. The Pen Room.

The Pen Room is a member of The Association of Independent Museums (AIM) and is run entirely by a team of passionate and knowledgeable volunteers, many of whom are themselves well-respected collectors of historic writing equipment. The Museum is a reminder of how old-fashioned curation techniques work just as well in 2012 to enhance the visitor experience.

A William Mitchell barrel-nib pen in presentation case. The pen was made to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The Pen Room.
A William Mitchell barrel-nib pen in presentation case. The pen was produced to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The Pen Room.
A nickel-plated travelling pen and pencil by John Sheldon. 1842. The Pen Room.
A nickel-plated travelling pen and pencil by John Sheldon. 1842. The Pen Room.

We had a superb time at The Pen Room and I came away buzzing with a thirst for knowledge on the important, but overlooked, subject of the history of writing equipment.  Whilst my husband had a go at pressing a pen nib and learning about the science behind the machinery, I took a trip down memory lane and bashed out variations of ‘the cat sat on the mat’ and ‘the rain in spain’ on one of the vintage typewriters set-up for visitors to use.

On the left is a pen nib pressed by my husband together with a couple of pen nibs he was given as a souvenir. The Pen Room.
On the left is a pen nib pressed by my husband together with a couple of pen nibs he was given as a souvenir. The Pen Room.

The Pen Room offers a range of educational activities for visitors including Braille demonstrations every Friday throughout the year by expert Keith Hancox MBE. There are weekly calligraphy classes, for adults only, that take place every Saturday (9.45am-11.15am and 11.30-1pm) and cost £3 per session. However, classes have now stopped for the Christmas period but resume again on 12th January 2013. For more information on activities, CLICK HERE.

Victoria Works, Joseph Gillott's Pen Factory, Graham Street, Birmingham which was built in 1853.  The image depicts a visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales to the slitting room in 1875. Women made-up a large proportion of the workforce in Birmingham's pen trade. The Pen Room.
Victoria Works, Joseph Gillott’s Pen Factory, Graham Street, Birmingham which was built in 1853. The firm began making pens in 1828 and ceased trading in 1969. The image depicts a visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales to the slitting room in 1875. A large proportion of the workforce, in Birmingham’s pen trade, were women. The Pen Room.
Advert for W. E. Wiley & Co, pen makers. Originally they had a factory at 34 Great Hampton Street (1848-1863) and then moved to 29 Graham Street to a new premises designed by J. G. Bland. They remained at 29 Graham from 1863-1876. The building is now known as The Argent Centre and is now the home of The Pen Room.
Advert for W. E. Wiley & Co, pen makers. Originally they had a factory at 34 Great Hampton Street (1848-1863) and then moved to 29 Graham Street. The new premises were designed by J. G. Bland in the Renaissance Florentine style and is the first flatted factory in Birmingham. The firm remained at 29 Graham from 1863-1876.  At its height the factory employed 250 staff. The building is now known as The Argent Centre and is the appropriate home of The Pen Room.

Birmingham was once the centre of the world pen trade,providing employment for thousands of people, many of whom were women. ‘Throughout the Victorian age and beyond, Birmingham was at the forefront of the pen making industry.  Many of the Pen Makers have been long forgotten as have the workers, without whom Birmingham would have not earned the name ‘The Pen Shop of the World.”‘ (Stanyard, R., 2011, p. 1, The Pen Makers of Birmingham 1818-2011). The Pen Room is ideally located in the former pen factory of W. E. Wiley & Co.  Originally, the firm were based at 34 Great Hampton Street (1848-1863) before moving to 29 Graham Street (1863-1876).  Graham Street is now known as Frederick Street and the former factory building has been renamed The Argent Centre.

For more information on the history of Birmingham’s pen trade, Professor Carl Chinn MBE has written a good overview which can be found in The Pen Room’s own website. CLICK HERE.

The Pen Room is open Monday to Saturday (11am to 4pm)  and on Sunday (1pm to 4pm), entry is free but a small donation would be gratefully received by the Museum. For more information The Pen Room  CLICK HERE.

19th Century decorative pen nib boxes by D. Leonardt & Co. The Pen Room.
19th Century decorative pen nib boxes by D. Leonardt & Co. The firm opened their first premises on 68 George Street Parade in 1871  but had been established since 1856.  They are still in business today and are based in Highley, Shropshire.   The Pen Room.
One of my favourite exhibits. A 19th century pen nib box by William Mitchell.
One of my favourite exhibits. A 19th century pen nib box by William Mitchell.
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3 thoughts on “The Pen Room Museum – Birmingham

  1. During my quest to figure out our family’s genealogy, we found a Bible on Ebay that had belonged to one of our ancestors. In this Bible was a pen nib down in the folds of it’s pages. The nib has on it “Ambruster & Brother Philadelphia”. According to my research, there was no “Ambruster” and Brother that were in business together, but an Armbruster did in fact live in Philadelphia in the mid 1700’s. Anthony Armbruster and his brother Gotthart or Goddard Armbruster came here about 1743 from Germany. It is documented that Goddard Armbruster was a printer who opened a business and later his brother Anthony joined him as an apprentice. Anthony was not associated with the business according to some but to others he was for a short time. The best estimation on these dates according to publications and documentation is that they may have both ran the business together between 1748 and 1752. Anthony Armbruster was notorious for misspelling his name as can be seen in many of his works after he took over the printing business.The best guess for this nib’s origin is around 1750, give or take. Does anyone know how I can verify this information or who I might be able to ask? Thanks.

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    1. Hi Dawn,

      Thanks for your comment and interesting research that you have conducted to date. I do not know the answer to your query but may I suggest that you contact The Pen Room Museum in Birmingham who may be able to help you further.

      Kind regards. Emma.

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