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  Writing instruments, Sears, Roebuck & 
Co. Catalogue, 1897.  

Enlarge image.Writing instruments, one of seven pages of writing instruments in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897.


Writing Instruments and Stationery
by Bianca Gendreau

Mail-order catalogues are a unique source of information on the writing instruments and stationery available between 1880 and 1940.

Since letter writing is above all an intellectual act and engages both the mind and the senses, writers must surround themselves with objects and instruments to express their thoughts, even if it is only with a bit of paper and a pen.

Introduction | Catalogues for Letter Writers | Putting Pen to Paper | A World of Paper | Further Reading

  Travel writing case, late 19th 

Enlarge image.Travel writing case containing writing paper, sealing wax, seals, an inkwell, and fountain pens, late 19th century.

  Fountain pens and pen holders, Sears, 
Roebuck & Co Fall 1900, p. 142.  

Enlarge image.Fountain pens and penholders, 1900, Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Chicago) Fall Catalogue, 1900, p. 142. These models illustrate the diversity and aesthetic qualities of the writing instruments available at the time.

  Ad for a Waterman fountain pen, 1928, 
Macleans, September 15, 1928.  

Enlarge image.Ad for a Waterman fountain pen, 1928, Maclean's, September 15, 1928.



What writing instruments were available in Canada between 1880 and 1940? Where and how could they be obtained? Lovell's Montreal Directory for 1880-1881 (Montreal, John Lovell & Son) mentions shops in major urban centres that specialized in the sale of writing instruments. According to the directory, writing instruments could be purchased at "Booksellers and Stationers," who placed ads in various Canadian periodicals to promote their products. Such directories provided an overview of the market in a particular city. Outside the major centres, people relied on the mail-order catalogues they received by post.

Catalogues for Letter Writers

Starting in the late 19th century, a wide range of writing instruments could be ordered from three types of mail-order catalogues: specialized writing-instrument and stationery catalogues; catalogues published by jewellers, goldsmiths, or silversmiths; and mail-order catalogues that featured a variety of merchandise.

  Box of pen nips, made by Joseph 
Gillott & Sons, Sears, Roebuck & Co., 1897.  

Enlarge image.Box of pen nibs, made in England by Joseph Gillott & Sons and featured in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897.


Catalogues of writing instruments were published by wholesalers for the retail market, but some were also made available to the general public. They were very elaborate (see J. C. Wilson & Co. Limited, 1908) and featured a large assortment of writing instruments - 21 models of pen nibs and 14 models of penholders. The United Typewriter Company Limited published a catalogue from 1913 to 1922 and it offered an even greater selection, including inkwells, bottles of ink, and a wide range of desk accessories. The first page of the catalogue had photographs of the company's salesrooms and customers were informed that the company's products were available in over fifteen stores in major Canadian cities, from Halifax to Victoria. The catalogues also had a whole assortment of writing paper. It should be noted that certain products made by particular companies, such as Easterbrook and Gillott pen nibs, were found in both specialized and general catalogues. The only difference was the price per unit. Prices were generally higher in specialized catalogues.

Jewellers' catalogues offered luxury writing instruments. The catalogue published in 1923 by Ryrie Bros. Limited, a Toronto company, featured products that were distinctive not only because of their design and the materials used, but also because of the way they were made. It included silver and gold fountain pens and pencils, which not everyone could afford. There was, however, a Waterman fountain pen at a price similar to those in other mail-order catalogues. Jewellers' catalogues also offered stationery, but in gift sets. Such publications were meant for a limited clientele, but the companies that produced them tried to reach a wider market by promoting the COD service introduced by the Post Office department on October 1, 1922. A full-page ad at the beginning of the Ryrie catalogue - "C.O.D. postal delivery, an added convenience to shopping by mail" - highlights the advantages of shopping by mail.

Department store catalogues sold writing instruments and a wide selection of other products, including household goods, tools, clothing, sporting goods, and prefabricated homes. In addition to promoting fashion and new products, they allowed new "consumers" to buy quality goods at reasonable prices without fluctuations in availability. One of the first Eaton's catalogues contained only a list of articles and their prices. Soon, however, catalogues increased in volume and were illustrated with detailed drawings. The categories of items offered also became increasingly varied. In catalogues such as Eaton's, Woodward's, Simpson's, Dupuis Frères, and Sears, Roebuck & Co., writing instruments were in the stationery section. All catalogues published between 1888 and 1940 seem to have had a section that featured stationery and writing accessories.

   Stamp cases from the Canadian Postal 
Museum and Sears, Roebuck & Co., 1897 (reproduction)   

Stamp cases, 1897. Stamp cases were introduced in the 1840s, when the first postage stamp was issued, but their golden age was in the 1890s. The advent of stamp booklets and vending machines played a role in the gradual disappearance of these decorative boxes. There were desktop models and portable models such as these ones from the Canadian Postal Museum and Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897 (reproduction). Courtesy of Sears Roebuck and Co.

Enlarge image.

Putting Pen to Paper

  The Universal Letter Writer by Rev. T. 
Cooke, 1853.  

Enlarge image.Letter writing required specific skills and knowledge of certain rules. Short manuals were available to help letter writers who lacked inspiration. The Universal Letter Writer by Reverend T. Cooke was published in 1853 and is similar to those sold in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897. Courtesy of Sears Roebuck and Co.


As essential as the pen, writing paper reflects a style, an era, a milieu, and a trend. Catalogues sold different types of paper for various circumstances. In those published in the 1890s (Sears, Roebuck 1897; Eaton's, Fall/Winter 1888-1889), paper was sold by the quire, the unit of measure used to determine the weight of a package of paper. According to the catalogues, the sheets were always about 5 x 7 inches (13 x 18 cm). Only one side was to be written on and the sheet was to be folded in half lengthwise afterwards. However, despite the advice in letter-writing manuals that were meant to guide writers in their choice of words and in the presentation of letters, people cut sheets or wrote on both sides of the page so as not to waste paper.

According to the manuals, the colour of the writing paper was very important. Letters were to be written only on cream-coloured paper. Coloured paper supposedly lacked distinction, but it was widely used in personal correspondence and was found in numerous catalogues. In 1927, Eaton's introduced tangerine, a colour that displaced the more traditional pink, blue, and grey papers that were offered in the 1901-1902 catalogues.

  Fountain pens and pencils to wear on 
chains, Eaton's Fall Winter 1924-25, p. 324.  

Enlarge image.Fountain pens and pencils to wear on chains, Eaton's Fall Catalogue, 1924-1925, p. 324.


The variety of writing instruments found in catalogues provides an indication of the range of objects needed to write a letter. Eaton's Winter 1925 and Spring/Summer 1927 catalogues featured all categories of instruments: penholders, fountain pens, pencils, paper cutters, bottles of ink, and inkwells. These two catalogues also offered several fountain pens and pencils made of luxury materials (gold, silver, or mother-of-pearl).

Starting in the 1920s, some catalogues, such as Eaton's 1923-1924, targeted women in their promotion of writing instruments. There were Waterman's Pens for Women, Waterman's Women's Chatelaine Style Pen (a fountain pen with a ring that could be attached to a chain), and Women's Eversharp Pencils. Eversharp was one of the many types of mechanical pencils available (men's models had a clip, women's had a ring). That was the first time the use of a ring was clearly associated with women. Before that, rings were promoted as a means of hanging the pencil from a watch chain.

The type of writing instruments sold in catalogues changed as technology and writing practices evolved. When the fountain pen was introduced, the ceremony of writing, which required patience and skill, was reduced to a common practice that was easy and risk-free. The tools needed for writing (inkwell, pen wiper, and penholder) disappeared. The First World War marked a turning point in the market as fountain pens improved in quality. The volume of mail exchanged between soldiers and their families increased. Eaton's 1918 catalogue featured The Soldier's Pen, a Waterman Ideal Safety Pen (fountain pen) that was specially designed for clean, leak-free writing.

A vast market opened up after 1918. The first pens made of coloured plastic appeared, but that did not rule out gold and silver plating. Fountain pens remained extremely popular until the 1940s, when the ballpoint pen was introduced.

   Waterman fountain pen-and-pencil set,  
Dupuis Frères Printemps été 1934, p. 68.   

Waterman fountain pen-and-pencil set, 1934. Fountain pens made of coloured plastic were introduced after the First World War, but that did not exclude gold and silver plating. This set was featured in Dupuis Frères Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1934.

Enlarge image.

A World of Paper

Over time, stationery changed more than writing instruments. There were three types of changes. First, there was a change in the quality and thickness of the writing paper sold. It seems to have become uniform, so that only one quality was sold in catalogues. However, that quality seems to have been more in keeping with the real needs of letter writers. The social status that had long been associated with the choice of writing paper seems to have become less and less evident. According to letter-writing manuals, the paper used was a clear indication of status so it had to be chosen carefully. However, mail-order catalogues, which reached a very large percentage of the population in rural areas, made no distinction when it came to paper.

  Writing-paper boxes, Simpson's Spring 
Summer 1926, p. 184.  

Enlarge image.Writing-paper boxes for all tastes, Simpson's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1926, p. 184.

  Selection of stationery, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1924-25, p. 325.  

Enlarge image.A wide selection of stationery, including coloured writing paper and writing paper for children, Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1924-1925, p. 325.


The second change that becomes apparent when looking at catalogues is the way writing paper was sold. In catalogues published in the late 19th century, paper was sold only by the quire, with a set number of sheets (25). Envelopes were sold separately. All that changed. Stationery sets with matching envelopes and paper appeared. The number of sheets included in such sets varied and that had an impact on the price of writing paper. Boxes for storing writing paper were also sold through catalogues. They were similar to the wooden writing cases of the 19th century but were not used as a writing surface. Since they cost less than writing cases, more people could afford them.

The variety of paper available also became more limited. That was the third change. Calling cards and mourning paper gave way to greeting cards for various occasions that were pre-printed by the manufacturer. Companies that produced mail-order catalogues knew how to cater to the new tastes and needs of the population by offering a range of products that kept up with the trends.

Further Reading

Dauphin, Cécile. Prête-moi ta plume: Les manuels épistolaires au XIXe siècle. Paris: Éditions Kimé, 2000.

De Biasi, Pierre-Marc and Karine Douplitzky. La saga du papier. Paris: Adam Biro / Arte Éditions, 2002.

Gendreau, Bianca. "L'art d'écrire au Canada entre 1870 et 1940." Research report, Canadian Postal Museum, 1999.

Le Collen, Éric. Objets d'écriture. Paris: Flammarion, 1998.

Marshall, Jim. Pens & Writing Equipment: A Collector's Guide. London: Miller's, 1999.



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