Dip pens, or dipping pens as they are sometimes called, preceded the fountain pens that were developed by Lewis Waterman and others in the second half of the 19th century. As their name suggests, dip pens had to be regularly dipped into an inkwell or ink bottle because they lacked on-board reservoirs of pigment. Some of the earliest dip pens were made of reeds and quills, but these organic materials began to be replaced by steel in 1822, when John Mitchell of Birmingham, England, first mass-produced the working ends of pens, which are generally referred to as nibs.
Before long, some manufacturers, such as John Foley of New York, were making nibs out of gold, often lavishly engraved. But the secret sauce of a good nib, regardless of its main metal, was an iridium alloy at its tip. To sell their iridium-tipped pens to the masses, manufacturers like Foley described their pens as having diamond points, even though they were not made from the precious gemstones. Today, ironically, pens described as having iridium points generally lack iridium, that metal having been replaced by osmium and other less-expensive minerals.
The reason for all this attention to a pen’s tip is that its composition has an enormous effect on the marks it makes on a sheet of paper. Because iridium is hard, its surface can be finely polished, which lets the pen move smoothly across a surface. Further, it is resistant to the corrosive properties of many inks, which keeps its contact point free of pits and imperfections. Before long, nibs for dip pens were fashioned into hundreds of shapes, permitting the user to execute letters in blocky or italic styles. The flexibility of a nib’s two tines could also determine the style and shape of letters, in some cases allowing more ink to break its surface tension at the end of the nib to flow in greater volumes onto a sheet of paper.
While these variations were real, manufacturers branded their pens for marketing reasons rather than to be purely descriptive. Thus, dip pens of the late 19th century are labeled for use by bankers, merchants, bookkeepers, and insurance agents. Others were labeled for ladies. Regardless, the holders, or shafts, for these pens were made of everything from ebony hardwood to mother of pearl, often plated with decorations of silver or gold. Some pens were even housed in telescoping holders, with mechanical pencils secreted inside their opposite ends.