Calendar pencil polished

The Propelling Pencil. Is It Counterfeit?

Mary Bassett's chest

Mary Bassett’s chest traveled from New Hamshire to Keene Ohio on a wagon, and 140 years later from Ohio to Arizona on a moving van. (The casters were added long after the original construction.)

When my brother and sister came to visit recently, one of the things we did was go through the antique clothing and miscellaneous belongs of grandmother, great-grandmother and great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother that have been packed away in this chest–some for more than 100 years. We were particularly fascinated with the “propelling pencil.”

Mary Bassett's chest

Inside Mary Bassett’s handmade wooden Chest


The chest itself is at least 190 years old, because the Bassett family traveled to Ohio about 1826, and we know that the chest made the journey with them. Over the years, more family treasures were added to the chest, like the propelling pencil we discovered.

I am still trying to determine the oldest items in the chest, but I do know that some were made by our great-great grandmother Mary Bassett Platt Morgan (original owner of the chest) The items include baby clothes of my great-grandmother and grandfather, who were born in 1842 and 1845–so those items are about 175 years old.

I mentioned Mary Bassett’s hand-made chest and the Bassett family journey to Ohio  and her father’s story , but have not yet revealed the contents of the chest (except for Great-Grandfather Doctor William Stout‘s certificates from Eclectic Medical College).


Inside the chest, the carpenter constructed a small compartment, presumably for smaller items like jewelry, pocket watches, and the like.  i remember from my childhood some doctor’s instruments stored in that compartment, but they are no longer there. I think maybe I gave them to my brother. (We have a running argument about who got the most family treasures.)

But here is what we found when we opened that compartment.

Mary Basset's chest

Contents of small compartment inside Mary Basset’s chest

On the left are miniatures of tintypes, then some collar stays, great-grandfather William Stout’s baby shoes (he was born in 1845), some identification notes, and a small silver object.  As you will see in the following pictures, what we later learned was called a “propelling pencil” did not look so shiny when we first noticed it.


Mystery Item

1. Mystery item found in antique chest

Before long, my sister discovered that if you slid the center ring down, you got this.

Mystery Item Looks like pencil

2. Looking like a pen or pencil

It was very small.

Size of Mystery Object

3. size of pencil before extension

4 center ring extends point

Some Internet research confirmed that this was a mechanical pencil, actually called “propelling pencil.” I was surprised to learn that mechanical pencils had such a long history. One article claims they were first invented in the 16th century, but a satisfactory lead–both thin and strong–took longer. According to Wikipedia ” This source says first patent for a refillable pencil with lead-propelling mechanism was issued to Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins in Britain in 1822. (Mordan soon bought out Hawkins and formed a British manufacturing firm called Mordan and Co. with stationer Gabriel Riddle. After 1836 Mordan operated the company alone.The company operated until a German bombing raid destroyed the factory in World War II and the company was formally dissolved in 1952).

My sister insisted that the hatch-marks on the end of the pencil must have a purpose, since everything else seemed to be there for a reason.  Research showed she was exactly right. It was used as a stamp for sealing wax.  Odd that such an advanced writing instrument as a propelling pencil co-existed with sealing wax.

End of propelling pencil.

End functions as a Stamp for Sealing wax.

Collector’s Weekly speculates that Sampson Mordan was also responsible for the numbers and letters that we see on our propelling pencil. “In the early 10th century, Vickery’s in Lodon carried everything from tricolor pencils to ones with calendars on their cases (These were likely made by Mordan.)

Calendar on Propelling pencil

6- a calendar with days and dates on turning rings

Experimenting with the pencil, we discovered that the first ring (on the left in this picture) represented the days of the week, and could be turned to line up with columns of numbers.  Here you see a month where Fridays fall on the 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th, and if there is one–31st.

The cap at the top of the pencil screws off revealing an empty space with a solid bottom.  When we found that, we were convinced that this was a mechanical pencil ( a propelling pencil, it turns out) and that small compartment was where the leads were stored. Impressed with the ingenuity of this little pencil, I decided to find out if it was really silver, and polished it up.

Calendar pencil polished

7. Calendar propelling pencil after polishing

It was.

Although we have no direct evidence, I am convinced that it belonged to our Great-Grandfather Doctor William Stout.  From what I have been able to learn about him, he was always excited about the latest new ideas, and would have been happy to own this little tool. As to date, it would be in the early 1900s, when Grandfather was practicing medicine.


In order to get the numbers 1-31 in a grid with 7 columns, there are going to be four spaces left over in the bottom row.  On our pencil those squares are filled with the letters T A N V.  We still have not figured out the meaning of T A N V.

After reading the very informative site on all things Sampson Mordan, I suspect it is not the  Mordan “ever-pointed pencil”.  Our pencil may have been made by a company in America that ripped off the British company’s popular design.  In 1828 and 1829 the Mordan Company took ads to warn people about such nefarious activities.

“A warning to Merchants trading in Europe, East Indies, America, etc. about a spurious article made for sale in Foreign Countries.”

And their advertisements all warn that they use the Sampson Mordan company name or symbol on the real pens.  There is no S.M. or Mordan and Co. anywhere on our pencil. Furthermore, the Mordan Company put a number designating the thickness of lead near the point of the pencil, and ours has no such number.

Finally, the advertisements I have found for resale of the antique Mordan pens of this design feature either gemstones or fancy letters for seals on the cap rather than the simple hatch mark on ours.

I am hoping that one of the experts on mechanical pencils will be able to tell me what the letters T A N V mean and a probable date of manufacture.

But real or counterfeit, we consider this mechanical pencil a treasure because it was used by our ancestor and carefully preserved for one hundred years. Holding a pencil that was used by someone one hundred years ago definitely gives me the chills.

Suggested reading:

The story of Mary Bassett’s family’s journey to Ohio in her father’s story.

This has been one of my occasional posts on Heirlooms.  Other family history bloggers who write about heirlooms from time to time include:

Do you have an antique pen or pencil? Have you explored its history?

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7 thoughts on “The Propelling Pencil. Is It Counterfeit?

  1. Jeanne Bryan Insalaco

    What an interesting story! I enjoyed the history lesson and family tales. Being an only child I often feel jealous of others having siblings to share and fight with over heirlooms. I bet I’ve passed over s couple of those pencils at tag sales and flea markets. I’ll be keeping an eye out now just to find one. Great heirloom story

  2. Cathy Meder-Dempsey

    This is the coolest heirloom!! Opening your trunk was like opening a time capsule. I certainly hope your “running argument about who got the most family treasures” won’t get more heated.

    1. Bro

      Don’t worry, Cathy. As the often over-looked middle sibling, I am way too mild and humble to make much of a fuss about it. Bro

  3. Kit Thomson

    Hi, I have just found this exact same pencil that I forgot I had and didn’t know what it was at first. took awhile to figure out that it was a pencil. Was just about to give up on my internet search for answers to who made it and its age when I found your pic and article. Mine is a little worse for wear than yours. I concur that it is probably the counterfeit version. My great grandfather could never have afforded such a luxury back then if shipped from Europe. Thanks for the info.


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