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pen / pen-wiper

An instrument used for writing, formerly made of the quill of a goose or other bird, but now also of other materials, as of steel, gold, &c.;– often used figuratively for one who uses a pen; a writer. — Webster, 1882

So she brought the letter to the tablecloth under the lamp, and after she had thawed the ink bottle they all sat around the table thinking of last things to say while Ma wrote them with her little red pen that had a mother-of-pearl handle shaped like a feather. – The Long Winter, Chapter 16, “Fair Weather”

Laura Ingalls Wilder first mentions Ma’s pen in By the Shores of Silver Lake, when she uses it to write some recipes for Reverend Stuart. It is said to be red, with a mother-of-pearl handle shaped like a feather. Ma’s pen is on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder / Rose Wilder Lane Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. You can still detect traces of the red paint covering the brass body of the pen. The feather-shaped handle was more than just decorative; it could also be used as a letter opener.

The pen shown in the photograph below is similar in appearance to Caroline Ingalls’ pen. Overall length of this pen is about 7 inches.

Note in the advertisement below, that the nib – or point which held ink – was called the pen, while the metal, wood, or bone “handle” was called the pen holder. Nibs were usually separate and could be replaced as they became worn or broken, and they were available in a variety of sizes. The type of nib used determined the size and weight of the line made when writing with it.

Pen nibs were slit from the point to a larger opening – or reservoir – near the curved flair, giving them the capacity to hold more ink for extended writing time. To write with a dip pen, the nib was immersed in ink no deeper than the reservoir, and usually tapped or wiped gently on the lip of the ink bottle to remove a large drop of ink possibly lingering there, lest it drip and cause an ink-blot on the paper. The nib was loaded with ink as needed. Most early school desks contained a depression to hold a bottle of ink.

Pen wiper. In Little Town on the Prairie (Chapter 25, “Unexpected in December”), Mr. Williams, the superintendent of schools, wipes the pen on a pen wiper after using it to fill out Laura’s newly-earned teaching certificate.

A pen wiper was used to clean the pen after writing, when ink didn’t flow readily to the point of the pen, or when lint or paper was caught upon the point of the nib. A small piece of buckskin or chamois skin made the best wiper, according to an 1884 guide to writing.

Everyone who used a pen had need of a pen wiper; they were seldom purchased, but were a popular – and useful – craft item in Laura’s day. They could be as simple as a scrap of fabric to elaborate items with lots of embellishments. The butterfly pen wiper shown is from the father and daughter team of Ebenezer and Alice Landells and their The Girl’s Own Toy-Maker, and Book of Recreation (London: Griffith and Farrar, 1860), 117. The body of the butterfly was to be made of two thicknesses of black velvet stuffed lightly with cotton, sewn together with red embroidery thread. Details could be made using white or colored embroidery thread; the eyes were beads. A black pen wiper was quite practical, as the ink wiped upon it didn’t mar the beauty of the wiper!


pen (LTP 25; THGY 18)
     pearl-handled (SSL 23; LTP 15; THGY 4) – The mother-of pearl “feather” of Ma’s pen could be used as a letter opener. Pearl handles could be shaped or tapered.
     little red pen (TLW 16) – Ma’s pen, which is on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, shows traces of red paint that once covered the grip of Ma’s pen-holder. This is why Laura called it Ma’s “red” pen.
     pen-point (LTP 25)
     pen wiper (LTP 25)