About Pen-Wipers

Whether penning a letter to a far a way sister or updating the household ledger, using a pen and ink called for the use of a pen wipe, or pen wiper. Through the Victorian era, pen wipers could be quite simple, entirely utilitarian, or quite decorative, comprising utility and fancy. In either case, a pen wiper was simply its name: a wiper for the pen. An inked pen could be dabbed off or cleaned upon the layers of wool.


At their simplest, a pen wiper was simply layers of wool layered upon each other or rolled together. The layers tacked together or secured simply. The wools used tend to be fulled, flannel, or worsted, holding its fibers tight as not to fray. Often the edged were pinked. With plain black wool being most frequently used as it disguises the discarded ink best, we see an assortment of colors, solids, and plaids used in pen wipers.


Directions for making pen-wipers were published in ladies magazines as well as books for young girls. They were often recommended as gifts. Lydia Child gives us a nice introduction to pen-wipers in her Girl’s Own Book:

“Pen-Wipers
These are very necessary accompaniments to a neat writing desk. The most common ones consist of two circular pieces of black velvet, neatly bound and caught together in the middle with two or three circular pieces of black broadcloth between them, for the purpose of wiping the pens. Some, instead of velvet covers, have bits of black broadcloth covered with bright-coloured round pieces, about as big as a wafer, laid oe over another, like the scales of a fish.
The butterfly is likewise a common form. The wings are of embroidered velvet, and the leaves between are of black broadcloth.
The most convenient pen-wiper is made of three pointed pieces of broadcloth, about half of a quarter of a yard long. Each piece is about an eighth of a yard, or two nails, wide at the bottom, and goes of to a point at the top. Each one is stitched up separately, and turned wrong side outward, when it looks lot unlike a tunnel. After they are made, the three are all joined together at the seams, and a tasteful little bow is placed on the top. The bottom can be bound or embroidered with gay colours, according to fancy. This form is peculiarly convenient, because the pen can be run into these little tunnes, and wiped without any danger of
inking the fingers. Pen-wipers should always be made of black flannel or broadcloth; other colours soon get
spoiled by the ink.”

Eliza Leslie includes directions for simple pen wipers. The first is essentially a book with pages of wool to wipe the pen upon:

A Pen-Wiper.
Take two old playing-cards, and cover them on both sides with silk, sewed neatly over the edges. Then sew the cards together, so as to resemble the cover of a book. To form the leaves of the book, prepare six or eight pieces of canton crape; double them, and cut them to fit the cover. With a pair of sharp scissors scollop them all round, and then lay them flat and even on the cover, and sew them in with a needle-full of sewing-silk. On these leaves of canton crape the pens are to be wiped. Black is the best colour.

The next is a garland of wool as a pen wiper.

“Another Pen-Wiper.
Cut our a great number pieces of canton-crape about the size of half a dollar, and of as many dif erent colours as you can procure. Lay them evenly in separate piles; let on pile be black, another red; some ples of blues, and some green. Let there be an equal number of pieces in each pile. Then stick a needle with a thread of silk in it, through the centre of each pile, and fasten the pieces together. When all your various piles are ready, make a small hole through middle of each, with a pair of sharp-pointed scissors, and run a silk cord through them all, as if you were stringing beads; arranging the dif erent colours according to your taste. You may make a string of pen-wipers of any length, from a quarter of a yard to a whole yard.
These are very useful to hang over a desk where a great deal of writing is done, and may be acceptable presents from little girls to their fathers.
They will look for the better having the edges scolloped. You may either fasten each cluster of pieces permanently to the string, so as to repairing stationary, or you may leave them to slip up and down like beads.”

Leslie’s third pen wiper comprises pasteboard and wool sandwiched between:

“A Third Pen-Wiper.
Cut out two circular pieces of pasteboard about the size of a dollar, or larger if you choose, and cover them with silk on both sides. Then get some canton crape; cut it into round pieces to fit the covered pasteboard, and scollop their edges in very small points. You may prepare eight to ten pieces. Put the leaves of crape between two pasteboards, and fasten them all in the centre, stitching them through and through with strong silk and a coats needle. Conceal the fastening, by covering it one each side with a tuft of ravelled of floss of a bright colour.

Come the turn of the century, Helen Campbell’s The American Girl’s Home Book of Work and Play (1902) has more elaborate penwipers in the chapter on gift making. First uses a baby’s shoe:

Baby-Shoe Penwiper.
Cut out of black cloth four circles three inches wide, and pink the edges. Fold each one across; then fold it again, so that the shape is like a quarter-circle. Take a baby’s shoe of red or blue morocco, and fill it with the folded circles, placing them so that the pinked edges project at the top. A pair of shoes will make two penwipers, and they are very pretty. If liked, the shoe can be fastened to a larger circle of pinked broadcloth.


A note regarding “Canton crepe” – Canton crepe as a recommendation puzzles me. When I look it up, it seems to be silk rather than wool. Canton crepe shows up frequently in searches for the 1920s as blouses and dresses. In advertisements, it is listed with other silks and/or from silk merchants. In the 1870s, searches show “Canton crepe bows”, again more likely silk rather than wool.

Based on feel, wool for pen-wipers tends to be a very tight weave in a medium weight with firm body. Some appears to have been filled with a soft surface, while some is quite smooth.

Published in: on October 20, 2021 at 1:05 am  Leave a Comment  

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