The Catchiest 19th-Century Advertising Slogan


An Edinburgh pen maker, trading on the popularity of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, featured its three models with this jingle


What's the catchiest advertising slogan in the English-speaking world, one that has left indelible traces in literature even after the original brands are no longer produced? I discovered it while doing research for a lecture following up on my post on the future of handwriting. (Earworm alert: meaningless as the verse sounds at first, it's surprisingly hard to forget.)

One of the great forgotten information innovations was the production of inexpensive steel pens in Birmingham, England. These made modern education and bureaucracy possible; imagine millions of students having to cut new goose quills week after week. To mid-19th-century people, steel pens were an information revolution, the transfer of the metalworking skills of the Industrial Revolution to the schoolroom and the office.

An Edinburgh stationer and pen maker, trading on the popularity of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, featured its three models with this jingle:

They come as a boon and a blessing to men:
The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley Pen.

All of these were originally dip pens; the Waverley had an upturned point that was said to make writing easier. They do not seem to have been marketed or advertised widely in the US, but the jingle echoed through British popular culture for decades. In the 1930s T.S. Eliot parodied the slogan in a satire on the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists. The Waverley pen was in production, almost unchanged, for exactly a hundred years, until the company was dissolved in 1964. And the slogan remained well enough known in the UK in 2006 that the Daily Mail could use it to lead a report that

[s]chools are now finally in rebellion against the ballpoint, which may have revolutionised writing habits but does little for handwriting style.

Bryan Lewis, headmaster of a prestigious independent school in Scotland, has given orders that pupils aged nine and over must henceforth write only with fountain pens.

He believes that this counterrevolution will benefit his students' educational attainment and sense of self-worth.

Who would have thought this banal rhyme could have been so indelible?  Financially it was never in the same class as the Happy Birthday copyright -- now scheduled to last until 2030 -- but it had an amazing run nonetheless. And both are proof of how, despite all the claims of "memetics," it's so hard to predict what will stick.

Image: Fimb/Flickr.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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