The Dip Pen as a Source of Social Distinction in Victorian Britain

Ohagan, Lauren (2018). The Dip Pen as a Source of Social Distinction in Victorian Britain. History of Retailing and Consumption, 4(3) pp. 187–216.



In the nineteenth century, Britain was the epicentre of pen-making, with around 75% of the world’s dip pens being manufactured in Birmingham. While the ownership of dip pens was initially restricted to upper-class Victorians due to their expensive cost, the introduction of mass-production techniques and the 1870 Education Act led to their adoption by the lower classes. The democratisation of the dip pen offered manufacturers an attractive new opportunity to capitalise on Britain’s deeply rooted class structure and use the pen as a strategy of distinction. This paper explores how dip pens, inkwells and blotters became marketed by manufacturers in ways that tapped into collective consciousness on social status, power and one’s sense of limitations, thus reinforcing class divisions. In doing so, it uses Bourdieu’s notion that personal possessions are the ‘practical affirmation of an inevitable difference’ and become the coordinating frame within which social life is grouped. This paper also investigates how Englishness, the notion of Empire and nationalism were used to sell pens abroad. It determines that pen manufacturers were able to build a highly lucrative trade through the exploitation of the ‘social conditioning’ of consumers on class and national identity.

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