Profile: Gregg Shorthand Pens

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A (Very) Brief History, and the Basics

Gregg logoBlotterIn two pamphlets published in England in 1888, John Robert Gregg introduced a new system of stenographer’s shorthand. He moved to the U.S. in 1893, bringing with him his shorthand system, which met with immediate success. Like Sir Isaac Pitman’s shorthand system, which had been introduced in 1837, also in England, Gregg shorthand is an alphabetic system — but it is not strictly based on letters. Instead, because it records sounds instead of letters, it is called a phonographic system. (For example, the “f” sounds in fish, tough, and elephant are all represented by the same symbol.). Unlike Pitman, which is jagged and relies on the thicknesses and positions of strokes to differentiate between letters, Gregg is written in a smooth, flowing style founded on forms that are common in cursive longhand, namely ellipses and lines that bisect them, and it uses the lengths of strokes for differentiation between sounds. Silent letters (which have no sound) are omitted, and there are numerous shortcuts based on elisions. The Gregg logo (to the left above) was designed to illustrate the elliptical basis of the system graphically.

The rise of dictating machines and shorthand machines, and later the personal computer, caused a marked decline in the number of stenographers and others using shorthand, but both Gregg and Pitman are still in use in certain fields such as court reporting. In the U.S., Gregg is the more popular of the two, while in the U.K., the preference is for Pitman.

The Pens

Pitman, because it uses differing stroke widths (thick and thin), requires a flexible extra-fine nib. Gregg, which does not use stroke width meaningfully, uses a very firm fine nib to prevent counters from closing and thereby obscuring meaning. The exemplaria shown here illustrate how Pitman (upper) and Gregg (lower) render the first sentence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Gregg writing sample
 
Gregg writing sample
Waterman Advertisement, 1905 Magnifying glass
The Sign of the Four, first page Magnifying glass

In 1896, Gregg founded the Gregg Publishing Company. In addition to publishing Gregg's books, the company published The Gregg Writer, a monthly magazine devoted to shorthand, typewriting, and commercial education. Like any commercial magazine, The Gregg Writer was supported to some extent by advertising, and page 1 of the December 1899 issue (shown to the left), half of which was a Laughlin pen ad, was typical of the magazine’s advertising pages. In 1918, the company published, in shorthand, The Sign of the Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (first page of chapter 1 shown to the right), and A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

Beginning in October 1905, The Gregg Writer offered to the public the Gregg Fountain Pen, a cone-cap eyedropper-filling pen priced at $1.50. The company later licensed pen manufacturers to produce pens to Gregg’s specifications and use the Gregg name. There was no requirement that stenographers use an “official” pen, but using one was a guarantee that the tools of the trade would be appropriate to the task. Shown here is a Wahl No 727RSC Gregg Pen in Rosewood hard rubber, made in the 1920s. The Gregg logo at the top left of this article is an enameled brass emblem recessed into the cap crown of this pen, and the advertising blotter at the top right features this exact model:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The Gregg-standard pen was relatively long and slender, possibly based on the shape of the average moderately priced eyedropper-filling pen popular in the early 20th century, and many Gregg-licensed pens were black, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. Many, but not all, Gregg pens bore the Gregg logo on their cap crowns like the Wahl pen above.

During the 1930s, both Sheaffer and Waterman produced Gregg Pens. Waterman’s mid-1930s version was based on the company’s No 3 model. Not only did it feature the Gregg logo in its cap crown, but it was also fitted with a special clip displaying the Gregg name in high relief. No other maker of Gregg pens used such a clip:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Parker appears not to have made a specific pen model for shorthand, but the 1934 Parker catalog offered a series of eight special-purpose Vacumatic nibs designated by the letters A–H. They were marked with a special imprint of two stars, one on either side of the breather hole, and fitting one of these nibs added 75¢ to the price of a pen. Nib H was designed for Gregg or Spencerian shorthand. The 1934 Vacumatic Standard pen illustrated here is representative only; I have never seen one of these specialty nibs.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
9555 box

Esterbrook produced several varieties of shorthand nibs in its Renew-Point system of interchangeable nibs (initially called Re-New-Point), including on the boxes a sample of Gregg shorthand (shown to the right, reading “Gregg Shorthand”) to leave no doubt in the buyer’s mind about what kind of shorthand the nibs were intended for. With tip size and stiffness modeled on those of Esterbrook’s own No 555 Account steel pen, these nibs were numbered n555. Shown here are a No 1555 Duracrome untipped nib (upper) and a No 9555 Master Series tipped nib (lower). There was also a No 2555 Duracrome untipped nib.

gregg_symbol
Nibs

Beginning around 1932 with the introduction of the Renew-Point system, and especially after the 1934 introduction of the Esterbrook “Dollar Pen,” users could acquire an Esterbrook pen with a shorthand nib very cheaply. I have heard reports of Esterbrook pens with the “Gregg Endorsed” symbol on their barrels, but I have not personally seen any such pens. (Shown to the left in a detail from a 1948 Sheaffer advertisement, the symbol reads “sh+and” when the pen is held nib uppermost, and it is a shortcut for “shorthand,” as on the nib box to the right above.) Shown here are three long slender Esterbrook pens, an early V-clip model A, a mid-1930s Dollar Pen model A, and a late-1940s model LJ. The LJ is fitted with a No 1555 nib, and either of the other pens could also be so fitted in a matter of seconds.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) conducted annual shorthand contests from 1909 until 1927, when Martin J. Dupraw won for the third time in a row. Dupraw then retired his championship cup. Because of complaints about fairness, with specially trained contestants competing against professional stenographers, the NCRA stopped running contests until 1952, when it inaugurated a new series of machine shorthand contests. Esterbrook also ran its own shorthand contests from 1936 to at least 1959. These contests have produced some amazing results; speeds of more than 350 words per minute (WPM) have been recorded, and as of this writing the NCRA is looking forward to the 400 WPM mark. (The highest speed used in the earlier pen contests was 280 WPM.)

Sheaffer responded to the popularity of Esterbrook pens by setting up the Wasp Pen Company to make low-end pens, but it wasn’t until 1938, when Wasp introduced its interchangeable-nib WASP Addipoint model, that the competition was on an even footing. The Addipoint nib catalog never grew to the huge size of Esterbrook’s offering, but it did include the No 241 Gregg Shorthand nib. The Addipoint shown below is fitted with one of these nibs:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Sheaffer did not stop with the $1.00 Addipoint. Like Wahl and Waterman, it wanted to compete at a higher price point. Sheaffer’s own-brand Gregg Pen was in essence a unique model in Sheaffer’s product line. Produced in the latter 1930s, it was a “throwback” straight-line flat-topped model, with the straight silhouette of the cap providing a good frame for Gregg logo in the cap crown and with a humped flat-ball clip taken from Sheaffer’s then-current WASP sub-brand pens (flat surfaced instead of rounded as on earlier Sheaffer Balance pens). Shown here with the Gregg Pen (upper) is a contemporaneous WASP Clipper (lower), illustrating the borrowing of the clip design ands the difference in body shapes:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

In addition to applying the Gregg logo to cap crowns, Wahl and Sheaffer also produced nibs that were imprinted specifically for their Gregg Pens. Shown here is the nib from ax Wahl Gregg Pen. Sheaffer’s Gregg nib was the same except that it featured a heart-shaped breather hole:

Eversharp Gregg nib

Sheaffer also marked some of its Balance pens with a Gregg-endorsed imprint on the barrel and fitted these pens with a standard SHEAFFER’S-imprinted nib of the appropriate grade and firmness. I have seen the mark on a black Milady, a short slender non-Lifetime model with a No 5 Feathertouch nib.

By the end of 1930s, Wahl and Waterman had dropped out, and Sheaffer had become the only vendor of Gregg Endorsed pens. (The last Waterman Gregg advertisement I have seen was from 1938.) After World War II, the landscape changed further. No longer confining itself to a special Gregg pen, or even to black, the company began offering any or all of its models — even the stubby Tuckaway — with SHEAFFER’S-imprinted firm fine nibs and a gold hot-stamped Gregg Endorsed imprint on the section or barrel. The first pen shown here is a 1948 Vacuum-Fil Crest in Persian Blue, proudly displaying the Gregg mark on its barrel. You will note that this pen no longer has the long, slender profile that typified Gregg pens before it. The slender profile returned with the second pen here, an NOS 1950–1952 Touchdown TM Statesman in Evergreen Green, marked on its section as a Gregg Pen, and the third pen is an NOS Snorkel Admiral in Pastel Green, from 1952–1956, also with the Gregg Endorsed symbol on its section:

crest_gregg Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Sheaffer’s top end was not alone in offering Gregg pens after World War II. in 1947, having discontinued the WASP Addipoint around the beginning of the war, Sheaffer came back with a new range of low-end pens with interchangeable steel nibs, called the Fineline. There were Fineline pens with plastic caps, and with metal caps like the pen shown here. One of the various nibs for the Fineline was the No 341. Although it was not marked with the Gregg name, it was designed for Gregg shorthand.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Priced a little above the Fineline was Sheaffer’s last classic lever-filler, the venerable bottom-line 1946–1948 Sheaffer Craftsman, proudly wearing the traditional 14K No 33 nib and the Gregg Endorsed symbol on its barrel.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

When the Snorkel made its appearance in 1952, Sheaffer did not abandon the reliable Touchdown. Given that even the lowest-priced Snorkel, the Special, cost $7.95, there was a need for a lesser pen, and that lesser pen was the Touchdown. The new $3.75 Touchdown-filling Cadet, not long and slender like its predecessor but not quite a throwback cigar-shaped pen, either, acquired an interchangeable nib called TIPdip, with a special feed that allowed the pen to be filled without requiring that the entire nib be immersed. The Gregg TIPdip nib was marked with the legend G1.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

In about 1950, Eversharp reappeared on the scene with a new Gregg Endorsed pen. This pen, shown below, was an Economy Gold Nib Model 713, from the Symphony family, with a Gregg nib instead of the usual flexible nib. With a barrel shaped like the barrel of a second-generation Symphony and a matching plastic cap, this new Eversharp Gregg Pen sported the old enameled Gregg Logo on its cap crown. The logo was noticeably smaller and more highly domed than previous versions, and instead of being recessed into the cap crown, it was glued onto to the rather rough flat surface left by cutting off the original rounded cap crown.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Unlike earlier Gregg pens that had the logo on their caps, this pen had the logo oriented so that it could be read when the cap was held with the clip toward the viewer. Additionally, the logo had been subtly altered at some point, with the white ellipse raked more sharply clockwise. Shown here are the logos from the Sheaffer pen above and the Eversharp pen:

Sheaffer (1930s)
Sheaffer cap crown
Eversharp (c. 1950)
Eversharp cap crown

Collectible?

Gregg Pens are definitely a small niche in the wide world of pen collecting, but it is this very fact that makes them ideal for a tightly focused collection: there are so few (even considering those with interchangeable nibs, which might not properly be considered “authentic” Gregg Pens) that it should be possible build a thoroughly representative, if not complete, collection of the different types. The only official Gregg Pen that is truly difficult to find is the Waterman model shown in this article, and the most recherché item of all is probably a Parker Vacumatic with a specialty H nib.

Notes:
  1. Idealized Pitman exemplar provided by Pierre Savoie. Gregg exemplar provided by Andrew Owen. A freely distributable illustrated version of the UDHR is available as a PDF document from the United Nations’ website.  Top of Page

  2. The Sign of Four was first published in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine. Some later editions appeared with the title changed slightly, as The Sign of the Four. The Gregg version, bearing this latter title, was published in 1918 and reprinted in 1921.  Top of Page

  3. Parkergrams, Vol. XXII No 2, March 20, 1934.  Top of Page

  4. Spencerian shorthand, or the Spencerian Quick Writing system, was invented by Lucius Clay Spencer and came into use roughly contemporaneously with Gregg shorthand. It was a true alphabetic system and was intended for general use, not only for stenography. Like Gregg, it used a very firm fine nib. Symbols resembled Gregg symbols; but Spencerian did not use vowels, instead relying on the vertical positions of consonant symbols to imply the vowels they preceded.  Top of Page

  5. The distinction that these nibs were for Gregg shorthand was necessary. The flexible No 2128 Duracrome nib and No 9128 Master Series nib, although not marketed as intended for Pitman shorthand, could be — and were — used for that purpose.  Top of Page

  6. These contests require each contestant to record the same selected samples of text at set speeds, with one sample being a question-and-answer session such as might occur in a courtroom. The winner is the contestant whose transcriptions contain the fewest errors.  Top of Page


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