Little is known about Sampson Mordan himself, but he was a shrewd businessman.
Born in 1790, he studied under Joseph Bramah, inventor of a new type of lock. Mordan founded his company in London in 1815.
In 1822 Mordan and Samuel Hawkins developed a mechanism for a propelling pencil – the ‘ever-pointed‘ pencil. This was the first patent for a metal pencil with an internal mechanism for propelling the graphite lead in and out. Mordan acquired Hawkins’ share of the rights and sold them to Gabriel Riddle, a stationer. In 1823 Mordan entered his first mark as a ‘smallworker’ in the London Assay Office.
Most pencils produced during the 19th century are simple yet elegant silver cylinders, decorated with fluted or reeded columns. Many are not hallmarked. Mordan excelled in decoration as well as innovative design. Some pencils contain small knives for cutting quills. Others have bodies that act as rulers or are faceted and engraved to work as perpetual calendars. Very rare are the 3-colour pencils, where the slider ring is often divided into enamelled sections, each revealing a different coloured lead.
Silver and enamel slider 3 colour pencil c.1890
Miniature pistol pencil
Silver combination paper knife and pencil 1896
With Riddle’s money, Mordan was able to build a very successful business selling innovative products that still look good today. The partnership with Riddle was dissolved in 1836 and he continued the business as S. Mordan & Co., producing vesta cases to sewing necessaires, scent bottles, sovereign cases and many other items, always in silver or gold, and always well designed.
The ever pointed pencil remained at the core of the product range however. Mordan saw off challenges to his near monopoly. He was happy to copy competitors’ designs.
Mordan died in 1843 and his sons Sampson (Junior) and Augustus took over. They were later joined by Edmund George Johnson and Zachariah Watkins who retired in 1879. After the death of Sampson Mordan (Junior) his share went to his brother. Harry Lambert Symonds became a partner in 1890 In 1898 the company became S. Mordan & Co Ltd.
In 1933 the distribution rights on the propelling pencil business were given to L. G. Sloan Ltd. The factory was bombed in the war and archives were destroyed, so it is hard to know the full product range. A catalogue from 1898 survives.
Sampson Mordan & Co was present at the 1851 London Great Exhibition. The Exhibition was important in Mordan’s commercial development and he exhibited ornaments, postal scales and glassware as well as his range of silver and gold items. The firm developed a large production line of small silver and gold items for ladies and gentelmen, including items that we now call novelties. They were popular at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and have never lost their popularity, though the market is now for discerning collectors. They were supplied to many retailers, including Asprey & Sons and the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co.
Vesta was the early name used for matches. Vesta cases, or vesta boxes, match safes and pocket match safes, were used to stores vestas (short matches) and to keep them dry so that they were able to light when struck. They kept matches ‘safe’ as they could otherwise ignite – there were no safety matches then. Vestas were first made in the 1830s, with their heyday being between 1890 and 1920, when everyone kept a vesta box to hand and the wealthy had them made from gold and silver and were often engraved with the owner’s initials. Most vesta boxes have a ribbed surface on the bottom so that the owner could also strike the matches kept inside, while some also include cigar cutters and small knife blades. Mordan developed novelty vestas for Valentine’s day:
Novelty vesta case silver and enamel 1886
Novelty silver vesta in original case 1888
Sovereign cases were an essential accessory for the well-to-do Victorian or Edwardian gentleman. A sovereign in 1900 was around £130 in today’s money, though it would cost £350 to buy one now.
Victorian scent bottles were usually made from cut glass which might be clear or coloured glass. The end was usually silver. Ruby glass has remained popular as the ruby colour offsets the silver beautifully. Some scents had a chain and would have been attached to a chatelaine. Double-ended scents were grander. One end held scent and the other end smelling salts, really handy if you felt faint because your corset was too tight. Between 1881-84 Kate Greenaway pictures appeared on Mordan scent bottles – i.e. perfume bottles. Greenaway was a prolific illustrator of children’s books, She popularised a style of drawing that is instantly recognisable - delicate watercolours of children with animals and birds in the English countryside.
Victorian silver wrythen sovereign case 1891
Edwardian silver engine turned sovereign case 1905
Thomas Webb cameo glass scent 1881
Victorian ruby glass double ended scent c.1870
Small silver scent in original case 1887
Kate Greenaway Combined scent and vinaigrette 1881
Vinaigrettes were popular from the late 18th century through the end of the 19th century. They were small containers used for holding various aromatic substances, usually dissolved in vinegar. A tiny piece of sponge, soaked in the vinegar, was contained beneath a grill or perforated cover. The grill was usually gold plated (gilded) to stop corrosion. Ladies used to carry a vinaigrette with them to combat smells encountered around town. The vinaigrette performed the same function as the double-ended scent, but was smaller and more convenient. The lid could be flipped open and the grill meant nothing fell out. It has been estimated that 90% of all vinaigrettes were hallmarked in Birmingham, so other cities are quite desirable. Many have monograms.
Cranberry glass combination scent and vinaigrette 1871
Victorian cornucopia vinaigrette and scent 1872
A wide range of products
Sampson Mordan’s range included bookmarks, strawberry sets, candle snuffers and place holders. Menu holders were generally made in sets of four, although pairs, sets of six, eight and even twelve or eighteen place name holders are known. They were designed to hold a printed or painted card displaying the menu or guest’s name on the dining table. Like today, people would collect a range of products and they were popular as gifts.
Silver owl head bookmark 1896
Strawberry set modelled as two chicks 1906
Silver candle snuffer modelled as a hunting horn 1909
set of 4 owl place name holders 1912
Sampson Mordan silver hallmarks
The hallmarks have changed over the years and provide a useful guide if the date letters have been rubbed. These hallmarks are all from the products illustrated on this page and you can find the full hallmarks by searching for any item. The hallmarks are shown with the date when they were registered. You can see that a full stop separated the S and M in 1880. In 1906, a small line appeared under the o of Co. Some Sampson Mordan Victorian products were Registered Designs and carry the lozenze which, if it is not rubbed, is easy to decipher.
Victorian cornucopia vinaigrette and scent
22 June 1870 and hallmarked 1872