The Pen Ruler

By the start of the nineteenth century the binding trade had split into two separate branches, the letterpress binders working on printed books and the “stationers’ binders” or “vellum binders” (1) preparing blankbooks for use as account books or notebooks. Stationery binding had its own structures, techniques, and materials, and, when unions became legal, its own unions. Its products ranged from the cheapest scratchpads through elaborate full-leather account books as important for the 19th century businessman’s accounting practices as mainframe computers would be in the 20th century.

Stationery binders would usually rule the blank books they produced, inking in horizontal lines to write on and vertical lines to write between, a practice that goes back to the Middle Ages. When ruling was done by hand using cylindrical rulers and dip pens, the time that went into ruling an account book must have been the largest single component in its price. Early in the 19th century the pen-ruling machine was invented (2); in the accustomed manner of machinery, this reduced the cost of wages for ruling but also became the greatest capital expense in the stationery binder’s shop. This change is reflected in the American directories of the later 19th century, which used the term “blank book manufacturers” for what the English continued to call vellum binders. The factory had taken over from the craftsman.

Sheets of unfolded paper would be carried one by one through the ruling machine on a cloth blanket, held down by tapes (the arch of the tapes over the mechanism is one of the distinctive visual features of pen-ruling machines), under a series of side-by-side brass or steel pens (3). Water-based ink would be fed from reservoirs down to the individual pens along threads of flannel or worsted. Every account book would be ruled differently, to suit the kind of accounts it contained and the other needs of the user. Rulings included many stop-lines and cross-lines, double as well as single lines, and multiple colors (always blue and red, often green or black). A pen-ruling machine had to be highly versatile. To produce stop-lines the pens were mounted on shafts equipped with cams to lower and raise them at predetermined points; and the pens had to act independently to some extent, since some lines might stop while others parrallel to them continued. The position of the cams and pens had to be easy to change, since each account book meant ruling a batch of a few hundred sheets, but the next account book would probably require a completely different arrangement of lines. In the early machines, pages were run through once for each side for the main lines, then again for each side for the cross lines; but as machines got more sophisticated they were enlarged to rule both sides on one pass through the machine, then to do main and cross-ruling on the same pass. A fully developed 20th century pen-ruling machine was the size of a house and in operation was a dancing, clattering display of complex synchronized movement.

In the twentieth century the simpler disc-ruling machine took over the ruling of plain lined paper, replacing individual cam-operated pens with rotating discs; however, disk-ruling was less versatile than pen-ruling, for instance it lacked the capacity to do stop-ruling (4). Some more complicated accounting pages began to be printed by offset. However, even the change from bound account books to loose-leaf accounting systems did not do away with the need for pen ruling: most businesses needed slightly different accounting systems, and this meant that the short-run capabilities of pen-ruling kept it viable, despite the slow speed and crankiness of the machines. As late as the late 1960s pen-ruling companies were found all over the United States. The spread of computerized accounting, however, killed the pen-ruling industry suddenly and very completely; by the early 1980s pen-ruling machines were so rare that many states were entirely without one. The small remaining demand for paper accounting could be served by mass-produced litho-printed pages, less well adapted to the individual need but adequate for many common purposes.

The Harcourt Bindery, which donated our pen-ruling machine, was one of the last firms in the country to keep one operational. The Harcourt machine, which is much more complicated than the English machine of 1854 in our illustration, is still in storage on the East Coast. At present one firm in Iowa, Golden Business Forms (5), continues to serve the withered-away pen-ruling needs of the whole nation.


Printed Sources:

Between the lines, 1844-1944; an informal history of the W.O. Hickok Manufacturing Company, makers of ruling machines since 1844. Harrisburg, Pa.: W.O. Hickok, 1944.

Arnett, John Andrews (pseud. of John Hannett). Bibliopegia; or, The Art of Bookbinding, in all its Branches. London: Richard Groombridge, 1835. (Reprint of the first edition New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1980). [Pen ruling p. 140-144, 175-176, and fig. 4 to face p. 175.]

——–Sixth edition London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1865. (Reprint of the sixth edition New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1990.) [Pen ruling p. 332-335 and 367-368, with engraving to face p. 366.]

Pleger, John J. Bookbinding and its Auxiliary Branches (in four parts). Part One. Paper ruling. Chicago: Inland Printer, 1914.



(1) English stationery binders were frequently called “vellum binders” because the finest English account books were often bound in full vellum with leather overbands, while vellum was rarely used in England for binding letterpress books. It is not yet clear when the stationery binding trade separated off from general binding in America, but a reasonable guess would be during the second third of the 19th century.

(2) The first edition of Arnett’s Bibliopegia (1835 ) describes the technique of hand-ruling still used in smaller shops that didn’t often have call to do it, and also illustrates and describes an early pen-ruling machine. It is clear from this and from the general chronology of machinery invention that machine-ruling was a fairly recent development at the time.

(3) In nineteenth-century English pen-ruling machines, the nib was formed by partly folding a strip of brass and running the ink along it to the tightly-folded and shaped tip. American machines in recent operation are reported to use steel nibs from ordinary dip pens.

(4) What appears to be the first US patent on a disk-ruling machine was #286,382, granted to Henri A. Brisard of Paris, France on Oct. 9, 1883 (titled simply “Ruling-Machine”); this machine had been patented in Belgium in 1872 and in France in 1883. The patent does not seem to have covered the basic principal of disc-ruling, since other disk-ruling patents were issued in the 1880s and 1890s.

(5) Their web site includes videos of setting up and operating a ruling machine; see:

Back to Equipment