P. W. Costello and Family Art Collection

The Life and Art of P. W. Costello

Biographical essay by Thomas W. Costello

Patrick William Costello was born on March 11, 1866, in the Minooka section of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Anthracite Coal Region. He was the only son of William and Bridget Langan Costello, immigrants from County Mayo, Ireland. There is some indication that William Costello, a coal miner, traveled from Ireland to Birmingham, England, in the 1850s, then immigrated to the United States. He arrived in Minooka in 1856, and as one of the village's earliest settlers, soon married and started a family. Difficult times lay ahead, however, as Bridget Costello died in 1868 when Patrick was only two years old.[1] Shortly thereafter, a major downturn in the national economy of the early 1870s led to high unemployment in Scranton's mining and railroad industries. By contrast, the coal industry of England's "Black Country" in the West Midlands boomed between 1870 and 1874. William returned with his young son to Birmingham, confident that he could find work and better wages there.[2]

At the time Patrick was living in Birmingham, the city was the world center for the design and manufacture of steel pen nibs. During the nineteenth century, these sharpened metal points of varying size and shape were inserted into wooden penholders, dipped in ink, and used for writing and drawing. Gillott, Perry, Brandauer, and Mitchell were just a few of the many companies then producing nibs in Birmingham.[3] Patrick probably attended grammar school during his formative years in England, as child labor laws enacted in 1872 would have protected him from working in the coal mines.[4] Although it wasn't standard practice in 1875 for British grammar school children to use penholders and nibs while learning penmanship, their teachers used them.[5] Perhaps the encouragement of a teacher and exposure to British culture were factors that led to Patrick's discovery of his innate talent for art. In Birmingham, the young boy had ample opportunity to learn about pens and lettering, even on an informal basis. Something may have sparked his interest, inspiring a decision to nurture the skills that led to a remarkable career in art.

In 1877, when Patrick was eleven, he and his father returned to Scranton.[6] There, the dire economic situation the Costellos hoped to escape had worsened. The United States was deep in a depression. Railroad workers across the country were on strike. Coal miners were rioting and causing work stoppages over wage reductions. One industry was dependent upon the other. Without the railroads, there was no way to get coal to market, so owners cut production, wages, and workforce size. In the Pennsylvania Coal Fields in the late 1800s, mine laborers could earn an average of only $300 a year.[7] They paid rent for housing owned by the mine companies, and through pay deductions, purchased food, household supplies, and work tools from company-owned stores at excessive prices. A desperate need for income forced families' young boys, many only eight or nine years old, to leave school and seek work in breakers as slatepickers, separating chunks of rock from coal. Patrick Costello joined them, and for the next two years worked as a "breaker boy" at the Bellevue Colliery, located along the Lackawanna River only a few miles from where he was born.[8]

Slatepicking was a dirty, exhausting job where boys labored six days a week under harsh conditions in the screen room near the top of the breaker or "coal cracker," a wooden structure often six or seven stories tall, built above or adjacent to the main shaft of the coal mine. The breaker was cold during the winter and hot in the summer. The air was thick with coal dust that filled the boys' lungs and decreased visibility. To absorb the coal dust, they chewed tobacco or covered their mouths with handkerchiefs. With a constant deafening roar, huge chunks of coal were crushed and separated by machines above them and dumped onto metal chutes. Gravity pulled it down towards the breaker boys, who sat across the chutes on inclined rows of pine boards. Using their feet, they would impede the flow of coal, giving them time to remove foreign material by hand before it passed beneath them. Boys were not allowed to wear gloves so ten-to-twelve-hour days spent handling sulphur-covered rock left their fingers red-raw, cracked, and bleeding ("red tops," they called them), for a meager four cents an hour.[9] "Tiny shards of coal quickly became embedded just under the skin of their fingertips leaving the distinctive ‘blue tattoo' that remained for a lifetime."[10] Despite these difficulties, boys worked on, since a chute boss stood by with a stick in hand, ready to punish any slatepicker caught talking or slacking off. The chute boss was responsible for ensuring that the job was done right, as the presence of foreign materials could reduce the coal's market value and damage the reputation of the company. With little or no formal education, most breaker boys, like their fathers, were destined to mine coal for the rest of their working lives. Writing about life in the Scranton coal mines for McClure's Magazine in August 1894, Red Badge of Courage author Stephen Crane described the breaker boys "as not yet of the spanking period. One continually wonders about their mothers, and if there are any schoolhouses... Through their ragged shirts we could get occasional glimpses of shoulders black as stoves."[11]

Even as an eleven-year-old breaker boy, Patrick displayed a determined interest in art, sketching on slabs of slate he found near the mines.[12] Exhausted after long, grueling days in the colliery, Patrick still managed to commit the limited free hours he had at home to the practice of lettering and penmanship.[13] Thus, in 1900, he took great satisfaction in using those skills to engross An Address Read by Master Bennie Phillips, A Slatepicker at the Pine Brook Colliery, Representing the Breaker Boys of the Anthracite Region, to Mr. John Mitchell, President of the United Mine Workers of America. Deified throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, Mitchell championed miners' rights and labor reform, including better working conditions, higher pay, and the regulation of child labor. Phillips described him as a "good and just" liberator, who, "like Abraham Lincoln," freed boys from the mines so they could go to school.

Five decades after Patrick Costello labored in the Bellevue Colliery, Louis Charles McCann, a penman, founder of the McCann School of Business in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and friend, interviewed the accomplished engrosser who, as he neared retirement, reflected on both his early years of poverty and hardship and his dreams of success as an artist. The resulting article "Breaker Boy," published in The Business Educator in May 1930, offered a poignant description of Costello's two-year experience as a slatepicker, as well as significant people and events that helped shape his character and career choices. The interview is the only known firsthand account of its kind. At the conclusion of his fascinating portrayal, McCann insightfully commented that his article was "not an advertisement for Mr. Costello because he does not need it, but it does show what is in the boy and in the man."[14]

In his teens, Patrick worked as a clerk in John W. Millett's neighborhood grocery store in Bellevue.[15] Though it probably didn't seem so at the time, securing this job was a significant turning point in the young man's life, as it enabled him to avoid a dead-end career in the coal mines, earn better wages, and learn firsthand about operating a business. Millett was a good role model and mentor for a promising young employee like Patrick. His store was busy, and there Patrick "made many friends because he was affable and remembered names and faces easily."[16] These social skills, combined with some basic accounting experience, prepared him well for his next step. As a bright, ambitious nineteen-year-old, Patrick Costello ventured into local politics and was appointed as a clerk for the City Engineer, a position he held for nine years.[17] One of his primary responsibilities was to letter and illustrate blueprints for city infrastructure projects, an opportunity to artistically enhance the look of official documents, and also develop foundational engrossing skills. He won his first elected political position in 1896 as Auditor of Lackawanna County, serving two terms. In 1901 he ran for County Controller and lost a controversial, hard-fought contest by only eleven votes. The following year, he was elected City Controller in Scranton and served one term. As a public official Costello earned a reputation as a man of conscience, loyalty, and unwavering integrity. During his administration as City Controller he was instrumental in uncovering misuse of public funds by city departments, leading to an investigation and one conviction. In retaliation, the Republican Party, led by the mayor, financed its own candidate and used negative media attacks to defeat Costello in the next election.[18] In 1906 the Governor of Pennsylvania selected Costello to be a Democratic member of the first board of voter registration commissioners in Scranton, a position to which he was twice reappointed by Republican governors.[19]

In his spare time Costello continued to practice lettering and engrossing.[20] He also began to refine the technique of stippling and cross-hatching in sketching portraits, a distinctive style that soon earned him widespread renown as a superb illustrator. From the mid-1880s on, Costello produced engrossings and portraits from a downtown studio located first in the Traders' Bank, then the Odd Fellows Hall on Wyoming Avenue, followed by the Scranton Real Estate Building on N. Washington Ave. His first engrossing job brought him $25.00 and marked the beginning of an illustrious career that soon earned him the respect and admiration of his professional peers.[21] Costello sent photographs of his work for publication nationally by editors like Daniel T. Ames and Horace Healey of the Penman's Art Journal. It wasn't long before his art attracted the attention of Charles Paxton Zaner, founder of the Zanerian College of Penmanship in Columbus, Ohio, and also a native of eastern Pennsylvania. In 1903, Zaner traveled to Scranton to meet with Costello and see his work firsthand. During their meeting, Zaner reportedly asked, "Why, do you mean to tell me that you have never gone to an art school?" to which Costello replied, "No sir. Just picked it up myself." The Master Penman was so amazed by the quality of Costello's pen work that he encouraged him to leave politics and devote himself entirely to a career in engrossing.[22] About the same time and perhaps at Zaner's urging, Costello took several engrossing lessons at the Brooklyn, New York, studio of W. E. Dennis, a master ranked high among American penmen for his exceptional skills in ornamental penmanship, off-hand flourishing, text lettering, shaded display scripts, and illumination.[23]

Costello and Zaner became life-long friends and shared a strong commitment to the education of young penmen. Costello consistently contributed his work, often with instructive commentaries, for publication in the Student Edition of The Business Educator, and advertisements for his correspondence course in engrossing appeared in the reputable journal. Costello also taught a similar course in illustration for the American School of Art and Photography and the International Correspondence Schools in Scranton.[24] During one of Zaner's trips to Scranton, Costello introduced him to George Howell, the Superintendent of Schools, a meeting that led to the establishment of the Zaner-Bloser penmanship program in the Scranton Public Schools. Several days later, Howell told Costello that Zaner "demonstrated to me that he thoroughly knew his penmanship."[25]

In September 1890, P. W. Costello married Mary Agnes Mahon, also a Bellevue resident, and the daughter of Patrick J. Mahon, a former Scranton City Treasurer and Alderman. Together they raised eight children, unusual among married penmen of the era who, due to the profession's enormous time constraints, often did not have children. In 1908, the youngest Costello child was born, and the family moved from Bellevue to a newly built home near Nay Aug Park in East Scranton. Inspired by these events to honor his marriage and his family, Costello engrossed a stunning Marriage Certificate, only 6" x 10" in size, with Ornate Medial lettering and a colorful grapevine border with gold-leafed background. It was mounted in a simple metal frame and displayed in the family's "new" home on Wheeler Avenue for thirty-five years. The artist used flowers to symbolically represent his and his wife's nine children. The flowers were sized and positioned according to the children's birth order. The large flower along the right border, just below center, represented Anna, the oldest, born in 1892. Moving clockwise, additional flowers represented William, Thomas, Gerald, John, Joseph, Marian, Agnes, and Rose, the newborn, at top right. All flowers were connected to the vine except for the one that represented John, who died in July 1900 at the age of seven months. His father positioned this flower to the left of the red capital letter "P" in his own name, to keep him close.

Family was important to Mr. Costello. His great affection for his wife and children was strengthened by the memory of what he lost early in his life. Costello was raised by his father William, a single parent, and the two weathered some difficult times. They lived in rooming houses in South Scranton and Bellevue, close to the mines or mills where William worked. Tragically, only six months after Costello's wedding and two days before his twenty-fifth birthday, the young man lost his father: in March 1891, after an unsuccessful attempt to find work at the Lackawanna Iron and Coal Company in Scranton, William Costello was leaving the plant through one of the main gates when he was struck and killed by a Delaware and Hudson passenger train. He was fifty-six. Through this and other trials that would follow, Costello persevered. In July 1918, Mary Agnes Costello died at the age of fifty; five months later, under circumstances cruelly reminiscent of Costello's father's death, Zaner was killed when his car was struck by a train in Columbus, Ohio. After Zaner's tragic death in December 1918, Costello wrote to The Business Educator, "I have lost my best friend and the world of penmanship has lost one of its most potent figures. Mr. Zaner was directly responsible for my entry into the engrossing profession."[26] Following his wife's death, Costello had to single-handedly care for six children - he never remarried - while maintaining his commitment to his work and the community. At the time, two children were on their own, but four daughters and two sons, ranging in age from ten to twenty-five, were still living at home. Judging by the volume and quality of engrossings and portraits Costello produced between 1919 and 1932, the year his own health began to deteriorate, he managed to handle all of it exceptionally well. Three of his sons, trained by their father, also became successful artists.

P. W. Costello was a close friend of John Willard Raught, a renowned landscape painter from Scranton. For a number of years their studios were located only doors apart in the same downtown commercial buildings.[27] They often traded samples of their work. In the year following Mary Agnes Costello's death, Raught gave Costello a large, beautiful oil portrait of his wife. The painting hung prominently in the Costello home for many years. When Raught died in 1931, Costello was one of his honorary pallbearers.

In the late 1890s, as P. W. Costello was slowly building a local reputation for top quality engrossing work, he also co-owned Costello and Fleming's Arbor Café, a popular downtown restaurant located in the heart of Scranton's theatre district, only a short walk from his studio. While he was an engrosser by trade, he was also famous for his sketches of local and national figures that lined the walls of his restaurant. The Arbor Café became a favorite gathering place for stage stars and other celebrities who would sometimes sit for his portraits.[28] His illustrations, drawn in ink, were usually "composites" modeled after photographs, engravings, or paintings. He often added an umber or rose-colored "wash" in the background, and hand-lettered the person's name and biographical profile at the bottom. Many of these drawings were autographed by his subjects. Occasionally a local theatre displayed his portraits of actors in the lobby at a time that coincided with their appearance in Scranton.[29] In May 1901, actress Viola Allen performed at the Lyceum and autographed a Costello portrait of her dressed in character. In the 1920s, Costello co-owned the Oak Café in Scranton, where drawings of presidents, senators, writers, poets, athletes, and theatrical figures were again prominently displayed.[30] The subjects of his portraits were carefully chosen, often reflecting his personal admiration. Lincoln was a favorite. So were New England's Transcendentalists and other literary giants: Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, and Twain. Costello was an avid reader. The library in his home was filled with classics.

Mr. Costello also loved baseball and was an ardent supporter of Scranton's minor league team.[31] He was on the board of directors of Scranton's team in 1899 when it was part of the Atlantic League.[32] In 1906, when the Scranton Miners won the championship of the New York State League, P. W. lettered a poster-sized, composite photo of the team. He regularly attended their home games and knew all of the players, including Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, their left fielder and leading hitter, who was brought out of baseball obscurity by the popular 1989 movie Field of Dreams. His passion for the sport was evident in some of his drawings and resolutions honoring other players from his day, including Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, John McGraw, Willie Keeler, Hugh Jennings, Stanley Harris, and Steve O'Neill.

For most of his life, Mr. Costello was active in the local community. He was a member of the Elks Club, and one of the founders and first elected officers of the Irish-American Association of Lackawanna County, later called the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.[33] To this day the Friendly Sons sponsors Scranton's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, one of the largest in the United States, and a formal dinner that draws large crowds and dignitaries from all over the country. Costello's name has been listed in the front of every dinner program since 1906. He lettered and illustrated the cover art on many of them.

After three years of illness, Patrick W. Costello died on May 20, 1935. He was sixty-nine. Several months after his death, The Educator honored him with a commemorative edition, which included a cover photo and obituary:

"Mr. Costello was one of the best friends The Educator ever had. He was a regular contributor until about three years ago when ill health called a halt to his activities. P. W. Costello gained the love and admiration of the penmanship profession by his unselfish and untiring efforts to help others in the profession, for his carefully planned lessons, his masterful examples of engrossing and pen and ink drawings. His work is studied by both students and professionals. In his death we have lost a great engrosser, illuminator and pen artist. His work is done, but his masterpieces will live for future generations."[34]

An editorial published in The Scrantonian Tribune further captured the genuine affection and admiration of the local community:

"Mr. Costello was possessed of the soul of the poet and the artist. Even in the nineties [1890s] when he was in politics, which are calculated to harden a man against the beauties of the world, he dreamed his dream – and out of that dream grew an art that made him famous throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. [He] was a great artist, a lover of beautiful things – but better still, he was a lover of his fellow man, and hundreds of them, who treasure his work and who admire his character, will mourn his departure…"[35]

P. W. Costello's death marked the end of a remarkable art career that spanned forty-five years. He is buried in St. Catherine's Cemetery in Moscow, Pennsylvania.


  • [1] Ship Manifest, "Harvest Queen," March 24, 1856, reproduced in U. S. Immigration Records, microfilm serial number M237, roll 237-160, line 163. "History of Minooka," Minooka's Old Home Celebration, (Scranton: 1925). U. S. Census (1860), Lackawanna Township, Pennsylvania, reproduced in U. S. Census Report, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Pennsylvania, microfilm serial number M653, roll 1134, page 446, image 450. "P.W. Costello is Dead Following 3-Year Illness, Widely Known Penman Succumbs at Family Home on Wheeler Avenue, Was 69 Years Old," The Scranton Times, May 20, 1935: 3, 24.
  • [2] Rev. John P. Gallagher, "Powerless Despite Numbers: Futility of Labor's Demand for a Living Wage," The Scranton Times Centennial Edition, July 2, 1966: J-4. This work hereafter cited as Gallagher. John Benson, British Coal Miners in the Nineteenth Century: A Social History, (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980), 66. Peter Seifert, "The Importance of Being Permanent: A Study of the North Staffordshire Miners' Federation from 1869 to 1874," Midland History, (Volume 31) 2006: 69, 73.
  • [3] The Pen Room Museum, (Birmingham: Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association, 2007).
  • [4] Peter Kirby, Child Labor in Britain, 1750-1870 (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2003), 14.
  • [5] Brian Jones and Linda Murch, Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association, interview with the author on August 19, 2007.
  • [6] Ship Manifest, "Montana," July 21, 1877, reproduced in U. S. Immigration Records, microfilm serial number M237, roll 237-409, list 675. Scranton City Directory, (New York: R. L. Polk & Co., 1880).
  • [7] Gallagher, J-4. Hal Smith, "130th Anniversary of the 1877 Shamokin Uprising and the Great Railroad Strike," The News Item, July 25, 2007: 2. Thomas J. Keil and Wayne M. Usui, "The Family Wage System in Pennsylvania's Anthracite Region: 1850-1900," Social Forces, (Vol. 67) 1988: 23.
  • [8] C. R. McCann, "Breaker-Boy," The Business Educator, May 1930: 9. This work hereafter cited as McCann.
  • [9] McCann, 9.
  • [10] Daniel K. Perry, Pennsylvania's Northeast Treasures: Coal, Canals & More, (Mayfield: Heritage Valley Press, 2007), 176.
  • [11] Stephen Crane, "In the Depths of a Coal Mine," McClure's Magazine, (Vol. III, No. 3) August 1894: 194.
  • [12] Don Leahey, son of Marian Costello Leahey and grandson of P. W. Costello, interview with the author. As a child, Leahey lived with his grandfather at the family home on Wheeler Avenue in Scranton until P. W. Costello died in 1935. Leahey was nine years old at that time.
  • [13] McCann, 9.
  • [14] McCann, 9.
  • [15] The Scranton Times, May 20 1935: 3.
  • [16] McCann, 9.
  • [17] The Scranton Times, May 20, 1935: 3.
  • [18] The Scranton Tribune and The Scranton Times, series of articles and editorials, Feb. 5-21 1905. The Scranton Times, Feb 22 1905: 1.
  • [19] The Scranton Republican, Editorial "Three Regrettable Deaths," May 22, 1935: 7. The Scranton Times, May 20, 1935: 3.
  • [20] The Scranton Times, May 20, 1935: 3.
  • [21] P. W. Costello letter to Earl Lupfer at the Zanerian College, May 10, 1930. This work hereafter cited as Lupfer.
  • [22] McCann, 9.
  • [23] Michael Sull, "Patrick W. Costello, Penman's Hall of Fame, Masters of Distinction," Spencerian Script and Ornamental Penmanship, Volume One, (Prairie Village: LDG Publishing, 1989), 150.
  • [24] "American School of Art and Photography: An Efficient System for Imparting by Mail a Thorough Knowledge of Art and Photography," The Scranton Times, May 28, 1901: 6.
  • [25] Lupfer, 2.
  • [26] The Business Educator, February 1919.
  • [27] Scranton City Directory, (New York: R. L. Polk & Co., 1924).
  • [28] The Scranton Times, May 20, 1935: 8.
  • [29] The Scranton Times, "Pen & Ink Sketches," May 7, 1901: 5.
  • [30] Scranton City Directory (New York: R. L. Polk & Co., 1924).
  • [31] The Scranton Republican, February 1, 1899: 3.
  • [32] The Scranton Times, May 20, 1935: 24.
  • [33] The Scranton Times, March 17, 1906 and 1908: 1.
  • [34] "America Loses One of Her Most Skillful Engrossers," The Educator, September 1935: 2.
  • [35] The Scranton Republican, May 21, 1935: 8.