Monday, June 30, 2014

A Pen in Hand

QUESTION: I was going through some drawers in an old desk and came across a couple of fountain pens. I wondered if they’re collectible. Also, what can you tell me about their origins. I’m young enough not to have ever used one.

ANSWER: Technolgy has changed our lives a lot in the past 75 years—that marked the date in 1939 when Lizlo Biro, a Hungarian proofreader, first patented the ballpoint pen. It was also the year the 1939 New York World’s Fair offered a vision of the future to thousands of people. Up to that time, the main writing implement that people used was the fountain pen. And it was 108 years before that when John Jacob Parker patented the self-filling fountain pen, paving the way for an easier way of writing.

But it was three inventions that occurred in the mid-19th century that helped the average person accept the fountain pen—the invention of hard rubber, which replaced steel for pen cases, iridium-tipped gold nibs for increased flexibility, and an improved ink formula which contained less sediment.

However, it wasn’t until Lewis Waterman created his Ideal Fountain Pen that the public embraced the fountain pen. After his Ideal Pen became a success, Waterman patented the coiner mechanism where a slot in the heel of the pen enabled a coin to deflate the internal pressure plate.

Probably the most well known of all the fountain pen companies was the Parker Pen Company. George Parker started the Parker Pen Company in Janesville, Wisconsin., and patented his “Lucky Curve” ink feed system in1894. His design allowed the ink to flow back into the reservoir when the pen was upright, reducing the possibility of leaks, creating a new industry standard. He patented an improved version in 1911. You could purchase one of his pens back then for $2.50 to $6. He even made one the size of a  penknife, suitable for a lady's purse.

The Parker Pen Company was an innovator and came out with several firsts, including a safety screw-on cap and the button-filler. An alternative to using an eye-dropper to fill the ink, the button-filler used an external button which connected to the internal pressure plate and deflated the reservoir when pressed.

In 1921, Parker introduced the Duofold pen line. These pens were available in Oversize, Litty, or Junior models, and came in red or black rubber—previously, all rubber pens came only in black. The company added other colors, such as lapis lazuli and jade green, later on in the decade. Originally priced from $5 and up, today these pens, especially the red ones, sell for around $1,000.

Parker continued to be innovative in the 1930s with the introduction of the vacuumatic filler, which worked with a plunger and allowed the entire barrel to act as a reservoir. Some pens also featured a transparent window so the user could see how much ink remained in the barrel. Prices ranged fro originally ranged from $5 to $10.

The next most well known of the fountain pen companies was the Sheaffer Pan Company, which began in 1912 in a small back room of a Fort Madison, Iowa, jewelry store with just seven employees. Its founder, Walter A. Sheaffer; was 45 years old when he risked his life savings to start the company, but his invention of a lever-filled fountain pen quickly proved to be the leader in the industry.

Shaeffer's mechanism used an external lever which depressed a flexible ink sac, but fitted flush with the barrel of the pen when not in use. For the next 40 years, the lever-filler was the most popular design in fountain pens.

In 1920, Sheaffer introduced its Lifetime pen which came with a serial number and a life-time guarantee. A white dot on the pen clip distinguished the pan. Selling for $8.25, they cost almost double what Sheaffer's other pen did. Nevertheless, people bought them. 

Sheaffer continued to influence the pen industry with its introduction of the Radite, the first plastic pen, in 1924---one of your pens. Originally available only in Jade Green in an Art Deco design, it eventually inspired a variety of additional colors.

Over the next 28 years, Sheaffer brought out several other significant products, including a fast-drying, non-clogging formula ink called Skrip, the Balance pen, a bullet-shaped pen designed to balance in the hand, the Crest, the first pen to use a plastic body with a fitted metal cap, the Touchdown, a pneumatic- filling pen, and the Snorkel, a longer edition of the Touchdown.

The introduction of the Pen for Men, an oversized version of the Snorkel, in 1959 put the company way ahead of its competition—indeed, way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the public didn’t buy it and production ceased within a few years. However, oversize pens came into vogue during the 1990s, so the company produced the Legacy, a pen based on the original Pen for Men.

Even though most people don’t used fountain pens for everyday writing, they offer a bit of nostalgia and a remembrance of days long past.

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