Wednesday, July 5, 2017

1942 time capsule

Every now and then one runs across a hoard of new old stock pens, packed away decades ago. Sometimes they belonged to a salesman or a distributor, or were left over when a store closed. Behind each of these time capsules there's a story, but few are as poignant or compelling as the one behind the hoard shown below.

These items all came from an Oakland, California shop owned by Japanese-Americans who were interned shortly after America's entry into WW2. The family did not reopen the shop after the war. These leftover items remained in storage for some 75 years before being offered to us. Opening the package was a moving experience; some items were packed with bits of contemporary newpaper, and two letters from Waterman to their dealers were dated only shortly before Pearl Harbor turned everything upside-down. A good number of the items in the group were contemporary Watermans, stickered and mostly boxed. There were also a few older pens, including a few Waterman overlays and a couple of solid gold Conklins from the 1920s or early 1930s -- expensive and for most retailers, slow sellers. Most notable, however, was the large number of colorful Japanese-made celluloid Pilots, unusual enough but doubly so as export models with English-language labels, boxes, and instruction sheets. Cheap Japanese novelty pens were widely imported in the prewar era, most notably the now-ubiquitous stubby jumbos and glass-nibbed SPORS crescent-fillers. Better-quality prewar Japanese pens were another story, and any found in the wild in the USA were likely acquired by soldiers as war trophies or purchased during the postwar occupation. This hoard represents an exceptional case, with Japanese goods that would have found little interest outside of the Japanese-American community. In fact, the Pilots were far from cheap, with the prices penciled on the bottoms of the boxes running from $3.50 to $7 -- in the same range as the contemporary Watermans, which were mostly priced around $3, with a large Hundred Year priced at $8 (with the Watermans decidedly better made).

Some of the Pilots are conventional lever-fillers, but most are either plunger-fillers (US patent 2070461) or the distinctive nomikomi-shiki (呑込式) "easy-drink filler". The nomikomi-shiki pens have a special long-tailed feed and internal celluloid reservoir. They are filled using a special bottle with a central opening into which the pen can be inserted nib-first, sealing around the section. Bottle and pen are then inverted together, allowing ink to flow through the feed and into the pen's reservoir. Since the latter design was only patented in the US on January 17, 1939 (patent 2144296), the mention of the US patent in the instruction sheets helps narrow down the date of these particular examples.

Factory-new nomikomi-shiki pens must be exceedingly rare, so I made sure to make notes when taking one apart. The celluloid barrel is a slip fit over the section, not at all tight, but instead held by a thick, tacky transparent compound. The same substance holds and seals the clear celluloid reservoir housed inside the barrel. The reservoir is made of very thin material, and though it is threaded to match the threads on the section nipple, it is so loose that it can be pulled straight off, resistance coming almost entirely from the sealing compound. Using plain cold water on a cotton swab, I cleaned off the compound from the inside of the reservoir, only to find that exposure to water was enough to cause the material to open a crack along its longitudinal seam. Clearly, these pens should be preserved as relics, as they are emphatically not users! I did carefully measure the reservoirs, though, as it would be very easy to make new ones out of sturdier modern plastic.

I have been promised more information about the store and the family that ran it. When that comes, I am looking forward to publishing a much more extensive and comprehensive article about these pens and their singular history.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Nibs, flossing, and shims

Once upon a time, not so very many years ago, nib flossing was virtually unheard of. Yet nowadays flossing is one of the first things recommended in pen forums when solutions to ink flow problems are sought. Perhaps this is a function of the recent popularity of highly saturated boutique inks, and novelty inks with paint-like particulates ("shimmer" inks, for example). Indeed, with traditional inks, even a badly clogged pen's nib slit is easily cleaned with an ordinary detergent solution, with no need to force thin sheets of plastic or even metal between the tines.

For flossing is not risk-free. Plastic can leave residue behind, and metal can scratch the inner faces of the slit, affecting proper capillary ink flow. This is not so much an issue with brass shim stock used on stainless steel nibs, but on gold it is very much a concern. There is also the risk to the integrity of the nib's tipping, most pronounced with gold nibs with very fine tips. For nibs like the one below, sheet stock used for flossing should be introduced into the slit from the back end, not the tip.

Sideways pressure can easily detach the tipping on vintage nibs such as this Parker Vacumatic
Where things have really gotten out of hand, however, is in the use of shim stock to widen the slit. It's no accident that experienced pen professionals avoid this method, favoring careful bending of the tines instead. In addition to the risk of tipping loss and scarring of the inner faces of the slit, using a shim to force the tines directly apart in a horizontal plane puts enormous stress on the metal surrounding the vent hole. This may not be such an issue with a modern nib, made either of tough stainless steel or of thick gold that is soft and without any springiness. But with a vintage gold nib, tempered and resilient, it is all too easy to start a crack from the vent hole which will only grow as the nib is subjected to further use.

Vintage nibs with stress cracks from the vent hole

Monday, June 26, 2017

An early multi-nib dip pen

This unmarked silver dip pen was recently acquired from a seller in England. It is very slender, and the pointed end is reminiscent of the peg often found attached to quill knives, used to split the quill.

The pointed end can be taken out of the barrel and reversed. There is a gold nib on the other side -- and two more in the reversing plug at the other end of the barrel.

The nibs are untipped and clearly hand-made, of a form typical for precious metal nibs of the 18th and early 19th century. Why it was necessary to have three nibs in one instrument is a mystery. The nibs do not appear to differ much in width or other qualities.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Withers' patent: an X-Patent discovery

On December 15, 1836 a fire destroyed the records of the US Patent Office. Until five months before the fire, US patents had not been numbered. After the fire, the unnumbered pre-fire patents were retroactively given numbers with an added "X", and are known as "X-Patents". For most X-Patents we have only brief summary descriptions, along with the date of issue and the name and place of residence of the patentee. Of these thousands of lost patents, five were for mechanical pencils. Only one of the five lost pencil patents could be reconstructed through reference to surviving pencils made under that patent and so marked.

We can now add one more with the discovery of a combination pen and pencil in silver made under US patent X9527, issued to Henry Withers on March 19, 1836. Just about all that we previously knew about Withers' patent can be read in this brief entry as published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 18, November 1836, pp. 391-2 (a virtually identical entry also appears in the Journal of the American Institute, vol. 2, February 1837, p. 260):
For an improvement in combined Pen and pencil cases; Henry Withers, an alien, who has resided two years in the United States; city of New York, March 19.
For this pen and pencil case, the two instruments are to be used at the same end, either of them being protruded at pleasure. The pencil holder, with its ordinary adjustments, slides through the tubular pen holder, and the claim is made to "a pencil holder of any known or convenient structure, made so as to pass through, or by the pen holder, in his said combination."
The description isn't very helpful, leaving out any details of "his said combination". Fortunately, our rediscovered pencil can now serve as a patent model. Below is the pencil nozzle extended. Clearly visible is the slot to accommodate the rivets that attach the sliding ring to the nozzle carrier inside the barrel, entirely conventional in construction.

The arrangement is shown with the nozzle retracted in the photo above. Note the notch in the top edge of the barrel slot, and the little nub in the notch. This is what is novel about Withers' design.

To extend the nib holder, the nub is pulled down with a fingernail, as shown above, and then pushed down the slot, as shown below. The nib holder is tubular, so it can pass over the pencil nozzle, with a longitudinal slot cut just below the nub, so that when the nib holder is rotated by pushing the nub into the notch, the slot in the nib holder lines up with the slot in the barrel.

Who was Henry Withers? The 1836 patent report states that he had then been living in the United States for two years, but this is inconsistent with what we find in Longworth's New York city directories. Withers first appears in the Longworth's for 1833-34 (p. 659: "Withers Henry, pencilcasemaker 157 Broadway up stairs") and continues to be listed through the 1837-38 issue (p. 678), always as a pencil case maker. He is listed in the same fashion in another directory, New York As It Is, 1837, p. 92. He must be the same Henry Withers who on March 31, 1831 became a partner in the pioneer pencil company of Addison & Co. There are no other New Yorkers of the period with the same name, let alone working in the same trade, and our Henry Withers' 157 Broadway address was previously (though relatively briefly) that of Addison & Co.

Withers received a silver medal at the 1836 American Institute Fair "for a most beautiful specimen of gold and silver pencil cases." (Journal of the American Institute, vol. 2, November 1836, p. 87; December 1836, p. 149). A more specific mention of Withers' invention appears in a list of items on exhibit at the Repository of the American Institute, on Broadway (Journal of the American Institute, vol. 1, July 1836, p. 560):

There is also a passing mention in a letter of December 26, 1836 which makes reference to a gold pen/pencil presented "on behalf of Mr. Henry Withers of New York".

I have only found a few advertisements for Withers' pencils. The one above ran in the New York Herald, January 12, 1837, p. 1, col. 4; another ran on January 7.

Withers did not ply his trade in New York for long. The auction announcement above ran in the Morning Courier and New York Inquirer, February 12, 1839, p. 3, col. 8, offering for sale "The Patent of the late Henry Withers, pencil case maker . . . Mr. Withers manufactured some pencil cases under his patent, and it is believed that the value of his improvement is understood by those engaged in the business."

The above notice of Withers' death at the age of 32 appeared in the Evening Post on Tuesday, December 19, 1837, p. 3. There is no mention of family or survivors. His wife, Mary, had died violently several months before, as reported in the Troy Daily Whig, Apr 18, 1837, p. 2, col. 2:

There can be little doubt about the identification, as the 414 Washington Street home address for Withers from Longworth's corresponds exactly with the Washington and Laight address of the death notice. That Mary Withers was born in England makes it likely that Henry Withers was, too, and that that was also where he learned his trade. It is possible that Withers became a US citizen before he died, as there is a petition for naturalization that was granted by the Marine Court of New York on April 12, 1837 to a Henry Withers, born in England, witnessed by Abraham D. Wilson of New York.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Master Pen: the Salz connection

I wrote about Julius Schnell, the Bankers Pen Company, and the Master Pen some three years ago. One thing not addressed in that post is the extent to which Bankers did any actual manufacturing. At last weekend's Chicago pen show, an old friend showed me a boxed Master Pen, which he kindly allowed me to photograph. The box top is clearly imprinted "MASTER PEN", yet on the inside it bears the name of Salz Brothers!

Salz, it would seem, was the company that actually produced the Master Pen for Bankers, and in all probability, the Banker coin-filler as well. As previously noted, Julius Schnell testified in 1914-15 that he had supplied the hard rubber parts for coin-fillers to both Bankers and Salz from around 1911. This suggests that while Salz may have been more of a manufacturer than Bankers, it too relied heavily on subcontracting.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Unusual Moores

I've been collecting Moores in my typically unsystematic way for quite a few years, putting away pre-lever-filler examples that catch my attention as interesting and unusual (OK, so it isn't as unsystematic as all that). This week two such pens turned up, shown above.

The top pen is doubly unusual, in that it is an eyedropper-filling stylographic. Many fountain pen makers also offered stylos, which are typically far less common than nibbed pens. Moore stylographics are rare indeed, with most made in the form of safety pens, the stylo tip retracting into the barrel in the same manner as in Moore's regular safeties (photo here).

A distinguishing feature of Moore stylographic safety pens is the orange dome on their caps -- just as is seen on the second recently-received pen. In this case, however, the pen is neither a stylo nor converted from one, for inside the cap there is the central safety post -- a feature lacking in Moore stylos, for obvious reasons. Aside from the orange dome, the pen is a normal Midget safety from the late 'teens or early 1920s, with a Moore rather than an American Fountain Pen Co. nib.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cat seal

Nineteenth-century pencils often featured seal stones in their crowns. Sometimes these were glass, but better examples typically boast seals of bloodstone, moonstone, carnelian, and other semiprecious materials. And sometimes these seals are engraved, usually with initials. More elaborate engravings are unusual, and especially unusual is this engraving of a cat found on the bloodstone seal of a fine 15K gold Mordan-style pencil from the mid-1800s.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

20-year anniversary

The last few months have been more than usually hectic. So much so, that I entirely forgot the twentieth anniversary of, which went online at the end of January 1997 (first snapshot at the Wayback Machine is from June). It was one of the first pen sites on the web, predated slightly by Jonathan Steinberg's, and launched in parallel with friend and colleague Simon Gray's Battersea Pen Home site at (we shared ideas and software -- FrontPage, way back then).

Despite longstanding intention to give the site a complete revamp, it remains more of a palimpsest. The most recent major structural change was to the catalog and Pen Profiles sections to make them mobile-friendly. Carrying over those same changes to the rest of the site is on the to-do list, though a full redesign may arrive first.

Looking back, one of the biggest changes between then and now is the ease of online commerce today. Back then, we were turned down for a credit card processing account because we didn't have a bricks and mortar store. Assets, credit rating, established business -- none of that mattered. For the first months we processed online credit card orders (received by fax, for security) through the merchant account of a friend with a local antiques store. We were running more sales through his account than he was, but we couldn't get our own account until bank policy changed several months later. Not that that account was much of a deal, with all the added charges and surcharges and hidden charges and overpriced required processing equipment. It's all so much easier, cheaper, and more transparent now.

Then there was all the time spent on shipping. No online postage then -- we had to take our packages to the Post Office, waiting in line at the end of the day to mail them at the counter. We pretty quickly set up multiple printers to handle labels, including the multipart labels for Express Mail, Registered Mail, and customs (two different labels for the latter, large and small), but there was no getting around those lines. That was one reason we long maintained a rather high minimum order threshhold, so that we didn't get overwhelmed with small orders that would push our Post Office time to unacceptable levels. As I recall, I did look at postage meters, but at the time they were both expensive and insufficiently flexible, especially as regards international shipments.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A hidden nib imprint

Slip-cap eyedropper-fillers are common enough in black hard rubber, and it's not unusual to see examples in mottled. Red hard rubber is another story.

When this pen came our way, it seemed possible that its maker could be identified by its details of construction, even though it was unmarked and carried a plain warranted nib. The cap with its circumferential groove looked somewhat Waterman-like, while the feed was not inconsistent with Aikin Lambert. The material, however, pointed in a different direction, as it was not a bright, clean orange but somewhat darker with black specks.

Identification ended up coming in an unexpected place: the underside of the nib, shown above. The imprint references US patent 772193, issued October 11, 1904 to De Witt C. Van Valer, and assigned to Frazer & Geyer. The patent describes a method of giving a gold nib resilience by compression using dies and a hydraulic press, rather than the traditional hammer-tempering.

Frazer & Geyer (also referred to as "Frazer Geyer" in contemporary records) manufactured fountain pens under their own name, the "Lincoln" being one of their best-known models. But not all Frazer & Geyer pens were so marked. Most notably, Frazer & Geyer became the maker of  A. A. Waterman pens by 1901, when William G. Frazer and Hobart W. Geyer formed a separate partnership with Arthur A. Waterman, as A. A. Waterman Co. (see Chapman v. Waterman, 1917). Although some have written that Arthur A. Waterman was forced out of the company by his partners in 1905, more recent research has shown that the dissolution of the partnership in May of that year was due instead to his partners' financial and legal issues. The Chapmans, who had been lending money to Frazer and Geyer, ended up taking over their interests in settlement, including both the Frazer & Geyer Company, and Frazer and Geyer's position in the A. A. Waterman Co.

So how to classify our pen? While it is closely connected with A. A. Waterman, calling it one is more than a bit of a stretch. Frazer & Geyer it will have to be -- though there is no telling whether it was made before or after the Chapmans took over the company. I'm inclined to after, however, judging from the contours of the cap and barrel. The pen is clearly modeled on the market leader, the Waterman 12, but on the version made towards the end of the decade and later, with flatter and less domical ends. And while we are discussing A. A. Waterman's copying of Waterman designs, I should also mention a couple of Waterman 20 clones that Dick Johnson sold many years ago, both of A. A. Waterman (Frazer & Geyer) manufacture.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A re-imprinted Duofold Senior

The Parker Duofold Senior shown above has several unusual features, all of which would seem to be old and original. Capped, the pen appears to be a completely standard Mandarin from around 1927.

The nib, however, is a Lucky Curve #7 of the sort found on Senior-sized non-Duofold pens of the pre-streamline era. It sits atop a Vacumatic-era comb feed. Comb feeds are often found retrofitted to Duofolds originally equipped with "spearhead" Lucky Curve feeds, but with either an original Duofold nib, or with an arrow-imprint nib marked on the heel with a star to denote the Duofold guarantee. One just doesn't see #7 Lucky Curve nibs used as replacements.

This all makes more sense upon examination of the barrel, which bears two imprints. One is the expected later 1920s Lucky Curve imprint, which has largely been polished away. The other is the typical 1930s one-line generic Parker imprint with no model name, which only shows modest wear and is clearly legible. The pen can best be characterized as a downgraded Duofold Senior, assembled from surplus parts to be sold without the Duofold name or guarantee. Given the comb feed and the lack of a date code on the barrel, this assembly likely took place around 1933-34.

Other downgraded Duofolds are known; a pristine Lapis Blue Senior set was sold at an Ohio pen show auction a few years ago, if I remember correctly, though that pen bore but a single barrel imprint, with the Lucky Curve banner but without the Duofold name. And a double-imprinted Big Red was the topic of discussion some years back in one of the online forums. Such pens are rare, though, so this Mandarin is a welcome discovery.

ADDENDUM: Opening up the pen revealed the petrified sac shown in fragments below. It is lightly stenciled "PARKER ANODE", strongly suggesting that this is the original factory-installed sac. The pressure bar is also original, and two-piece (Parker button-fillers assembled later in the 1930s were fitted with a three-piece pressure bar instead).

Overall condition of the pen as it came to us was excellent, with only a few small spots of ink inside the cap.