Monday, September 5, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 4: users vs collectors

Previous posts in this series: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs tradersPart 2: the Generation GapPart 3: meet the older collectors.

The great majority of collectors, whether their focus is vintage or modern, use at least some of their pens. Many users also collect to some degree or another. Yet despite the considerable degree of overlap, there are fundamental differences, with each group most strongly interested in things that are of very limited to no interest to the other. This divergence of priorities inevitably leads to tensions, since fully accommodating both groups at the same time isn't always possible.

At pen shows, for example, most vintage sellers group their pens by brand and model, to cater to collectors, rather than by nib type, to cater to users. A request for a specific nib type may not be received with enthusiasm by a seller whose pens are not organized accordingly -- not out of any animus towards users at large, but rather out of irritation at being personally inconvenienced. It's a bit like going to a farm stand, and instead of asking for three apples or a pound of green beans, asking for five different items of produce between four and five inches long and red. The first few times, such a request would likely be met with amused surprise -- but it would not be long before both the surprise and the amusement would wear off.

At least at the farm stand doing the selection oneself is an easy out; at a pen show, it entails opening up and examining every single pen on a table -- inefficient, inconvenient, and disruptive. Add in the time and space required to dip-test any suitable candidates, and the seller's total combined hassle factor for serving the average user ends up dwarfing that for the average collector. Sellers set up to deal with collectors are even less favorably disposed when the average user doesn't spend as much as the average collector, and after going through all of the above, often doesn't buy anything at all.

Note that this situation arises entirely innocently, rooted as it is in a fundamental mismatch between what the buyer is seeking and what the seller is set up to provide (paralleling another mismatch outlined in our Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders). And there has already been a degree of bridging of this divide, for as some users have shown their willingness to pay as much or more than collectors, collector-oriented sellers have become more user-accommodating. This trend has been visible online for some time now, but has been slower to be felt at shows -- not surprising, given the practical impossibility of making a table full of pens keyword-searchable. Nonetheless, it is now common for sellers to add color-coded nib grade labels or to put out a tray specifically devoted to pens with flexible and italic nibs, even if their main focus remains the collector market.

Unfortunately, not all of the hostility between users and collectors is so easily dealt with, or so benign in origin. For users, a pen is primarily a tool. For collectors, it is primarily an artifact. But while virtually all collectors also appreciate pens as tools, a not-insignificant number of users are indifferent or even hostile to considering pens as artifacts. This asymmetry is well illustrated by how online discussions of when and whether to use a mint and stickered vintage pen typically play out. Collectors will urge that it not be treated as a user, showing their consideration for the user point of view by pointing out the ready availability of non-stickered equivalents. Collecting-sympathetic (and pragmatic) users will concur, advising that the stickered pen be sold or traded for a lightly used example plus cash, leaving everyone better off. But then the collecting-hostile users will weigh in, declaring that pens were made to be used and that leaving one unused is fundamentally wrong. The moral absolutism underlying this point of view is what has made it so uniquely divisive, leading its exponents to look with contempt upon those who see things otherwise, and to taunt them with gloating accounts of destickering mint pens and putting them to use.

This goes way back. Years before the current crop of bloggers took up their pens, anti-collector sentiment was already bubbling away in online forums. And though it may not be so apparent now, at least some of the nastiness was fueled by a form of the ancient delusion that when prices are high, it is the storekeepers who are to blame. With blind disregard for the realities of supply and demand, dealers and collectors were scapegoated, blamed for running up pen prices on eBay and sucking up all the affordable pens from antique shows and shops. Collectors were accused of not really loving pens, of being soulless hoarders, violators of the moral imperative that every pen must be put to use and not enjoyed in any other manner. And if the accusations are no longer repeated quite so often and so openly, the underlying sentiments live on, as in the ongoing use of the expression, "the 'C' word", which jokingly-but-not-really makes "collector" out to be an epithet too vile to be uttered aloud.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

eBay and the Great Disintermediation

I have long intended to write about eBay's transformative impact on pen collecting. Having recently touched upon the topic in my Pen Show Frictions posts (Part 2: the Generation GapPart 3: meet the older collectors), it is now time to treat it at greater length.

While there was some online trading before the advent of eBay, the volume was tiny and restricted to a small subset of already-active pen traders. It was an insignificant sideshow, as nearly all trading took place face-to-face: at shows, club meetings, flea markets, live auctions, and antiques fairs. In the USA, there was relatively little retailing of collectible vintage pens. There were not many buyers willing to pay much over pen show prices, and it was not easy to reach them -- even for sellers with bricks and mortar shopfronts.

The flow of vintage pens through the market prior to eBay was a long and inefficient one. An old pen would typically enter the market at a yard sale or flea market after being found in a desk drawer or long-shuttered shop. Bought by a picker, it would then be flipped quickly for a small profit to a local general antiques dealer, who might sell it on to another dealer who knew a little more about pens, or who had a pen buyer as a customer. In this extended food chain, a pen could easily go through several hands before finally being sold at full value to an end buyer. At any point, of course, the passage of a pen could be interrupted by being bought and kept by a buyer paying less than full value, who might well have been outbid had more committed buyers been in on the action. Nor did an end buyer have to buy from a specialist dealer, as there was nothing preventing anyone from hunting lower (and more cheaply) on the food chain -- the tradeoff being that as one went lower, so did the ratio of desirable items to chaff.

eBay's impact was not felt immediately. With only a relatively small number of participants at first, and lacking the search and bidding tools we now take for granted, eBay could turn up nice finds for buyers with knowledge and persistence. Overall volume was still too low, however, for eBay to be more than a minor supplement to pen buyers' traditional sources of supply. This began to change once new buyers -- many from overseas -- who had never been exposed to the existing collector market started to bid up ordinary pens to extraordinary prices. This bidding seemed to be based on a combination of excitement over never-before-seen (by the newcomers, that is) items and the auction version of the Greater Fool principle -- that is, the assumption that one can't go too far wrong if someone else is bidding just as much. By the end of 1998 several boxed Peter Pans had sold for $500-600 each; other pens that were common but of unusual form or design also fetched similar sums. It wasn't just pens: small ladies' watches that dealers hadn't been able to give away suddenly were being bought for hundreds of dollars, for example.

Prices like these quickly attracted a horde of new eBay sellers, and prices settled down as supply moved online to meet demand. Offline, meanwhile, things were changing quickly. The old antiques food chain was coming apart, as those at the bottom started selling directly to those at the top. So did everyone in the middle, even as they began to lose their sources lower down the chain. Thus began the Great Disintermediation, as the middlemen found themselves increasingly cut out of the flow of merchandise through the market. Most saw that things were changing, but couldn't grasp that the changes would be so dramatic and so fundamental. The following years saw the dwindling or disappearance of a host of long-established places and events whose main purpose had been to facilitate dealer-to-dealer transactions, including group shops, wholesale antiques shows, and live auctions. Collector-to-collector events were similarly affected: the New Jersey show was sold by its original organizers around this time for a price in the low five figures, only to be unsuccessfully put up for sale (on eBay!) only a few years later, and eventually liquidated for a nominal sum for the value of its mailing list.

As the middlemen were cut out, the market was flooded with material. It was as if a pipeline had suddenly been drastically shortened, pushing its excess contents out all at once. Since most of this content came from nonspecialist dealers who had always sold lower down the food chain, it ended up on eBay with low or no reserve. This didn't have much effect at the low end, for the cheaper vintage pens hadn't far to fall, were already in plentiful supply, and had no shortage of buyers, but the market for midrange and high-end pens was another story. It didn't help that many older collectors were slowing down at this point, just as the newer online collectors were still working their way up from lower-end models. It took years for the midrange to recover, while the high end still isn't where it was pre-eBay. The problem largely was (and remains) one of market confidence: at the high end, the number of buyers was never large, dealers included; when combined with the retirement of older collectors and a weak global economy, this sector of the market was easily flooded. All it took was a few examples of a rare pen to hit the market in quick succession (a statistical inevitability) for prices to tumble. Since these transactions were now taking place in full sight of the world, the effect on market perceptions was powerful and lasting, even in cases where no more examples appeared for years afterwards. Not infrequently the reason a selling price was low was because potential buyers failed to spot the item, or because dealers agreed to buy it in partnership rather than compete -- not to mention cases of bid failure, issues with condition or authenticity, etc -- but for those not in the know, it all looked the same.

This is still very much the case. Where trading is thin, the post-eBay market remains more vulnerable than the pre-eBay market to inconsistent sales results and a resulting loss of confidence. There is a pervasive assumption that online auctions are true indicators of value, though they are subject to many of the same inefficiencies as other sales. And where dealers once played a significant role in buffering the impact of short-term fluctuations in supply and demand, the experience of the last fifteen years has left dealers less willing to buy and hold as they once did. Where there is inconsistency, however, there is also opportunity -- but that is a topic for another post.

eBay's shortening of the collecting food chain has had other effects, too. Some items appeal to multiple groups: original counter-top pen displays, for example, are also sought after by advertising collectors; pen-related trade cards, by collectors of ephemera. Before eBay, such items would typically end up sorted and sent on one path or the other. Pen collectors would miss out on many crossover items unless they took the extra trouble to follow specialist auctions, dealers, and shows devoted to advertising, ephemera, etc. This situation was completely transformed by eBay's elimination of the middlemen who had done the sorting. Suddenly, crossover collectibles were easily accessible to every interested collector. The effect on prices varied; in some cases prices rose as the bidder pool expanded, while in others, bidders gained access to a greatly expanded pool of material, and prices dropped.

There is surely much more that could be said, but I'll conclude by observing that while there is much to be missed about the old days, the post-eBay world is in its own way a Golden Age for the collector. There was adventure and opportunity in those hours on the road, the pre-dawn hunts through open-air markets as they opened, and the certainty that treasure could be lying around any corner. Yet how much greater one's reach now, with nearly unfettered access to a worldwide stream of material! The selection and the opportunities have expanded for collectors every bit as much as has access to knowledge for users of the web.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Uniface award medals

Early pen and pencil makers proudly boasted of their medals won at the national and international exhibitions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not many examples survive, though it is possible some are being held by collectors of medals, unknown to collectors and historians of writing instruments (a medal awarded to Livermore in 1879 can be seen here).

Pen collectors hold a number of Waterman medals, but nearly all are electrotypes -- near-exact electroformed replicas, consisting of a plated copper shell over a lead alloy core. This was discussed in a past post on a Waterman medal from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the gist being that we know that Waterman had electrotypes made so that they could exhibit their awards in multiple locations, but that we have no idea how many were made, nor how typical this might have been for other medal winners.

The situation is further complicated by the existence of uniface replicas -- that is, medals with blank backs, their faces copying just the obverse or reverse of the original. These are often found with threaded posts on their backs, indicating that they were made to be mounted on a board or plaque for display. Were these privately commissioned by award recipients, though, or were they given out alongside the original medals?

I've not had much luck searching for information online, but on a recent visit to the Corning Museum of Glass I stumbled across the display shown above. Hawkes was a major manufacturer of cut glass, and the topmost plaque beautifully illustrates how these uniface pairs were used. It is still not clear, however, if this plaque was presented by the Exposition Universelle, or if Hawkes had it made. Perhaps the Corning Museum will be able to add some information; perhaps there are other similar plaques in their collection, not on display, and there might be a label on the plaque's back.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mythbusting: Japanese jumbo pens and arthritis

Stubby oversize novelty pens were a popular pre-WW2 import item in the United States -- so popular that they can still be found in plentiful supply and modest cost. Most are flat-top eyedropper-fillers, but one also will find lever-fillers, rounded ends, and combos. Quality is only so-so. Nibs are typically plated stainless steel, with trim plating decidedly on the thin side. Some examples may be postwar, but the great majority are prewar.

For some time now, American collectors have been repeating a story that these pens were originally invented for the use of arthritis-stricken writers. I have always doubted this tale, inasmuch as these were clearly cheap and cheerful novelty items, and no mention of arthritic hands is to be found in any of the US importers' catalog listings. Just to make certain, however, I recently posed the question to one of the leading Japanese pen authorities -- who, it turned out, had never heard of this story, and did not hesitate to debunk it.

After a bit of Googling of "Japanese, 'jumbo pen", and arthritis," using both regular web search and Google Books options, it seems that the now-busted myth of jumbos being designed for the arthritic originated between 2007 and 2008 -- I was unable to find any earlier trace of it. And from what I can see, it seems to have arisen from misquotation of speculative commentary as fact.

In an FPN thread from August 2007 a Japanese jumbo pen was being discussed. Someone asked, "does the size serve a purpose or this more of a novelty?" The response in the last post was, "I suppose it might be useful for someone with arthritis, maybe." In a similar thread from November 2008, someone else commented, "It looks like an example of the type of pen that was manufactured for arthritis sufferers in Japan during the 1960s-70s." This kind of chatter was already being recast by April 2008, though, when in yet another thread one reads, "I believe that it was mentioned in another thread on the FPN that these were made for people with bad arthritis, who couldn't hold a normal sized pen without pain." And in a review of a vintage jumbo pen posted in August 2009, it was stated "I read somewhere that these Jumbo Pens were designed for elderly Japanese with arthritis." From there the repetitions continue, all citing previous hearsay -- some with qualification, most without -- spreading into blog posts, other forums, catalogs, and eBay listings.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 3: meet the older collectors

So far, most everything posted about pen show frictions has been from the newcomers' point of view (our previous installments excepted: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders; Part 2: the Generation Gap). But as they say, there are two sides -- at least! -- to every story.

It is frustrating when older collectors rave about a recent article in the Pennant, yet have never heard of the blog whose posts the article distills. It is equally frustrating when younger pen lovers, fully immersed in the digital world, seem unable to connect with other enthusiasts without online assistance. When pen bloggers have discussed older collectors, it often comes across like a group of Victorian scientists pontificating about some exotic tribe: expostulating about the Other, inferring beliefs and modes of thought, all without having ever actually entered their world. Quite aside from the tone, the observations -- not surprisingly -- tend to be wildly off the mark.

I can't emphasize enough that pen show veterans are just ordinary people. Interesting people, by and large -- and sometimes a bit quirky, as one might expect from the pen-obsessed. Demographically they skew strongly male, white, and professional, though they run the range geographically and in political orientation. Their personalities are diverse; socially, they are in no way a monolithic bloc. The imputation of devious ulterior motives to them, across the board, is frankly absurd. In fact, each field of collecting has its own character and culture, and those with wide experience of different collector groups have often remarked on the unusually welcoming and sociable nature of the pen collecting community. I certainly had no trouble finding a place there, back when I was a poor grad student in my late twenties. Over the years I have seen many others warmly received, too. So I find it more than a little puzzling that this, of all groups, should be viewed with such distrust and hostility.

Though it was downplayed in my previous posts, I wonder if some of this may indeed be due to changing generational attitudes: not in the pen community specifically, but in American society at large. This would be exacerbated by a reduction in mixing across age groups. If your interaction with elders has been limited to family members and teachers, you may find that experience insufficient preparation for dealing with older strangers as equals. Exploring the question of generational change is a topic for multiple books, not a simple post on how pen enthusiasts might get along better. It bears consideration, though, and particularly as regards differing attitudes towards resilience and individual self-sufficiency. What one generation sees as supportiveness, the other disdains as coddling. What one generation sees as indifference, the other sees as not treating young adults as children.

I'd like to close this installment with a look at the belief that older collectors paid nothing for their pens, and are therefore greedy profiteers trying to rip off newcomers. Yes, pens could be found in the wild very cheaply thirty or forty years ago. Tales of Dick Johnson filling 55-gallon drums with flea market finds are part of pen collecting lore; nearly every oldtimer can also contribute a fish tale or three. The thing is, very few of the people buying back then are still active. Those that are, have been trading pens continuously since. So while they may have got their start on the cheap, you can bet that the great majority of the pens on their tables were bought within the last five or ten years, and at market price. For those who started later, say twenty years ago, pens could still be found in the wild, but it took time and dedication, a lot of driving and getting up before dawn. At the big antiques markets and shows, most of the pens were scooped up shortly after the gates opened (or, often, before) by a relative handful of hardworking pickers. Most pen collectors of that era ended up buying from the pickers or from each other, at prices that by the 1990s were, on average, no different from those today. And while there is no shortage of pen show sellers with what I like to call "optimistic" asking prices, in many cases the sellers are simply trying to get back what they paid for items that have dropped in price over the years -- of which there are quite a few.

Continued in Part 4: users vs collectors

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 2: the Generation Gap

While clashing expectations regarding the nature of pen show commerce (see Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders) appears to be the largest single cause of recent show-related frictions, other factors are in play. That the lines of division have been perceived in terms of age is not an accident -- though as we shall see, this is more a matter of correlation than causation. At American pen shows, the swap-meet style traders are predominantly older, while the buyers unfamiliar and uncomfortable with swap-meet style trading are predominantly younger. In part this is the natural result of new enthusiasts finding themselves in a collector-to-collector trading environment for the first time, but it is also due to the manner in which pen shows and the community of pen enthusiasts have evolved, which opened up a generation gap that persists to this day.

When I began collecting pens in the second half of the 1980s, organized pen collecting was still a new field. Just ten years before there had been no magazines, no guidebooks, no clubs, no shows. Much still wasn't known; of what was known, much was unpublished. With a bit of legwork, one could buy pens cheap at flea markets and antique shops, shows, and auctions -- pens that were then brought in staggering quantities to pen shows where they were quickly traded, sold, and resold.

Pen shows back then were virtually all vintage. The reason was simple: that's pretty much all that was available in the way of interesting and affordable fountain pens. There was next to no retail or restoration infrastructure. To be a pen geek entailed scrounging, swapping, and learning to do one's own repairs. And though I refer here to collectors and collecting, that doesn't mean that no one used their pens -- quite the opposite. Then as now, most pen collectors were both collectors and users, the big difference being that vintage pens were so affordable and abundant that most active collectors pretty quickly ended up with far too many for them all to be used. At that point, one would either have to stop acquiring (no!) or embrace the realization that even pens that one doesn't use can be enjoyable to own for different reasons.

Through the 1990s, pen collecting steadily grew. There were more collectors, more resources, more information. The pen market was strong, and interesting new pens were introduced, carving out a growing presence at pen shows. There were online forums, but the main action in pens was still face-to-face. What changed everything in the space of only a few years was eBay. By the end of the 1990s the old days were largely gone (in the USA, that is -- the changes took longer elsewhere). The pens that once could be found at flea markets, general antiques shows, shops, and auction houses, were now sent to eBay instead. The central exchange for pens fresh to the market had been the pen show. Now it was online. At the same time, eBay opened up pen collecting to an unprecedented degree, drawing in pen lovers worldwide with no previous contact with pen shows or other pen enthusiasts. eBay was like a full-time pen show, and in combination with online collecting forums, offered formidable competition to the world of shows and club meetings.

The immediate effects of these developments were dramatic enough; their long-term effects were greater yet. While a few collectors and dealers managed to keep up, most did not. Show organizers hired publicists to get their events mentioned in local newspapers and broadcasts, but did next to nothing to promote themselves online. Many pen clubs and collecting organizations were equally remiss. As a result, the first-generation collectors of the pen show era and the second-generation collectors of the online era failed to connect. Even if show organizers and club leaders had seen what needed to be done, however, the task would not have been easy. By the time pen collecting began to move online, many first-generation collectors were getting older and less active, and while most were fine with buying and selling on eBay, very few ended up participating to any significant degree in online forums (far more time-consuming, it should be noted, than monthly or bimonthly club or show attendance). This was especially the case for the more advanced collectors, first-generation leaders but virtually invisible online. Second-generation pen enthusiasts thus ended up relying on their online communities, where leadership was more a function of participation than of experience or depth of knowledge. Relatively few found their way to pen shows (the hassles of flying post-9/11 played their part, too) and when they did, they tended to stick to themselves and follow their own interests. In some cases this was constructive -- new attention to underappreciated brands and models, for example -- but in others, less so. Knowledge and experience that should have been passed on, wasn't. Friendships that could have been, weren't. And while eBay and the internet seemed to have rendered the pen market fully visible, this apparent transparency was an illusion that kept many from realizing how much of the picture they were actually missing.

One telling symptom of what was lost is the still-anomalous distribution of strength and weakness in the pen market. In any field of collecting, an episode of market weakness normally plays out in a predictable pattern, with demand for the very best pieces remaining strong, the low end holding steady, and the middle collapsing. Yet from the end of the 1990s into the early 2000s on, something very different happened in the vintage pen market: the high-end pieces went weak, with the mid-range holding steady and the low end strongest of all. Demand for certain brands and subfields also shrank -- typically the more esoteric items, including ephemera. This wasn't so much a natural change in tastes as a massive reboot. It was the commonly available items in the low to middle range that the internet generation had been exposed to; the rare and the esoteric remained too remote, inaccessible, and incomprehensible to make it onto their collecting radar, let alone their want lists. There were exceptions, of course. And the overall level of knowledge has steadily increased -- though it sometimes feels like watching the wheel being reinvented. More progress has come in the last several years, as social media platforms have allowed a comparative handful of advanced collectors to share and discuss notable items from their collections with the pen community at large. Meanwhile, more online collectors are making their way to pen shows, yet too often there is more parallel play than mixing and interchange.

So where do we go from here? The fact that this has become a topic of conversation strikes me as a good sign, and an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and misperceptions. There is no shortage of good will in the pen community, which should pull it through (and together) in the end.

Pen show frictions, other entries: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs tradersPart 3: meet the older collectorsPart 4: users vs collectors

Wax on pens

I'm not sure how it all started, but in the past ten years or so it seems a significant number of enthusiasts have begun waxing their pens. While this may make some sense for pens with finishes that cannot take much polishing, or which are especially vulnerable to environmental exposure, there are many cases where wax is decidedly not a good idea.

Heading the list are pens made of celluloid or cellulose acetate. Both materials give off acid gases as they age, gases which can accelerate the aging process if not allowed to escape (more on celluloid storage here). Coating a celluloid or cellulose acetate pen in wax will prevent escape of those acids, trapping them within the material. The harder waxes favored for use on pens, such as carnauba, are also the least permeable, despite recent claims of breathability on pen forums (see Greener Donhowe, O. Fennema, "Water vapor and oxygen permeability of wax films", Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, Sept 1993, vol. 70, issue 9, pp. 867-873).

Wax on hard rubber is a more mixed case. Protection from light and in particular UV will be minimal, so the main benefit would be to exclude moisture. Water will have no effect on pristine hard rubber, but exposure to light will eventually break down the crosslinks formed during vulcanization. This surface damage is often invisible until the rubber is exposed to water, at which point it will fade instantaneously as de-crosslinked material is washed away. Humid air can have a similar effect, though without the loose surface compounds being washed away. Instead, one ends up with an acidic crust, thanks to the free sulfur in the damaged surface. Waxing hard rubber that has latent surface damage (that is, exposure to light, but no exposure to water) would help prevent both fading and formation and release of acids.

Wax does change the look and feel of a surface, however, and waxes do inevitably break down, losing their ability to protect and turning cloudy or yellow. If the dulled wax is difficult to remove, this can be a serious problem. What seems wonderful for the first few years can become a nightmare after ten or twenty. For while polishing off old wax residue may be no big deal on a wooden table or a steel knife blade, it's quite another matter to get it off something like the delicate and irregular surface of Japanese maki-e lacquer work.

As important as knowing when and when not to wax, is knowing what wax to use. For a knockabout pen of no historic value it doesn't really matter. For something rare and significant, though, you'll want to approach wax selection like a conservator. Commercial products for household or automotive use would be disqualified immediately. You'll want to avoid waxes such as beeswax and carnauba, which are either acidic or prone to become acidic as they age. You'll also want to avoid polyethylene waxes, which under some circumstances can be almost impossible to remove (see Danal L. Moffett, "Wax coatings on ethnographic metal objects: justifications for allowing a tradition to wane", Journal of the American Institute of Conservation, vol. 35, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1-7, where removal required nothing less than immersion in hot xylene). A pure microcrystalline wax such as Cosmolloid 80H would be the conservator's choice, according to the current literature. I would advise against Renaissance Wax, which is a mixture of microcrystalline and polyethylene waxes. It is widely advertised as a museum-grade product, but what was museum-grade back in the 1950s when it was developed is very different from what is museum-grade today.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 1: retail shoppers vs traders

The online pen community has been abuzz the last several months over frictions between older and newer participants at American pen shows. The lines of conflict have generally been framed in terms of age, or at least length of time involved with pens. There is quite a bit to be said about how pen collecting has changed over the years, and about the generation gap between those whose experience was rooted in pen shows and those who came into pens online -- but that is a topic for another post. Right now, I'd like to draw attention to a completely different issue, one whose importance has been almost entirely overlooked to date.

The modern American pen show is a hybrid event. There are old pens and new pens, collectors and users. Yet within these categories, there is more overlap than division. Where the differences are truly pronounced is along another divide entirely, one that most of us don't even give a moment's thought: the divide between those who set up as swap-meet traders, and those who present themselves as full-service retailers. Nearly all of the traders are amateurs, dealing mainly in vintage, while most of the retailers are professionals, their focus leaning towards the new. But it is not what they sell that is of primary significance: it is the mode of selling that is key.

At pen shows, traders and retailers get along just fine, as each understands what the other is all about. Where misunderstandings have arisen is when buyers come to a pen show expecting a retail shopping experience, only to run across exhibitors in full swap-meet mode. If the buyer is already familiar with markets of this sort, there's no problem -- but increasingly, that is not the case. The resulting clash isn't generational so much as cultural. This goes in both directions, for when buyers start demanding retail-style service from trader exhibitors, there can be pushback.

Let's pause for a moment for a closer look at the two market cultures. Shoppers expecting a modern Western retailing experience count on prices to be fixed and prominently posted, with items provided with descriptions and/or sales staff on hand ready to answer any questions. Buyer and seller roles are sharply demarcated. And though the shopper doesn't see it, prices are padded to factor in the cost of the customer services already noted, as well as 3-4% off the top for credit card or PayPal fees, and -- not least -- picking up the tab for any buyer blunders, such as breakage, handling damage, and returns of nondefective merchandise.

Collector-to-collector swap meets work very differently. Participants are equals, since virtually everyone both buys and sells. Pricing is flexible, bargaining is expected, and trading (bartering) is common. Not everything will bear a price tag, for a number of possible reasons: sellers may lack time or inclination (too much like work instead of a hobby); they may not be certain how much to ask (or even if they really want to sell); they may want to be free to adjust their asking prices on the fly (as when dealing with someone known to be a particularly hard bargainer, for example). Condition can run the range -- with pens, anything from straight out of an old desk drawer to fully and professionally reconditioned -- and sales are as-is and final. Though sellers are expected to disclose hidden and nonobvious defects, shoppers are also expected to exercise due diligence in inspecting prospective purchases and asking questions as necessary. Likewise, it's largely up to the shopper to ask about items of interest. Since shoppers are regarded as fellow collectors rather than retail customers, table holders typically give them space to look in peace rather than try to play the salesman: the eager attentiveness that many retail buyers expect can come off as offputtingly slick and aggressive in a swap-meet setting. And while most sellers will accept PayPal and some are set up for credit cards, the default payment method is cash or check, with prices negotiated accordingly.

How does all this play out? Let's take a look at some examples. Some of the conflicts illustrated here bring up issues other than the trader-retailer divide -- issues that we will discuss shortly, in further posts.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Celluloid storage and acid absorption

As celluloid ages, it emits a range of compounds. Some are benign, but as the celluloid begins to approach its expiration date, some rather nasty stuff gets released -- most notably, nitric acid. This in turn accelerates the process of deterioration, as well as attacking other nearby materials. For this reason, conservators recommend storing celluloid artifacts separated from each other and with ventilation. Keeping the temperature and especially the humidity low also slows the aging process. (see Julie A. Reilly, "Celluloid Objects: Their Chemistry and Preservation", Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 1991, vol. 30, no. 2, article 3, pp. 145-162).

The release of acidic compounds begins well before any visible signs of material degradation, as has been demonstrated by wrapping old celluloid pens in litmus paper. Litmus paper, however, is just an indicator. It doesn't do much of anything to absorb or neutralize free acids. For that, elementary chemistry suggests the use of a mild base, such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) or calcium carbonate (lime). Museum conservators have indeed used calcium carbonate to trap acid gases, but as it turns out, far better options are available.

For pen storage, the best choice seems to be SPZ-grade zeolite, and in particular, MicroChamber papers. These papers are impregnated with high-absorption zeolite with an alkaline buffer, and can be used to line pen storage areas or to wrap individual pens. Standard-sized interleaving paper costs under $0.25 per 6.5 x 10.125 inch sheet, and can be bought through Amazon or directly from the manufacturer. Studies going back over twenty years show that these acid-trapping papers outperform calcium carbonate dramatically, both in thoroughness of acid capture and neutralization, and in retaining the ability to trap and hold acids and other atmospheric pollutants over time (see Siegfried Rempel, "Zeolite Molecular Traps And Their Use In Preventative Conservation" (Western Association for Art Conservation Newsletter, January 1996), Getty Conservation Institute, "Performance of Pollutant Adsorbents (2001-2003)", and the Conservation Resources website). I now have MicroChamber paper lining most of my pen and parts storage areas, supplemented by silica gel canisters to absorb excess humidity. Though standard-sized paper is what I have, 14-inch paper is required if you want to pleat it around the dividing ridges of a standard 12-pen slotter box. Finally, I have no financial stake in any of these products -- I am using them because all the sources I could find indicate that they offer the best protection option (noting that activated carbon filters are of comparable merit, though much bulkier).

NOTE: There are MicroChamber papers that also incorporate activated carbon. And as a Facebook commenter noted, one can also place strips of MicroChamber paper *inside* celluloid pens for additional protection -- though if the pen is to be used regularly, the paper will have to be cut and shaped carefully so as not to interfere with the filling mechanism. The greatest benefits would be with button-fillers and other pens with barrels that are tightly sealed.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Inner cap repair: adding a washer

Nearly every fountain pen with a screw-on cap is also equipped with an inner cap. The inner cap is a short tube, usually but not always closed at the top end, which seals off the nib when the pen is capped. The inner cap also provides a solid stop when screwing the cap in place, the section face ending up pressed firmly against the mouth of the inner cap. The inner cap often also serves to hold the clip in place, as is the case with the Wahl pen shown in the cutaway view above.

A damaged or distorted inner cap is easily overlooked, but can cause real problems. When an inner cap leaks or does not seal against the section, the nib may dry out and not write promptly when put to paper, while ink may make its way around the interior of the cap and onto the section and barrel. If the face of the inner cap is not square to the cap's axis, the cap will not sit straight on the barrel when screwed in place. And if the inner cap is too short or entirely missing, it may be possible to screw on the cap too far. This risks both splitting the cap if it is turned beyond where the threads end, and destroying the nib by bottoming it out against the inside of the cap top.

Since inner cap problems are so easily overlooked, and since they so often require a lathe to remedy, many dealers don't bother addressing them. We do; a recent example is shown below.

The pen is a British-made Mabie Todd Jackdaw, an economy-line model that ended up in Spain, where it was fitted with an elaborate Toledo-work overlay. Top-line makers such as Mabie Todd made sure that their pens' inner caps were problem-free, but in this case the maker of the overlay wasn't quite so careful.

The pen came to us unused, yet I immediately noticed that the exposed hard rubber cap lip appeared to bottom out against the shoulder of the barrel overlay, which is quite thick. If this was indeed the case, twisting the cap on tightly would compress and could crack the cap lip. And if the cap wasn't being stopped by the section coming to rest against the inner cap, as it should, there would be a gap there instead and no seal. But what if the overlay had been perfectly placed so that contact was made in both places simultaneously -- section and inner cap, cap lip and overlay? A quick measurement with the sliding depth gauge I use to ensure sufficient nib clearance was not decisive. If the contacts weren't simultaneous, they were very close

Next step was to back out the section a couple of millimeters, then to screw the cap all the way on so that the inner cap pushed the section into the barrel. Sure enough, there was a gap of just .025 inches. The cap lip was taking all the pressure, just as I had suspected.

What to do? The barrel overlay could not be moved, for its lever cutout was aligned with the recess in the barrel under the end of the lever. Instead, the inner cap would have to be extended. A washer was cut from hard rubber, inner and outer diameters matching those of the inner cap, .030 inches thick. It was warmed and then pressed into position against the inner cap's outer face.

The cap now seats on the inner cap, and not on the cap lip. There is virtually no change in exterior appearance, as the cap lip clears the barrel overlay by mere thousandths of an inch.