Thursday, July 11, 2019

Unbranded pens: a French case study






The number of companies that made pens was considerably smaller than the number of companies that sold them. Many pen retailers did no manufacturing at all, relying instead upon contract manufacture. This is neatly illustrated by the group of French safety pens from the 1920s shown above, all but four unimprinted. The imprints all differ, though the pens themselves are otherwise identical.





Only one pen in the lot retains its original warranted 18K nib. It is an unmarked pen, shown below. Who was the actual maker? I don't know -- but I do know that it will be interesting to see what pen history sleuths will be able to find out in the years ahead about all the behind-the-scenes arrangements between makers and sellers. 





Sunday, April 7, 2019

Shellac on sections


The above passage is to be found in the July 1919 issue of Parkergrams, a Parker publication for dealers. By all evidence, this was standard practice for the era -- and for many modern-day repairers, remains so. Although some now advocate omitting the shellac, there are further reasons for using it that should be borne in mind. A shellac-sealed barrel-section joint must be warmed to be opened, which greatly reduces the brittleness of the parts and the risk of breakage in disassembly and reassembly. If the joint is not threaded, shellac reduces the risk of breakage in use, as the bond evenly distributes the stress of writing pressure across the entire section-barrel contact area. Without shellac, the stress is concentrated at the top front edge of the barrel mouth. Shellac also acts as a seal, preventing ingress of ink into the section-barrel joint should the pen be dipped too deeply into the ink bottle when being filled.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A pristine 1920s Aikin Lambert


Totally mint pens from the 1920s don't turn up often, and it is a certainty that as time passes we will be seeing far fewer. So when I acquired this mid-1920s Aikin Lambert in red hard rubber, I knew I would want to document how I found it, fresh from the wild.


One detail I especially wanted to record was the orientation of the lever. Most of us line up the lever with the top of the nib when reassembling a pen after sac replacement. As shown above, this pen was set up rather differently, either at the factory or at the dealer's where the owner's name was engraved.


The nib is a #2, though the cap and the barrel are #5-size. This pen dates to a time when Aikin Lambert was essentially a Waterman sub-brand, and appears to make use of Waterman parts that may not all have passed inspection for assembly into Waterman-branded pens.


In the case of the cap, there is a pinprick flaw in the material of the lip: what appears to be an inclusion, perhaps a speck of pigment or a grain of ground ebonite that wasn't ground quite all the way to dust before being mixed into the "dough" prior to vulcanization.


The pen showed no sign of having ever been inked. The red hard rubber feed was spotless inside and out, as was the interior of the cap. So we can be confident that the hardened sac found inside was original and factory-installed. Note the typical ribbed exterior and longitudinal seams, indicating that the sac was made in a multi-part mold, and not made by dipping.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A 1947 snapshot of the German fountain pen industry


At the most recent Madrid pen show Duncan Sewell was selling reprints of a most interesting British government publication. Titled simply "German Fountain Pen Industry", this is a 29-page report published in 1947 by the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee (B.I.O.S. Final Report No. 911, Item No. 35). This particular reprint is of a copy bearing the library stamp of The Institute of Mechanical Engineers, dated 20 Jan 1947, indicating publication at the very beginning of the year and compilation the year(s) previous. The report is not unknown, as there is an Open Library record for it, as well as a listing on the Books About Pens site, but as far as I can see there is no online access to digitized copies at this time.

The report is one of many that came out of the Allies' attempts to assess and manage the situation in occupied Germany. There is clear concern for getting German factories back to work, but the report openly puts Britain's interests first, both in protecting British penmakers' market share and access to raw materials, and in copying private German commercial technology for the benefit of the British pen industry. On page seven, in fact, there is a list of proprietary machine tools to be taken back to the UK for study, basically as spoils of war.

Given the constraints of time and access (the inspectors were only able to work in the British Zone, though they attempted a visit to the US Zone, which included among others Kaweco, Osmia, and Merz & Krell) the report is of limited scope and detail, but there are some noteworthy bits of information to be found. Some that I found especially interesting follow.

The inspectors found that prewar German penmaking capacity was mostly ("at least 80%") intact, but at "a complete standstill" due to lack of raw materials, celluloid in particular. In contrast to what had happened in the USA during the war, where pen factories shifted production capacity from pens and pencils to war materiel -- typically precision parts for fuses, bombsights, and the like -- the German government had largely kept its penmakers making pens:
"During the war period the industry worked to maximum capacity producing Pens as it was considered to be an essential Export, by reason of its high price; the small amount of material used and minimum amount of freightage involved.

The main Export markets were Sweden, Switzerland and The Balkans. Incidentally, if gold nibs were required, gold was supplied by the importing country."

Pen collectors have generally assumed that the withdrawal of gold nibs from the German market in 1938 meant that German penmakers stopped making gold nibs then. For export sales, however, this did not apply.

How many pens were the German penmakers turning out in this era, and prior to the war? The inspectors estimated production capacity in the British Zone to be something like twice as great as demand in the same zone. Planned output as directed by occupation authorities was to be 207,000 pens and 30,000 pencils per month, with full capacity of the industry within the British Zone at least twice that.

The report notes that most of the large firms were fully self-sufficient, while the smaller firms typically relied on specialist subcontractors in Hamburg or Pforzheim for metal parts. Celluloid tubing was identified as the main raw material used, and it was further noted that before the war the British pen industry had imported "a considerable amount" of the tubing that they used from Germany, which was also the principal exporter of celluloid to Britain. This was of particular concern, since the inspectors reported that after the war there was only one British supplier of celluloid tubing, B.X. Plastics, whose capacity was insufficient to meet British demand.

According to the inspectors, the German penmakers also made wide use of clear polystyrene tubing for ink windows, solvent-welding it to celluloid tubing as required. Rolled gold (gold filled) trim was not available at the time, only plated. The 1938 restriction on gold nibs had not been lifted, and at the time of the report still only steel was permitted.

It was recommended that a portion of German celluloid production be allocated to the UK, and that German pen export be restricted until the British pen industry had recovered. The suggestion was also put forward that export of German steel nibs to Britain be considered for use in lower-end pens, given the acute shortage of gold nibs in the UK, and that German pencil mechanisms be exported to Britain to be made into pencils for export.

One gets the impression that the report was written by men with long practical experience in the pen industry, rather than by professional administrators or academics. Capitalization is rather haphazard, and no allowance is made for foreign tastes -- though the high quality and precision of German manufacture is duly acknowledged throughout (at least for the top brands). For example, in the introduction, regarding German pens and pencils in general (p. 6):
"In the main, both Pens and Pencils are of clumsy design and inferior to United Kingdom designs"
In the section on Montblanc (p. 12):
"The products of this factory, whilst being rather inferior in external design, were of high quality and workmanship. A system of floor inspection exists, and rigid tolerances in dimensions and finish appear to be the rule."
And in the section on Pelikan (p. 17):
"In respect of design, the products of this factory are not up to the standard of either U.K. or U.S.A. Fountain Pens and Propelling Pencils, but the quality of workmanship and finish is of the highest order."
The inspectors also tended to focus on techniques and tools that differed from British practice, and so did not bother to describe manufacturing methods shared by German and British makers -- however interesting and useful that might have been to us now. And even when methods are discussed, it is often in the briefest of terms. For example, Montblanc's method of tipping nibs was noted as being of particular interest, yet without description of that method. A little more can be gleaned from the comments on Pelikan's nib operation, where it is stated that their electric welding of nib tips closely resembled the practice at Montblanc, and entailed the use of a "simple carbon block (negative) with a flexible carbon finger to complete the circuit". But this is still far from enough to reconstruct the full operation in any detail. One tidbit that is comprehensible, if phrased in decidedly nonmodern terms, is that "much thread cutting was done by stone" at Pelikan -- which is to say, threads were cut by grinding, rather than by dies or single-point on a lathe. The inspectors also took an interest in the common German practice of black lacquering of components, especially barrels. They recorded that at Montblanc both spraying and immersion was used, with hot air to speed drying, and at Pelikan they requisitioned the formula and samples of the cellulose solution used to blacken the grip section of one-piece transparent barrels.

Of course the report noted war damage. Montblanc's factory was described as about 50,000 square feet of which 60% was usable, the rest war-damaged. Wartime production was 66% pens and pencils for export and 34% small metal screws for applications unknown to Montblanc. Pelikan's factory was recorded as having received blast damage only, and had not been used for war production -- perhaps in part because of their larger degree of automation in production and corresponding reliance upon purpose-built machines. Soennecken was described as making only steel dip pen nibs and office equipment, with no production of either fountain pens or mechanical pencils. 30% of their building was out of service from fire damage

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Yet another eBay scam

When buying pens online, most buyers know to be wary of items coming from certain countries known as hotbeds of counterfeiting and scammery. Dishonest sellers in those countries are now getting around this by falsely stating that they are located in other places, places less likely to arouse suspicion. An ongoing thread in a Fountain Pen Network forum tells of a limited edition Montblanc from a seller registered in Boardman, Oregon, which ended up being shipped to the US buyer from China -- with tracking information that made it appear as if the pen was being sent from Germany.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Peter Miller's reproduction pen trays

Many reproductions aren't made to deceive. Nonetheless, as time goes by and they acquire a bit of wear and age, they can end up mistaken for originals. I've noticed this beginning to happen with the pen trays originally made and sold by the late Peter Miller, an example of which is shown below.


Peter's trays were ubiquitous for a couple of decades, starting at the end of the 1980s. Nearly every pen collector owned a few. They came with either Parker or Waterman labels (nicely printed on plastic strips, the Waterman version with shiny gold letters on black), and in various configurations -- most common variations upon the basic single tray shown above being double-wide and over-under (two trays in one double-height frame). The felt color also varied, with green and red by far the most common. Since original trays were scarce and expensive, these attractive repros were understandably popular -- so much so, that they are immediately recognizable to anyone who was active in pen collecting during their heyday.


For those who aren't so familiar with the look of Peter's trays, a glance at their corners and their backs should be enough to distinguish them from originals. Their wood frames are assembled with simple butted joints at the corners, whereas original trays were made with finger joints, as seen below.


The bottoms of the repro trays are closed up with a rectangle of stiff cardboard held in place by wooden stringers, small tacks, and a blobby application of hot glue. As these trays were never meant to deceive, no effort was made to hide their method of construction -- which is decidedly modern, and a bit slapdash. Older trays are also less than highly finished on their undersides, but even those using similar construction do not generally have the wooden stringers, and the cardboard or wood closure sheet will show more signs of age.


In addition, the labels used on the repros are printed on much thinner stock than was used for originals -- more like thick tape than plastic sheet -- with the gold of the Waterman label much more reflective than anything available in the early 20th century. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to have stamped these on the back with the maker's name and "REPRODUCTION". At the time, though, the pen community was small and Peter's trays were so familiar that no one thought about the possibility of confusion in years to come.

PS Peter Miller's display tray and case manufacturing operation was eventually passed along to David Tallant (I can't recall the timing, but I think it was while Peter was still alive). While it is possible that these products are still being made on a small scale upon request, they have not been offered new for many years now, neither at pen shows, nor online.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Fake alert: advertising signs from India

Many pen collectors also collect pen-related material, such as point of sale displays and advertising. For the most part, the market for such material has been too small and too low-dollar to attract much interest from fakers. The exception is porcelain enamel signs, where a voracious, high-dollar market for original signs advertising automobilia, Coca Cola, etc has given rise to industrial scale manufacture of reproductions -- with the manufacturers now turning out signs with a narrower market as well, including pen signs. The most commonly seen are for Waterman, with the great majority coming out of India.


The sign above is typical, and has been offered repeatedly on eBay by Indian sellers. They usually have been banged up a bit so they don't look quite as new as they actually are. Unfortunately, eBay doesn't seem to be doing anything to crack down on what is now a veritable deluge of fake porcelain signs. You can get some indication of the magnitude of the fakery by this Pinterest post, which points out no less than 303 examples. There's also no shortage of sites and forum posts discussing the problem and proffering advice. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to identify a repro without having a genuine example for comparison. In the case of the sign above, I happen to have an example of the original that served as its model, so it is comparatively easy to see that the letters are sloppily shaped on the repro.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Fake vintage pens on eBay

Over the past few months there have been an increasing number of posts on Facebook regarding fake pens on eBay. Many of these discussions are in pen groups that require membership, and so are easily overlooked by the general public. This blog can be read by all, so I'll go ahead and pass along some of the warnings. Please note that when I write that an item is fake or being misrepresented, it is a statement of opinion -- but an expert one, that I am willing to stand behind. Whether the seller offering the piece is doing so knowingly is another matter. Regarding this, you can draw your own conclusions. Note that some sellers of fakes maintain a 100% positive feedback rating with eBay. Often this is because the fakes are so obvious that those who recognize them for what they are simply don't bid or buy -- and only buyers can leave feedback. In other cases, the buyers have only come to realize what they bought months or years later, too late to give feedback. Reports from nonbidders to eBay that an item is fake seem to fall upon deaf ears. It seems eBay takes the position that it's the word of one person (or more) against another's, rather than if there's smoke, there's likely fire.

One of the most prolific and brazen purveyors of fake and misrepresented pens is the seller known as thisol*house, operating out of a Post Office Box address in Randleman, North Carolina. While some of his pens seem OK, buyers have reported overgrading and failure to disclose damage, and his standard description claims that his pens come from his own private collection -- even though many over the years have been seen to have been purchased by him on eBay just weeks before. The real problem pens from this seller, however, tend to be early (or early-style) pens with fancy metal or pearl-slab overlays, such as this "Holland":


The pearl barrel is unlike anything ever seen on any vintage pen, and is surely taken from another sort of object -- most likely a parasol handle or lorgnette holder. The bulbous metal end piece on the cap is also unlike anything genuine, and likewise has been harvested from some other item. The nib is genuine John Holland, but that's a part that costs relatively little. Without handling the pen in person I cannot tell if the cap and barrel parts are old and repurposed or newly made. Others who have bought similar pens from this seller, however, have reported that at least some parts have been fabricated out of modern black plastic, and so poorly that the cap does not fit the barrel without wobbling. Some of his pens have also had sections of a form never seen on any genuine vintage pen, sections which can safely be assumed to have been newly made.


Another misrepresented pen is this so-called "Aikin Lambert":



Once again there is an anomalous end piece on the cap -- I suspect used to cover the end so that the cap can be made out of tube stock, rather than bored out from a solid rod. It's awfully shiny for a genuine hard rubber cap. The barrel may be mostly genuine, but it most certainly isn't Aikin Lambert production. The slabs are wide and sloppily fitted, a giveaway that the pen was a contemporary economy knockoff, of the sort discussed here, still widely available for very little money. Take such a pen, replace its original nib with a name-brand nib, and offer it to the inexperienced as a name-brand pen: that's a bit of dishonesty that unscrupulous sellers have been engaged in for years.


Currently listed on eBay is the glass-nibbed cheapie shown above, "enhanced" with a Montblanc-style star in the cap top and fake Montblanc imprints on cap and barrel. German Montblanc experts are scoffing at this listing, but unsuspecting collectors are bidding on it nonetheless.



The same seller has other so-called "Montblancs" that are equally fake. Bulgaria has been the source for many of these counterfeits, but they have been sold for long enough now that examples routinely turn up in Germany and elsewhere. Note that this seller currently still has 100% positive feedback, and remains active despite multiple complaints from leading German pen experts to eBay (plus at least one message directly to the seller, who can now surely be assumed to be knowing exactly what he is doing).

A further caution: if an eBay seller insists on payment by bank transfer rather than Paypal, you'll have no recourse if you get stuck with a fake, or with nothing at all. Back before Paypal offered buyer protection guarantees, I used to use escrow.com for large purchases when I didn't know the seller. It's still a good option -- and if the seller insists on a bank transfer and won't consent to use it, that's a pretty good indication that you should walk away from the deal.

UPDATE: thisol*house left a comment on this post on May 19, 2018 at 9:49 PM, which he has since deleted -- for good reason, I'd say, which is why I kept a copy. Here it is, verbatim:
Hello David. I hope this find you well. I sell vintage pens on ebay under the ID: thisol*house. Question: Would you rather... have a fancy, restored, classic Corvette that looks like a show car and roars like a tiger... or an all original classic Corvette that just sits in the garage and can't drive anything around except your pathetic ego? While I understand that there are some who advocate for leaving a pen all original, some who, strangely, actually appreciate 125 years of oxidation and gunk buildup on an otherwise useless object (and you people are weird), surprisingly, there are actually quite a few folk who enjoy their pens being Beautiful and, get this, FUNCTIONAL! Your blog makes some incorrect assumptions and conclusions that I would like to clear up for those interested. Every pen I sell is clearly stated as restored; having been disassembled, cleaned, polished, reassembled, re-polished, serviced, tested and presented (with excellent details and photographs) ready for your favorite ink! I have the excellent feedback that I do because my pens are FABULOUS writing instruments. YES, hard rubber CAN be polished to a mirror shine, with effort, care and love for the instrument (and proper surface preparation, namely 2500 grit sandpaper). Calling a refurbished pen a "fake" is like saying..."that looks like a Mustang, but Ford never used that color, so it must be a fake car." Changing a gold band or damaged nib section, or removing and replacing missing/damaged/cracked pearl panels, does NOT make a pen "fake". And by the way, John Holland nibs do NOT cost "relatively little." These fantastic 140 year old noodle nibs are almost impossible to find with good tipping, then the tipping must be smoothed, then the nib polished and properly mounted with an adequate vintage feed. Several COMPETING EBAY SELLERS have attacked the credibility of my pen business. Instead, maybe they should extend their efforts to examining my business model to try to improve their own businesses. I have 4320 feedback, 100% positive feedback (not counting one neg from competitive pen seller Susan Bowen from Texas, who REFUSED to return the $555 John Holland pearl pen, because it was BEAUTIFUL and wrote like a DREAM!). I offer a 100% Buyer Satisfaction Guarantee on EVERY pen I sell, which I ALWAYS stand behind, but is very rarely needed. Returns are ALWAYS accepted. I don't even ask for a reason. I even pay return shipping. AND, I produce professionally restored, vintage pens that make handwriting once again a JOY! Yes, maybe the competition could try a little customer service and caring for their customers needs... encouraging new collectors instead of berating them for asking how to fill a cartridge pen. Pen folk were once a noble breed, but like everything else, the world is changing. I have enjoyed the thousands of hours spent restoring my pens over the years, and YES, if they went across my workbench two weeks ago or two decades ago, they ARE from my personal collection! Yes... 40 years, and they're almost all gone now... and I have no reservations in saving... I'm glad I sold my collection.
Incidentally, the mention of Susan Bowen actually refers to Glen Bowen, veteran collector, author, and founder of Pen World magazine. Glen bought one of thisol*house's fakes to get a hands-on look, and to see exactly what it was and how it was put together.

UPDATE, 29 Dec 2018: The thisol*house account has been quiet for several months now, but the same seller is still very much active on eBay under his secondary username, dowrite2. Most of the pens on offer recently appear genuine; we have not seen any of the complete fakes for some months, though there is the occasional deliberately misleading listing for a flashy but cheaply-made no-name dropper-filler with a name-brand nib stuck in the front -- this "Laughlin" being a recent example. In this case the seller was careful to describe it as a "Laughlin pen" only in the main photo, and not in the title or the text of the description, where it is referred to as an eyedropper with a Laughlin nib.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A special Schnell


Schnell Penselpen combos are uncommon and desirable. I've seen quite a few over the years, but when this example turned up, I couldn't recall having seen another in metal (celluloid is the norm). This one is unquestionably correct and original: the barrel opening is made specifically to accommodate the distinctive Schnell slide filler, whose internal retaining ring is soldered in place inside the barrel. The nib is Schnell, as is the feed.



Yet pretty much everything else isn't uniquely Schnell at all. Examined as a whole, the pen clearly came out of the same factory as the metal lever-filler combos most often found branded as Hicks, Edward Todd, and Twinpoint. While the cap threading sometimes varies from brand to brand, the pencil ends are identical and can freely be swapped, while the section profile is distinctive as is the internal construction, with both lever pivots and pressure bar assemblies soldered in place.


The differing thread profiles are visible in the detail above. Interestingly, the longer section is on the shorter ringtop combo, rather than on the slightly longer Edward Todd, which has a clip.


The metal content markings typically use the same block capital lettering, too, along with the unusual use of "PLATE" instead of "GOLD FILLED" or "G.F."

Although proof is still lacking, the likelihood is that Hicks was the actual maker of this group of combos.

ADDENDUM: One of our correspondents formerly owned a similar Schnell in the full-length version with clip. Whether any were made in solid gold or sterling silver remains to be seen.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Charles N. Packard


I recently received a call from an old friend in the estate liquidation business. I hadn't seen him in a few years, and he'd accumulated a number of pens that he thought might be of interest. There were several dip pens in the group, with the largest shown above -- a well-used hard rubber holder, broken and mended, with a #10 Charles N. Packard nib (the small nib, included for scale, is from a Sheaffer Snorkel).

Packard nibs aren't all that common, so it seemed a good excuse to put together some information on their maker. We can start with a couple of obituaries; the one below appeared in the American Stationer, vol. 51, March 29, 1902, p. 27:


Additional details, including Packard's age, were provided by the New England Stationer and Printer, vol. 16, April 1902, p. 82:


According to the official Massachusetts death records, Packard died on March 11, 1902, from "Leucaemia: exhaustion". According to that same entry, he was born in Plainfield, to Royal L. Packard and Mercy Hersey. Packard is recorded in the 1900 census as married and living in Springfield, born in July 1833, and as of June 4, 1900, 66 years old. Other records include that of his marriage to Abbie B. Holmes, 22, on Jan 1, 1857 in Williamsburgh, where Packard is listed as a "Gold Pen Pointer", and of the death of his daughter Helen F. at the age of two months and fifteen days, of cholera, on July 8, 1872.

Despite what some have claimed, I can find no record of Packard ever having lived or worked in New York. There were other Charles Packards living in Massachusetts during our Charles Packard's lifetime, which might explain some of the confusion.