Thursday, October 12, 2017

Tracking the rise of the self-filling fountain pen

Google's Ngram Viewer is a powerful tool for evaluating the popularity of words and phrases over time. Here are the results for "self-filler", which neatly illustrate the triumph of the self-filling fountain pen over the dropper-filler in the English-speaking world in the first decades of the 20th century:

The transition peaks between 1915 and 1920, then rapidly falls off as self-filling pens become the new norm.

The dropoff is more pronounced in the second chart immediately above, which is limited to American English sources. This is not a surprise, inasmuch as British penmakers continued to emphasize self-filling in both model names and advertising later than their American counterparts.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Waterman "Gentleman's Set"

Belatedly digging through newly-digitized volumes of The American Stationer, I came across this fantastic item -- a specially-packaged set written up in the November 15, 1902 issue (p. 6).

As noted in the accompanying text, the set comprises a black 14 with gold filled barrel bands, a mottled 14, and a silver 224 half-overlay taper cap. The special leather case -- I've never seen an actual example -- added $2 to the price of the ensemble.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Yet more American Stationer issues digitized

Mike Kennedy just informed me that volume 47 of The American Stationer is now viewable online. Looking more closely, I realized that several volumes in the same sequence were all digitized at Columbia University in late July, and are now being added one by one to Google Books. Right now one can see the listing and a partial table of contents. Within the next few weeks, however, full-text access should be available. I've gone ahead and listed the new volumes in the master list, noting that full viewability is still pending.

UPDATE: As I deduced, all of the newly digitized volumes (51-56) are now available in full text (Aug 21, 2017).

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Geyer's Stationer list update

Mike Kennedy recently brought to my attention two volumes of Geyer's Stationer not listed in our directory of issues available online: volumes 51 and 63, from 1911 and 1917. I have just updated the directory, also adding in links to the HathiTrust copies. In all cases but one, the same volumes, from the same repositories, are available through both Google Books and HathiTrust.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The introduction of Waterman's "Spoon Feed"

Waterman's original feed was narrow, just wide enough to carry the grooved ink channel. It was protected by US patent 293545, issued on February 12, 1884 with a term of 17 years and thus due to expire on February 12, 1901. So it made sense that the successor design, the wider Spoon Feed, would have been introduced in 1901 -- as per the conventional wisdom -- even though it had already been patented a few years earlier (US625722, filed August 24, 1898, issued May 23, 1899). But pinning down an exact date wasn't easy. Waterman often introduced new models or features well before advertising them, and the application for the Spoon Feed trademark (37530, filed April 27, 1901, registered December 31, 1901) claimed use since August 1, 1900. And yet a Google Books search for "Waterman" and "spoon feed" from 1899-1900 yields no hits at all, while an ad in Scribner's Magazine Advertiser, vol. 29, 1901, p. 59, suggests an introduction at the very beginning of 1901:
"Most bookkeepers and stenographers have used Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pens for years. After January 1st, 1901, you will not be up-to-date without one, since our new Spoon Feed brings them to absolute perfection for professional writers."
Even this mention is less than authoritative, though, inasmuch as it appears in a spring advertising supplement that is undated, but full of ads for summer cruises and the like, and bound messily with tables of contents for issues up to July 1901. Another early mention is found in a different spring advertising supplement, this one in McClure's (vol. 16, no. 6, p. 109):
"Painting the Lily and improving the Waterman Feed seem equally absurd. Yet Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen is now furnished with a new Spoon Feed which is better than the old."
This also can only be dated indirectly, including as it does an ad on p. 20 for the Pan-American Exhibition, which ran from May to November of 1901. Otherwise, the only securely datable ads that I was ever able to find mentioned the Spoon Feed date no earlier than May (Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, vol. 52, May 1901).

The material cited so far was assembled some time ago. But now with the recent digitization of the key issues of The American Stationer spanning the years 1900 to 1901, the longstanding question of when and how Waterman introduced its "Spoon Feed" can finally be answered. As it turns out, an unexpected factor in the rollout appears to have been the rivalry with Parker, which had taken its most recent ugly turn with litigation arising from Waterman's attempt to enforce its limited and rather questionable patent on a slip-cap (US604690). That Waterman was engaging in serious lawfare is in no doubt, with the extent nicely illustrated by this entry (August 10, 1901, p. 23 -- oh, to have access to those twelve volumes now!):

At the Philadelphia Export Exhibition in fall of 1899, Waterman had served papers on a Parker exhibitor for a claim of patent infringement. The wrangling lasted until March 1901: Parker's lawyers objected and the service was ruled invalid; Waterman appealed, but lost again (American Stationer, Oct 13, 1900, p. 34; Mar 30, 1901, p. 11). Meanwhile, Parker struck back with ads in July 1900 that openly taunted Waterman over their respective cap patent claims (July 7, 1900, p. 16; also July 14, p. 16):

The taunting took on a new twist in the American Stationer of January 12, 1901, with a series of Parker ads that touted the Jointless as not being "covered with EXPIRED patents" (p. 7; also January 19, 26, Feb 2, all p. 7; the January 5 ad lacks the dig).

The week after the last of the above ads ran, the gloves came off. What had been alluded to was now spelled out in black and white. It was a barefaced attack, without even the pretense of being part of advertising Parker's own products.

These ads ran for three weeks, starting February 9, in Parker's usual spot on p. 7. Waterman's response was immediate, with their front cover ad in the next issue (February 16) formally announcing the Spoon Feed, noting that "Most of our customers have seen this successful invention, since it has already been offered in our special bookkeepers' and stenographers' pens".

Further mention of the new feed appeared inside the same issue (p. 23), as part of a report on a recent Waterman's publicity coup in which each guest at a dinner of the Stationers' Board of Trade was given a gold-mounted fountain pen (that is, with gold filled trim bands).

Reading between the lines, it seems as if the transition from the old feed to the new feed was intended to be gradual, but the company ended up scrambling to speed up the changeover. And though the professed reason was market demand, the threat of Parker trumpeting the expiry of the patent and the implicit obsolescence of the old feed to the general public (the salvos above were in a trade journal) surely weighed heavily in Waterman's decision to kill off the old feed sooner rather than later. This is consistent with the account below -- all mention of patent status discreetly omitted -- published once the dust had settled, in the American Stationer of August 17, 1901, p. 62:

The key passages include: "Early in the spring of the present year [1901] they started to introduce their new spoon feed", "the company supposed it would be nearly a year before a complete change in their output would be necessary", "in two months they were almost swamped", and "now . . . the plant has been entirely changed over".

It would seem then that the August 1, 1900 "first use" date for "Spoon Feed" in Waterman's trademark application would represent the beginning of market testing, which according to the earliest ads began with pens for bookkeepers and stenographers -- long and slender models, presumably. The switchover for other models would have been underway by early 1901, but drastically accelerated in mid-February, old feed production being phased out over the next few months, ending by mid-August at the very latest.

Miscellaneous Waterman notes from The American Stationer, 1900-1901

The newly-digitized volumes of The American Stationer, covering mid-1900 to the end of 1901, are of particular interest for the history of Waterman. What they tell about the introduction of the Spoon Feed is dealt with in a separate post; below are some more scattered notes and observations.

The September 15, 1900 issue has an entry on the Paris Exhibition on p. 8, with a fine illustration of the Waterman stand, shown below.

The scan of the September 1, 1900 cover is interesting, though a bit of a mess. It announces Waterman's receipt of a gold medal at Paris, showing a Waterman 14 closed, open, disassembled, and in section. The old narrow feed is clearly shown.

In the September 29, 1900 issue, p. 34, there is a description of a new colored enamel and plush easel display card, shown above. The pen to be shown would be held by clips on the left panel. I don't recall having seen an actual example, so if you have one and can share a photo, please let me know.
In the November 24, 1900 issue, p. 16, there is an account of a visit to Waterman's New York store, and specifically of the large number of silver items available for sale, and not just pens. Singled out for mention is the silver chatelaine shown above, with notepad and magic pencil as well as the case to hold a fountain pen. This ensemble is the same one shown in the back of the Waterman 1902 catalog (available through the PCA Reference Library), but I would bet that few Waterman collectors recall its presence. The magic pencil was likely sourced from Aikin Lambert; the other silver bits could have been as well, though there would have been no shortage of potential suppliers in that era.

Not illustrated, but there is mention of the release of a new Waterman catalog in the April 13, 1901 issue, p. 4. It had 24 pages, with a maroon cover printed in black, green, and gold.

Remex was a Waterman sub-brand, mentioned twice in the newly digitized volumes (July 13, 1901, p. 18; November 2, 1901, p. 24, below), yet in neither case identified as a Waterman product. Instead, the New York News Company is listed as the distributor.

In the May 4, 1901, Lewis E. Waterman's death notice appears on p. 21. It is strikingly brief. The usual Waterman ad on the front cover of the next issue, dated May 11, is replaced by the spare memorial shown below.

It may be that L. E. Waterman was by then so well-known as not to require any further encomia. Nonetheless, it is striking that aside from these two notices, nothing else marking Waterman's death appears in the pages of The American Stationer. The Waterman ads continue as usual, as do the mentions of the company in reports on the trade.

More American Stationer issues now available online

The availability of digitized copies of The American Stationer has revolutionized writing history research over the past several years; I compiled a full list here, with notes. Unfortunately, there are still quite a few gaps -- for my interests, the most frustrating being the key years 1898 to 1905. So it was good news indeed when a fellow researcher tipped me off that there might be some more volumes now available. And sure enough, there are three which were digitized June 27-28 and which can now be viewed on Google Books. They have already been added to the full list, but I have also listed them below for your convenience.

Jul-Dec 1900 (vol. 48) Google
Jan-Jun 1901 (vol. 49) Google
Jul-Dec 1901 (vol. 50) Google

These years are an important time for fountain pen history. I have only had a limited time to look through these "new" volumes, yet they have already answered longstanding questions about Waterman's introduction of the "Spoon Feed" (treated in full in a separate post; other Waterman tidbits are noted here). Some other highlights noted so far are listed below.

In the December 15, 1900 issue (p. 23) there is a notice about the John Holland factory, noting recent improvements and describing its operations. Although brief, this mention suggests that Holland may have been one of the few fountain pen companies making its own metal overlays, for it states that all branches of manufacture were being done there, including "metal rolling" and "the most elaborate embellishment with gold and silver".

In the July 14, 1900 issue (p. 26) there is a report on Adams, Cushing & Foster taking over control of the Moore Non-Leakable from the American Fountain Pen Co., with former manager and proprietor W. F. Cushman kept on as manager. There are several ads showing the early short-cap Moores, an example of which is found on p. 26 of the September 1, 1900 issue with the tag line, "Our new pen for 1900 is a beauty". Full-page ads appear on March 16, 1901 (p. 45) and August 17, 1901 (p. 77), both preceded by full-page ads for Cross fountain pens and stylographic pens -- also controlled by Adams, Cushing & Foster.

One of the most heavily-advertised pens in these volumes is one most collectors have never heard of, the Laughlin New Departure. The full-page ad below ran in the August 17, 1901 issue, p. 69:

Smaller ads ran in every issue, along with notices on December 7 (p. 27) and 21 (p. 18) regarding the issuing of US patent 686920 on November 19, 1901 for the New Departure's jointless design featuring a removable feed. The patentee was Joseph F. Betzler, with James W. Laughlin the assignor.

Wirt collectors will appreciate the following notice that ran on April 6, 1901, p. 21:
The Paul E. Wirt Fountain Pen Company have a handsome new booklet out showing the most extensive line of fountain pens ever manufactured. Radical changes have been made in the general style of the cases, and since January 1, 1901, full-heel pens have been substituted for the old cut-heel. They report their March trade the largest in the history of the business, working the factory overtime, and in the assembling department a night corps has been employed. The popularity of the Wirt pen seems unabated.
A bit of Wirt exotica is illustrated in section on August 17, 1901, p. 10: the so-called "swelled-case" pen (I don't think I've ever seen an actual example). Alongside is a picture of a Wirt tabletop display case I have seen in real life, with glass panels front and back, wood frame and side struts. Interestingly, the very same case but differently branded appears elsewhere in a full-page John Holland ad (September 28, 1901, p. 21).

In the April 6, 1901 issue, p. 21, there are two full columns reporting on Frazer & Geyer's new factory on Thames St., which was due to be operational in ten days. Gold nib manufacture is mentioned, along with the acquisition of the Horton safety and associated machinery.

Finally, there are ads from companies that supplied gold nibs to fountain pen makers: Armeny & Marion (July 7, 1900, p. 25) and Diamond Point (August 17, 1901, p. 56), reminding us that most pen manufacturers of the era, even the most prominent, relied wholly or partially on outside suppliers for nibs.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The extraction of lever-filler pressure bars

While most pen repair techniques have been given at least basic treatment online or in print, there is still next to nothing publicly available on how to remove a spring-loaded pressure bar from a lever-filler. What is to be found is generally either unhelpful or dangerous: pulling on the long end runs an unacceptably high risk of breaking off the short end (a risk that increases rapidly with the age of the pressure bar, with old one-piece "J-bars" being almost certain casualties), while pulling on the short end is often impossible, as its end has dug itself into the barrel wall and cannot be grabbed.

Dislodging the short end is nonetheless the key to safe pressure bar removal. This is best not done dry, since there is usually accumulated dirt, corrosion, and ink residue present. A little naphtha applied to the short end with a long-necked applicator will make things much easier. The short end must then be lifted slightly off the barrel wall to break its bond, and to free its end from any furrow it has gouged there. This generally cannot be done by approaching it from the front; instead, a piece of wire bent into a right-angled hook at the end can be used to apply pressure from the back.

As shown above, there is enough clearance to the side to insert the wire with the hooked end vertical. It is then rotated, placing the the hook behind and at the bottom of the short end. This will work even with a flat-bottomed barrel with the pressure bar pushed all the way against the barrel's end. Once it is in position, pulling on the hook will lift the short end while dragging it forward. Sometimes this will be enough to carry the pressure bar forward a substantial distance, but more often the hook will pass under the short end with an audible snap, dislodging it only partially. Not to worry, though -- you are almost there! Clamp the barrel in a padded vise so you can use both hands. Put the hook back into place, this time also grabbing hold of the long end of the pressure bar (locking hemostats are ideal). Now pull the hook a short distance, just far enough to lift the short end so it doesn't dig into the barrel wall. Then, holding both hook and hemostats together so as to maintain their relative position, pull them and the pressure bar the rest of the way out of the barrel.

Another tool that is even easier to use, albeit not always suitable, can be made by flattening the end of a piece of spring wire into the form of a gently curved, round-ended chisel. Once inserted under the short end as shown above, the long end can safely be pulled to extract the pressure bar, the short end riding smoothly atop the steel wire. This tool works best when the short end of the pressure bar is wide and flat, leaving a gap between its bottom and the curve of the barrel, or in those unusual cases where the short end terminates with an upwards bend. It does not work at all well when the short end is narrow, thin, or otherwise shaped to made it hard to dig under.

An alternative technique is to use the hooked wire to lift the short end just enough that the chisel-ended wire can be pushed in place. In this case the hook is not pulled through the rest of the way, but is then pushed back, turned, and withdrawn. The pressure bar can then be extracted by pulling on its long end as described above.

The tools described here are shown below. Hooks of different sizes can be handy: small hooks are necessary when clearances are tight, but a hook that is too short can slip out of place when there is more room and may end up lifting the short end unevenly. Basic instructions on heat-treating hobby-shop music wire can be found here.

Note that the methods discussed apply only to pressure bars held in place by a simple bent end. Bars that are anchored by C-shaped metal split rings as shown below require a different approach, in which pulling on the long end must be avoided entirely.

Finally, a point of terminology: the term "J-bar" is an old one with a specific and still-useful meaning, denoting a cheap one-piece pressure bar of the sort seen at bottom and center below.  Two-piece sprung bars of the sort shown on top were not called J-bars -- at the time, they were consistently referred to as "pressure bars".

NOTE: The discussion here is deliberately restricted to the use of tools that can be easily acquired or made. For while I have also designed more sophisticated tools (which I may yet have commercially manufactured), there is a special elegance to a minimalist solution.

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 newspaper, 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, and removed in the same way.

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