Monday, January 16, 2017

Thomas Addison, pioneer pencil maker


The early history of writing instrument manufacture in America is still a wide open field. Though a few dedicated collector-researchers have compiled lists of the first makers and their patents, we have little detailed information about the key figures of the era. Most died before the advent of the modern biographical obituary, their passings marked only by terse newspaper death notices. Where later mentions are found -- typically in obituaries of former apprentices and employees -- details are notably lacking, and often unreliable.

Thomas Addison was the most important and successful early American pencil-case (mechanical pencil) manufacturer. His patent 736, issued May 10, 1838, is one of the earliest US mechanical pencil patents, and he became prosperous enough to earn an entry in the 1845 edition of Moses Yale Beach's Wealth and Biography of the Wealthy Citizens of New York City (p. 3; the same entry appears on p. 2 of the 1846 edition, while Addison is absent from the 1842 edition):
Addison Thomas .... [$]150,000
A distinguished pencil-case maker; a pioneer in this, and made his money by industry. The present ever-pointed pencil-case was first made by him, and owes its form to his ingenuity.
Addison's estimated worth has increased to $200,000 in the 1855 edition (p. 3), and more details are given:
Addison, Thomas . . . . [$]200,000
Originally of the firm of Wilmarth and Addison, ever pointed pencil makers. They manufactured the ever-pointed pencils which were invented in England by G. Mordan, who held the patent right for the invention, dated May, 1825. After separating from this partnership he carried on a successful trade for many years, became wealthy, and is now retired from business.
It is a long jump from there to a contemporary biographical entry (History of Bergen and Passaic Counties, New Jersey, 1882, p. 255) for John Mabie (1819-1892), which states that he spent 8 years and four months as "an apprentice in the manufacture of gold-pencil cases with Thomas Addison, the first man to engage in that business in this country", starting at the age of 12 -- thus between Jun 19, 1831 and Jun 18, 1832. Addison may have been a founding father of American pencil-case and pen-case (portable dip pen) manufacture, but any further information about his life and career we will now have to dig out from contemporary records and notices. What follows is necessarily but a first step -- to be amended and amplified as more records are found.

A selection of Addison pencils. Another group can be viewed here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

An unusual Fairchild combo


The Fairchild combination dip pen and pencil shown above recently came to us from the wild. The seller described it as a pencil and was apparently unaware that it also had a nib -- a #6 Fairchild by all appearances original to its holder, still covered with a vivid green ink from its last usage.


Although it appears to be a standard combo with slide-out nib, twist-out pencil nozzle, and pull-out extension taper, inside there is the mechanism from a magic pencil. Pull the end knob, and the nozzle extends. Once the nozzle is fully extended, the taper can then be pulled out to its full length. Push the end knob in, and the nozzle retracts back into the barrel.



This isn't all. If the pencil nozzle is extended and the sliding ring is pushed forward to extend the nib, the ring only goes so far before hitting a stop (position shown below), after which further extension of the nib effects automatic retraction of the nozzle.


The end knob unscrews to reveal a lead reservoir, still retaining a few pieces of lead. They measure .048 inches in diameter, noting that the nozzle is clearly marked "8".



The extending taper is marked on opposite sides with the maker's mark and the patent date of September 15, 1874. This refers to US patent 155008, issued to Richard M. Collard. In Jonathan Veley's American Writing Instrument Patents 1799-1910, nine of Collard's writing instrument patents are listed. Four are listed as assigned to Fairchild (287907, 291297, 291879, 300346), but not 155008, which could well have been assigned or licensed without leaving any visible public record. The claims of this patent do not cover the entirety of the construction, only the feature enabling automatic retraction of the nozzle upon extension of the nib, along with some details of internal construction.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

One discovery inside another


Experienced Waterman collectors have long been familiar with the giant mottled hard rubber straight-cap illustrated in Fischler and Schneider’s “Blue Book” (Fountain Pens and Pencils: The Golden Age of Writing Instruments, first ed. 1990), where it was described as significantly larger than all known #8-size straight-caps, and possibly being #10-size. This pen was discovered some 30 years ago, purchased at a California flea market along with a large group of Waterman Ripples. No similar pen has turned up since. The pen remained in the collection of its original finder for many years until being sold to a European collector. The dispersal of that collection several years ago made possible yet another discovery.


The pen was originally found without a nib, and is comparable in size to Watermans that carry a #10 nib at 15.6 cm long, closed, with a cap easily wide enough to accommodate a nib of that size. Nonetheless, the section and feed are clearly sized to hold a #8 nib, not a #10 – not even an early, ventless, example. Nor could the pen be as early as Fischler and Schneider dated it, for the barrel imprint includes the August 4, 1903 patent date, as does the feed. Though it has gone unremarked to date, the feed is unique: neither three-fissure nor spoon feed, it is narrow and rectangular in section, with ink-trapping channels running parallel and on either side of the central feed channel. These ink-trapping channels do not open to the sides, and are only vented to the underside by means of short slots that are almost entirely hidden inside the section; these slots appear to serve the same function as the holes found on the underside of the largest Waterman spoon feeds, where the holes connect to the semicircular side cutouts. This design is otherwise unknown, and does not appear in any Waterman patent – though it is boldly imprinted with the dates for spoon feed patents 625722 and 735659, from 1899 and 1903. As noted in a previous post ("An unusual Waterman feed"), the slots would seem to be most closely connected to Weidlich's US patent 760,829 of 1904. The feed was carefully removed for photography, then replaced in the exact position as found. The ink residue on both section and feed left no doubt that the feed had not previously been removed.


On first examination, a small axial pillar was noted inside the barrel, loosely mounted. Since it was apparent that the posting end was made from a separate piece of hard rubber, I attempted to unscrew it. To my surprise and astonishment, the pen was revealed to be a pump-filler – the “pillar” being the weight-holding shaft, the applied metal weight having disintegrated to powder, as is often seen.


Although the pen is extremely large, the pump itself is not comparably oversized. Instead, the inside diameter of the barrel is reduced at the back by means of an insert – the separate piece probably the result of using tube rather than rod stock for the barrel. The ink residue again indicated a pen untouched for decades. One final anomaly is the barrel imprint, which is upside down when the pen is held in the right hand in writing position. I have seen only one other Waterman with such an imprint: a prototype pump-filler, acquired several years ago along with a number of other experimental non-production items from the granddaughter of a Waterman employee – an employee whose identity I was unfortunately unable to trace.


Why the inverted imprint? I think both pens may have belonged to the same person, someone who played a central role in design and engineering at Waterman – and who was, in all likelihood, left-handed. The prime candidate is none other than William Irving Ferris, the engineering genius responsible for nearly every significant Waterman innovation from the 1890s on, and most prominently, the spoon feed and the pump-filler (more on Ferris here; I have had no success to date in determining if Ferris was indeed left-handed).

For the moment, this is only speculation – though it is hard to imagine who else could have been responsible for this pen’s unique combination of extraordinary features. If it was not Ferris, it would have to have been someone just like him: yet as far as we know, Ferris was one of a kind – as is this pen.

NOTE: The photos above were taken in 2009, immediately after the pen was first thoroughly examined and its special features noted. They are being shared with the full permission of the pen's current owner. I have since confirmed that all its previous owners were entirely unaware that it was a pump-filler. The delay in publication is my own fault, as I mistakenly believed I had already posted on it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Accordion-sac pen repair

Repair supplies are now available for nearly all vintage pen models. Perhaps the most prominent exception is accordion or bellows sacs: convoluted rubber tubes designed to be compressed axially rather than transversely. Although an early example of an accordion sac was used at the beginning of the 20th century by one of the New York penmakers (Sanford & Bennett, I think), where these sacs really came into their own was in France. Starting with Stylomine and their 303, French penmakers wholeheartedly embraced the accordion-sac-and-breather-tube pump-filler.


And why not? The principle was the same as that of a bulb-filler or Vacumatic, with additional benefits: the transparent plunger allowed the ink level to be viewed, and the rubber sac acted as both reservoir and spring. The only problem for us now is finding replacement sacs, which are long out of production and unavailable. I am confident that we will have a source for replacements within the next few years; I am working on this myself, and others are too. In the meantime, though, what is to be done with older French pens whose original accordion sacs are no longer usable?

Some have turned them into bulb-fillers, by discarding the transparent plunger and installing a conventional sac of sufficient length to stick out under the blind cap where the plunger used to be. This works, but is decidedly less than elegant -- and doesn't allow a converted pen to be re-converted to its original configuration once accordion sacs become available once again.

Others have retained the plunger and used a length of rubber tubing cut from a regular sac. This works, though imperfectly. The sac doesn't collapse evenly when compressed axially, making the plunger action jerky and reducing the filling efficiency.


Nonetheless, with a bit of a twist, this is the best option currently available. The twist being to treat the modified pen as a pump-twist-filler, rather than as a plunger-pump. That is, instead of pressing the plunger, one twists it and releases it several times, until the pen is full.

There are some pens for which this will not work, however. The full-size and oversize Stylomines, in particular, have a metal cage around the plunger that prevents one from giving it the requisite twist.


Possible solutions would include attaching the cage to the plunger, permitting the entire assembly to be twisted, as well as removal of the cage -- which should be retained, pending availability of original-style sacs. And of course, one could always unscrew the section from the barrel and twist away, putting the barrel back in place after filling. As it happens, however, I may already have found an off-the-shelf item that can be used as an accordion sac for the largest Stylomines, and as noted above, it is only a matter of time before sacs in all sizes are available once again. So please, whatever you do, don't throw away any original parts!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wirt Jointless

 

Not long ago I acquired a nice Wirt dropper-filler -- a classic slender black chased hard rubber overfeed straight-cap, with 1882 and 1885 patent dates on the barrel.


Yet there was something more lying in wait. Look at the picture at top and the picture below, and you'll see there's a little step at the very mouth of the section. And the section doesn't seem to have a threaded joint separating it from the barrel . . . .


With a careful application of water (just at the section mouth, avoiding spotting of the hard rubber elsewhere), a bit of patience, and some careful wiggling, the nib unit came out as shown below.


A "jointless" design, very close to Parker's, patented in 1899 (US patent 622,256). I don't know of any advertisements for this particular Wirt model, nor is it familiar to the Parker experts I've been able to consult. Perhaps Wirt licensed the design, though it could also ave been a case of trying it out unofficially to see if it was worth licensing.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Why seal sections?

Back in the day, pen repairmen would usually apply a little shellac to a slip-fit section before reinserting it into the barrel. I do the same, even though some of my colleagues object to the practice.

There are multiple benefits to sealing the section in place. Perhaps most importantly, it strongly encourages the application of heat to the section-barrel joint for disassembly. Warming the barrel mouth makes it expand and become more flexible, drastically reducing the risk of breakage. When the section joint isn't sealed, there is a powerful temptation to open it up cold, whether by twisting or rocking. And though one can often get away with it, rest assured that a cracked barrel mouth is only a matter of time when opening pens cold.


This is particularly the case with sections that have a  a recessed band, as shown above, or a slight reverse taper on the part that fits into the barrel. When the barrel mouth has to be stretched in order to extract the section, doing it cold is risky indeed. 

Sealing the section also makes the section-barrel joint stronger and more secure. The pressure of writing can sometimes cause an unsealed section to rock slightly within the barrel, putting strain on the barrel while allowing the nib to wiggle annoyingly in relation to the hand. Even a very small amount of shellac will keep a section firmly in place with its shoulder resting against the end of the barrel mouth around its full circumference, preventing any rocking motion.

One final benefit: sealing the section helps keep ink out of the barrel when the pen is inadvertently dipped too deeply into the ink when filling. This is not an uncommon occurrence, and the ink that ends up trapped inside the section-barrel joint has left the celluloid there stained on more than a few older pens.

The strongest objection I can see is not to sealing sections per se, but to the use of shellac. This really doesn't apply to materials such hard rubber or acrylic, which are largely unaffected by being heated to the temperatures required to soften shellac. Celluloid, however, loses a little plasticizer every time it is heated, so there is a reasonable argument to limit the frequency and degree of heating in the interest of long-term preservation. In fact, there are other sealing compounds that require less heat to release -- most notably, various rosin-based mixes which can either be purchased or made up at home. Application of these compounds, however, is decidedly more awkward than that of shellac, since the section must be pre-warmed and the compound melted on before all parts are re-warmed and assembled.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wiley's Union pen


Reader Robert P. Foster recently sent us photos of an unusual nib in his collection, suggesting that it would make an interesting topic for a post. As can clearly be seen, only the front portion of the nib is gold -- the rest is of silver. 




As it happens, another example has been in my collection for some years, mounted in the holder shown below. The imprint is slightly different, but the patent date is the same, as is the construction.



The imprints on both nibs reference Edwin Wiley's US patent 73419 of January 14, 1868. The text of the patent makes it clear that such bimetallic nibs were not new at the time: 
The present invention relates to that class of pens commonly known as the "Union Pens," and which are made with their "nib" of gold, and their heel or body of silver or other inferior metal. ["nib" here refers to what we now would call the tines; "pen", to the nib as a whole]
The text goes on to explain how such nibs were made, which entailed completing the forming of the nib before soldering the tipping material in place -- the great problem being that
. . . the blank cannot be then rolled without injuring the same, the nib of the pen is thereby so annealed or softened from being heated by the soldering as to be deprived of its elasticity to such an extent as to greatly deteriorate it, it being, in fact, of no greater value or utility, as a pen, than a "gold pen" that has been repointed. 
Modern tipping is done by electric resistance welding, but clearly this was not the case in 1868. Since tipping in that era entailed heating of the entire nib to a temperature that left the metal soft and malleable, elasticity had to be obtained after tipping, by work-hardening of the gold by rolling and/or hammering. Wiley's patent was for an improved method of joining the silver and gold portions of a "Union" nib which allowed the blanks to be rolled after tipping "without being split or broken" along the seam -- though it is clear from our examples that the rolled seam was still left rather irregular in appearance.


In searching for more information on other makers of "Union pens", I ran across Morse's US patent 73255 in which gold and steel parts are joined by tabs to form a sort of ink reservoir nib, coincidentally granted on the same date as Wiley's patent 73419. Of greater significance, however, was a French government report from 1860, Enquête: Traité de Commerce avec l'Angleterre: Industrie métallurgique, vol. 1, where on pages 860-61 an interview regarding the nib industry elicits the following reference to the English Wiley firm's Union Pen:
M. SAGLIER. Certainement. Mais tandis que M. Mallat vend au commerce ses plumes d'or de 3 francs à 5 francs, les plumes d'or sont vendues en Angleterre 1 shelling. J'envoie à l'exportation des plumes d'or faites par MM. Wiley, de Birmingham, qui coûtent 1 shelling. Je vends également à l'exportation des plumes d'or et d'argent de la même fabrique, qu'on appelle union pen et qui coûtent 8 à 9 shellings la douzaine: ce qui fait de 8 à 9 pence la pièce.
So in 1860, Wiley's solid gold nibs sold for one shilling, or twelve pence, while their silver and gold Union Pens sold for eight to nine pence each. It would also seem that the "Union" name predated the American Civil War, though in short order the name would have been seen as patriotic as well as descriptive. Exactly when the Union Pen was introduced, and how long it remained in production, are still open questions.

Eversharp's original Demi Skyline


Sometimes major discoveries turn up right under our noses. In a recent instance, I was putting together ordinary Eversharp Skylines for sale -- nothing special, just common examples which had accumulated in a shoebox-sized quantity over the years -- and found that one small pen wasn't like the others. The barrel was rather scratched up, so I went through my box looking for a better barrel I could swap in. To my surprise, nothing fit. The small pen wasn't just short, it was also significantly slenderer than every other Skyline I could lay my hands on -- 10 mm over the barrel threads, to be precise, vs the standard 10.6 mm. Normal Demi (also called Ladies) Skylines are shorter than standard-sized Skylines but of the same girth, so caps and barrels will all interchange. My mystery pen was the same length as a normal Demi, yet its parts weren't even close to interchangeable. 

It was clear that the pen was early production, as the section had an ink window and the derby screwed onto a plug threaded into the top of the cap -- both well-known early features. The logical explanation was that this was Eversharp's original Demi Skyline, and that after a short time it was beefed up to match the standard Skyline's girth (the opposite of the Parker 51 Demi, which started out at standard thickness, and which was slenderized for the Aerometric version a few years later). And yet I could find no mention of such a slender model, neither in collector literature, nor in Eversharp catalogs or repair manuals. 

Eventually one collector got in contact to offer me another example, identical but in slightly better condition. Alas, he could not help provide any further information about the model's history. Then at the most recent Ohio pen show, I sought out a collector friend who has had a longstanding interest in Skylines, who was able to sell me yet another example in a different color. He didn't seem overly surprised at my "discovery" -- but at the same time, didn't seem to recognize that this particular model was at all rare.


In the photos of Skyline Demis above and below, the slender versions are the two in the center. Unlike the later pens flanking them, they lack any imprint at the back of the metal ring between the top of the cap and the derby. The difference in girth is not immediately obvious, though clear upon closer inspection.


The slender pens are the bottom two in the photo below, in which the difference in girth is more obvious. The pen on the bottom has a two-tone nib, and it is quite possible that the pen above it originally did as well, for the nib shows considerable usage.

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.