Friday, March 6, 2015

Why the Waterman 52?

Recently we've seen a spate of ridiculously high selling prices for plain black Waterman 52 pens with flexible nibs on eBay, with prices on similar Waterman 12 pens not far behind. These models are among the most common of quality vintage fountain pens, and are far and away the most common Watermans of the hard rubber era. Yet bidders seem willing to pay a premium of up to several hundred dollars for examples with very flexible nibs -- even flawed examples which have been reblackened or which have lost their clips, pens that up until a short time ago could be bought by the handful for a few tens of dollars (and of which there is certainly no shortage: many of us have bins full, as in the photo above). Clearly, these pens are not being bought by collectors. But why are the users who are spending so much on common-as-dirt Watermans ignoring other brands, and even higher-end Watermans that carry the same nibs?

As far as I can determine, it all began when pen fanciers new to vintage started asking online about how to find old pens with flexible nibs. They were typically told to seek out a Waterman 12 or 52 -- not because these pens were anything particularly special, but because they were plentiful, cheap, and could readily be found with a nib with some flex. In fact, there are other pens that are more frequently found with highly flexible nibs (for example, safeties, especially Moores; Conklin crescent-fillers; US-made Swans; sub-brands with nibs of thin gold), but pointing out the most common and most available models made perfect sense when recommending starter pens for the novice.

The unexpected result, however, was that the most common pens suddenly became the most sought-after. The Waterman 52, in particular, seems to have gained a bizarre cachet among flex-nib aficionados, who will diligently search them out while ignoring other models and especially other brands. This has left most vintage pen enthusiasts scratching their heads, while others have rushed to cash in on a bubble that clearly cannot be sustained indefinitely.

For while the demand for flexible nibs will surely continue, buyers will eventually realize that the supply consists of more than the Waterman 52 (or, for that matter, the 12 and the 7 -- and don't even get me started about the cult of the Pink and the "Artist's" nibs). At present, though, flex-nib bargains are to be had for those willing to broaden their horizons.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Jaxon and Conklin

Uncommon but not rare, Jaxon self-filling pens have left collectors more than a little confused. The Jaxon's side-mounted stud filling system with a metal lock ring is clearly a close relative of Conklin's crescent-filler, while the barrel imprint referencing Conklin's US patent 685258 of October 29, 1901 indicates that this was no infringement. Some authorities have claimed that Jaxon made pens under license from Conklin, some further stating that Jaxon was based in Philadelphia. Others, noting that the same pen was also sold as the Conklinette -- a truly rare pen -- have averred that Conklin supplied unmarked pens to Jaxon to be imprinted and sold under their name.

Though presented as fact, all of this is wrong. The truth is far simpler: Jaxon was a Conklin sub-brand. Conklinette was too, but given the rarity of Conkinettes vs Jaxons, Conklin must have decided very quickly to use a name less closely connected to their main brand.

I have yet to find any advertisements or catalog listings for the Conklinette. Mentions of the Jaxon, however, are fairly plentiful. The ad above is from page 12 of the morning edition of The Daily Missoulian of December 21, 1911. Similar ads appeared on November 28 and 29, and on December 22 and 23. Another series of ads by a local drug store ran in the Willmar (Minnesota) Tribune in December of 1914 and again in 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918, listing Moore, Conklin, Houston, and Jaxon as fountain pen brands stocked and available. A similar series for another retailer ran in the Norwich (Connecticut) Bulletin in December 1915, this time listing Waterman, Crocker, Conklin, Boston Safety, Swan, Jaxon, "and others".

The ad above ran on page 5 of the Perrysburg Journal of December 16, 1915. Inasmuch as Perrysburg is a suburb of Toledo, it is no surprise that the list of pen brands sold is bracketed by Conklin and Jaxon.

Most Jaxon ads provide little information beyond the pen's price -- $1 -- but some explicitly note that the pen is a Conklin product. The ad above ran in the University Missourian on Jan 28, 1916, on page 4. It should be noted that misspellings of brand names in ads placed by local merchants was rather common in this publication, with "Jackson" for "Jaxon" a relatively minor offense compared to "Conkling" and "Schaefer". The illustration is also a bodge, not showing a self-filling pen at all, but instead a generic eyedropper-filler. Jaxon/Jackson pens are also mentioned by the same merchant in several unillustrated ads in the same paper in October 1915 and January 1916.

The Seattle Star of June 11, 1919 is the source for the image above, which is a detail from a full-page ad for the Fraser-Patterson department store. Once again, Conklin is identified as the maker. Another such identification appears in an ad in the Decatur, Illinois Daily Review of September 10, 1918, page 13. And if further corroboration were required, Conklin is named yet again as the maker of the Jaxon self-filling pen in the question and answer section of The American Stationer on both May 22, 1915 (p. 21) and May 13, 1916 (p. 16). This was a trade publication, and in context there can be no doubt that "maker" was also intended to be read as seller and distributor. If this had been a case of contract manufacture for another firm, that other firm's name and address would have been supplied, not Conklin's.

As the ads indicate, Jaxon pens were distributed across the United States. They were offered as a sub-brand, often marketed to students, and not as any one retailer's private house brand. When the ads mention pen brands other than Jaxon, Conklin is there -- just as one would expect if Conklin sales representatives were distributing both lines. I cannot find any hint why collectors ever associated Jaxon with the city of Philadelphia. The name surely derives from Conklin's location in Toledo, at the intersection of Jackson and Huron Streets. The ads suggest that Jaxons were mostly made and sold between 1911 and 1919, the earlier date consistent with the statement in the ad above, which ran in the Meriden (Connecticut) Morning Record on September 26, 1916.

Lest we fall into the trap of relying too strongly on advertisements, however, let us consider the pen above. It too is a Jaxon -- but a screw-cap eyedropper-filler! Eyedropper Jaxons are much less common than self-fillers, and are not mentioned in any ads found to date. Are they earlier than the Jaxon self-fillers? Probably not, given that no eyedropper-filling Conklinettes are known. Yet another pen history mystery.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Sub-brands, house brands, and private labels

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in major penmakers' pens sold under other brand names. In some cases these other brands were wholly owned by the penmakers, and were typically used for economy models. Such sub-brands allowed companies to sell at a lower price point without tarnishing the image of their top-line models. Pen companies also supplied department stores and other retailers with pens bearing the retailers' brand names. Where the pens are otherwise very similar to models sold by their makers under their own names, some collectors have taken to describing these pens as "rebadged", while others prefer to call them "private label" or "house brand" versions.

Whether a given marque is a sub-brand or a house brand isn't always apparent. The pen shown above is an example: a bulb-filling Pencopen Deluxe, clearly made by Parker and bearing Parker-style date codes for 1937 -- but did the Pencopen brand belong to Parker, or to someone else?

An online search for Pencopen isn't very helpful, but Penco turns out to have been a house brand of J. C. Penney -- initially for toys and games, but by the late 1920s one finds old newspaper ads for Penco pencils and pens, all unillustrated. And in the 1939 Consumers Union buying guide, there is a review of fountain pens where Penco's connection with J. C. Penney is clearly listed. 

In addition, Kreko (also spelled "Kreco") is shown to be a house brand of S. H. Kress, and Fifth Avenue a Woolworth brand. The situation of other lower-end brands isn't always so clear, however, as Majestic is listed as "sold in Emporium stores" much as Wallace is listed as made by Inkograph but "sold in Woolworth's", suggesting that these brands might not have been exclusive to these particular retailers.

This is certainly the case with Wearever, which is linked to a number of different stores in this review. But what about the association of Onward with Grand stores, Varsity with Walgreen, and Ambassador with Sontag's?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

An early Plum

"Plum" (a deep purple) is a scarce and highly sought-after color in the Parker 51 -- and indeed, purple was not a color commonly used for pens in the old days. So it was with some surprise that I found the pen shown below: an Eagle glass-cartridge pen with original deep purple lacquer.

These all-metal pens were made from the 1890s on (you can read more about them here), with nearly all sporting a plain black lacquer finish. Similarly constructed Eagles with later filling systems -- coin-fillers and lever-fillers -- are commonly found with other finishes, most often an orange-red but sometimes a multicolor swirled pattern. Such variation isn't seen in the glass cartridge pens, though, and this is the first purple metal Eagle of any model that I've ever seen.

Like the 51's Plum, this Eagle's color is dark enough that it is difficult to photograph, and the richness of the color only comes out in bright light.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What is a stub nib?

In current usage, a stub nib is a rounded italic: its point is wider than it is thick, but its profile is smoothed for easier writing. There are those who object to this definition on historical grounds -- a detailed discussion can be found here -- and as it turns out, the confusion of what "stub" means goes back quite some time.
The passage above appears in Waterman's Circular No. 55-25, which can be dated sometime between the later part of 1898 and 1900.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A noble shard

Many years ago, Pier Gustafson organized a show-and-tell display among Boston area pen collectors of what he aptly termed "noble shards" -- the wreckage of once-notable (and perhaps, still notable) pens.

The remnants of the end-lever Crocker shown here amply qualify. The cap may be missing its top half, and the section assembly is absent. But this battered survivor is still very special, for it is not hard rubber, but casein. The pattern is a sort of woodgrain, though it is now stained and faded. The end knob is imprinted "2S", and in raking light the characteristic alligatoring of aged casein is clearly visible.

I am not aware of any advertising or catalog listing for casein Crockers, and I have only seen one other example over the years -- much better preserved, in a solid green similar to that of a Parker Ivorine. But sometimes the only survivors are fragmentary, overlooked in a parts box.

Friday, December 19, 2014

An unusual wartime Sheaffer

With the entry of the United States into WW2, penmakers were faced with production quotas and restrictions upon materials needed for the war effort. Aluminum, brass, and stainless steel were replaced by silver and gold, which the USA had in abundance. The pen shown above, a Sheaffer Feathertouch Defender, shows the characteristic tarnish of gold over silver wartime trim: a greyish-black film, often blotchy, caused by silver atoms migrating to the surface and oxidizing on exposure to the air.

The over-the-top "military" clip is another characteristic wartime feature, allowing the pen to sit low enough in a uniform blouse pocket so as not to interfere with closure of the pocket flap. But the wartime features of this particular pen don't stop there. The section is celluloid, rather than hard rubber (rubber was a critical war material) -- not uncommon -- and so is the plunger shaft.

Wartime plunger-fillers typically used celluloid-covered carbon steel plunger shafts instead of stainless steel. These worked well enough, though the carbon steel was susceptible to rust swelling should any moisture penetrate its coating. All-celluloid shafts were another matter, as they were insufficiently rigid and prone to warpage. They are rare enough today that it is likely that they were only made experimentally -- and quickly rejected.

It would be easy enough to retrofit this pen with a postwar stainless shaft and matching blind cap (the original blind cap has a simple unthreaded hole into which the celluloid shaft press-fits), but we have put it back together as it was made, minus its original piston seal washer -- not functional as a pen, yet eloquent as witness to an era.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Waterman dummy


The pen above looks like a commonplace Waterman 52.  Flip it over, and you will see that it isn't a working pen at all, but a dummy made up for window display.  Real pens left on display were always a theft risk, dummy pens, much less so -- and display dummies also kept the real pens from being faded by sun exposure.

Dummy pens were often made up from rejected parts, and this one is no exception. In this case, the barrel isn't even a Waterman, for it bears a clear Aikin Lambert imprint. And though a Waterman lever box has been installed, it doesn't fit quite right since there isn't a cutout at the end of the lever slot, as the Aikin lever was of simpler form. By this time, Waterman had owned Aikin Lambert for a good ten or fifteen years, and production facilities had long been consolidated.

If you look more closely at the finish of the smooth part at the end of the barrel, you will also see another dummy-specific feature: the pen has been painted black, to better resist fading while in a shop window.  The paint is partially worn off here, and another patch of wear-through is visible on the cap top as well.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Parker 1.0 mm lead pencil converter

By the 1930s, lead sizes for American mechanical pencils had been thoroughly standardized. There was the older standard of 0.046 inches (metricized as 1.1 or 1.2 mm) and the newer standard of 0.036 inches  (0.9 mm), and for drafting pencils there was 0.075 inches (2 mm). The plethora of odd sizes used in the 19th century had all been dropped in the first decades of the 20th.

So it was to my complete astonishment that I recently discovered that Parker, in the later 1960s, briefly adopted a completely nonstandard lead diameter of 0.040 inches (1.01 mm). Not in a mechanical pencil, strictly speaking, but for its "pencil cartridge", shaped like a Jotter ballpoint refill and used to convert any Jotter-style ballpoint into an injector pencil. The example shown above came in a sterling silver Classic ballpoint; it was still full of lead, but I thought I'd add a little more before offering it for sale (Parker didn't advertise these cartridges as refillable, but all it takes is to hold one tip-up, press the back button down, and feed new lead into the front). Yet when I put in some 0.9 mm lead, it didn't work properly. The lead was held firmly when the end button was released, but when the button was depressed, the lead shot out instead of advancing a millimeter or two at a time. Upon closer examination, the original lead that came inside the cartridge measured a hair over 1 mm and worked perfectly -- as did some 1.0 mm lead that I then added as a test.

According to Jotter: History of an Icon, p. 204, Parker's pencil cartridge was introduced in 1968 (other authorities specify that it was at the beginning of that year). No mention is made of the lead size used, however, though in external form our 1 mm cartridge is the earliest model shown, all metal with only a bit of black plastic at the end, and no eraser. How long it remained in production is not clear, though I was able to find the image below from a 1969 Parker catalog, originally posted by Graham Hogg here.

It seems clear that Parker adopted a slightly oversize lead diameter to prevent users refilling their cartridges instead of buying new ones. Customers would assume that the cartridges were worn out, never suspecting that the lead diameter was the issue. Indeed, Parker advertised the cartridges as being good for up to a year, or up to 50,000 words -- clearly positioning them as consumables, despite building them stoutly enough for years of service.

I haven't had the time to go back through all the different Parker pencil cartridges in my shop to check lead diameters, but I've handled quite a few of them over the years and this is the first I've found that didn't work when refilled with standard-sized lead. My guess is that later models all used standard lead, and that perhaps even the original model was reconfigured at some point to use standard lead as well.

ADDENDUM: At the Columbus pen show I was able to ask around about this. I found only one person -- a former Parker employee -- who knew about the 1 mm lead. Unfortunately, this was from observation, not company lore, so we still don't know how this all came to be. Did Parker anticipate that consumers would try to refill the cartridges, and made them to use the nonstandard lead from the beginning? Or were they originally made to use standard lead, and a modified version using nonstandard lead was introduced only later, after the problem of refilling became apparent?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Equi-Poised combos in a catalog

Among the top-line American penmakers of the 1920s and 1930s, the response to the fad for pen-pencil combinations varied considerably. Wahl-Eversharp made some fine combos, but did not appear to have advertised them; they are very scarce today, and were surely made in small numbers at the time.

To date, I have found one catalog showing Wahl-Eversharp combos. It is not a Wahl-Eversharp catalog, though the illustrations were surely supplied by the company. The catalog is dated 1932-1933, and the combos shown are economy-line versions (Wahl-Eversharp combos are based upon either the top of the line Gold Seal Equi-Poised pens -- an example here -- or the smaller and less solidly constructed non-Gold Seal pens of similar profile, also often found branded as Wahl-Oxfords).