Friday, October 4, 2019

The Conway Stewart "pump-action" pen


One never knows what might be lurking on a table at a pen show. This unprepossessing black hard rubber pen caught my eye with its unusual shape and obvious quality. On closer inspection, its imprints identified it as a very early Conway Stewart, but not a model I recognized.



The nib bears no name, and is ventless. Underneath, its front part is roughened -- a holdover from gold dip pen nibs that was eliminated from fountain pen nibs during the 'teens. 


The screw cap has an imprint with an arrow at its top to show which way to turn it to unscrew, another typically early feature. The feed is notable, consisting of two flat fingerlike projections, with a narrow rectangular projection below. The projections are so flat they reminded me of the Wirt safety, and sure enough there is a axial post inside the cap that extends under the feed when the cap is on, making contact with the rectangular projection, which can slide back and forth. Clearly it was originally spring-loaded, and the post would push it down and seal the central hole in the feed when the cap was fully tightened.







Once I got home, I took a look at Steve Hull's Conway Stewart monograph, Fountain Pens for the Million. Sure enough, on page 15 our mystery pen appears: The Conway Pump-Action Pen. At the time the book was written no actual examples were known to the author, but the engraved illustration turns out to be an accurate depiction in all details.


Coincidentally, on the same page there begins a discussion of how Conway Stewart made no pens of their own from the company's founding up through 1909. Elsewhere it is noted that a substantial number of pens sold by Conway Stewart during their early years were American-made. Could this pen have been a Wirt product? The shutoff valve and the ventless nib certainly point in that direction.


The reciprocating valve on Wirt safeties is different, as it uses a weight rather than a spring. The flat feed is gold and one-piece, not hard rubber. Just as was the case with stylographic pens, a weight is less likely to break than a spring. Though our Conway does not appear to have seen a great deal of use, its gold spring had broken (a replacement was made from corrosion-resistant stainless steel).


Wirt's patent was issued on December 13, 1910 as US978419. Actual manufacture and sale started earlier -- judging from advertising and trade journal mentions, around the time the patent application was submitted on October 31, 1908.


The Wirt safety patent is written rather narrowly, making quite specific claims for a metallic feed and the form of the valve. No mention is made of alternative feed materials or the possibility of using a spring, so while the Wirt design is tantalizingly similar, it is also sufficiently different that the Conway's design may well be covered by another patent entirely which I have not yet been able to identify. Perhaps that patent is British, as a close examination of all the US patent databases turns up nothing.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Anomalous Aikin Lambert fountain pen nibs

As prior research has shown, until well into the 20th century almost all American fountain pen manufacturers bought their nibs from specialist suppliers. Even some of the largest and most successful companies did not bring nib manufacture fully in-house until the 'teens or twenties. Exactly who was making what for whom and when remains a puzzle that will take years to put together, but we can be sure that certain companies with a long history of gold dip pen nib production were not only making nibs for themselves. One such company is Aikin Lambert, which was taken over by Waterman from around 1906, but which was working closely enough already in the 1880s to have their nibs listed alongside Fairchild's in the charts in Waterman flyers showing which size nibs went with which holders. Not surprisingly most Aikin Lambert fountain pen nibs closely resemble Waterman-marked nibs. They have similar proportions and have heart-shaped vent holes. But there are exceptions which make the experienced collector sit up and take notice.


The nib at left has a very distinctive keyhole pierce, identical to those found on Parker Lucky Curve pens of the first and second decades of the 20th century. Offhand I cannot think of any other contemporary pen brand with a pierce anything like it. What does this suggest regarding where Parker was getting at least some of its nibs?

The nib in the center has an oval pierce that is also distinctive, albeit not to the same degree. While it also recalls Parker-marked nibs, similar pierces are also found on gold dip nibs from multiple makers. I have included it here nonetheless, circumstantial as its evidence may be.

The nib at right has a pierce at least as distinctive as the keyhole. Star-shaped pierces on gold nibs are virtually unique to Fairchild, with it generally accepted that the few known examples of early Waterman nibs with such pierces were Fairchild-made (Fairchild being Waterman's first documented nib supplier). So what is such a pierce doing on a nib made by a rival firm? I can only speculate that any earlier rivalry dating back to the dip pen era would have been history by the time this nib was made in the early 20th century, and that Aikin Lambert and Fairchild's nibmaking operations likely ended up converging under Waterman. We know that Waterman absorbed Aikin's nibmaking operation into their own by around 1910; so far, we know much less about the later history of Fairchild. This nib, however, suggests that by the 'teens Fairchild may no longer have been producing their own nibs -- suggesting in turn that their nibmaking operation had by then been sold to Waterman.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Fairchild figural pencil: Winchester 1890


This figural magic pencil I hadn't seen before. It's a Fairchild in the shape of a rimfire round, gold filled with a silver "bullet".


Between its proportions and the prominent "WINCHESTER" visible once the pencil is extended, it is clear that the round represented is a .22 Winchester Rim Fire (WRF). This pencil was likely made as a promotional item at the time the round was introduced in 1890. Its dimensions are about half again as large as an actual round, however, with the "bullet" around 0.3 inches in diameter.


Opposite the "WINCHESTER" imprint is the Fairchild mark, along with a patent date of September 23, 1879. Several Fairchild patents were issued on that date, all design patents for different novelty pencils, but none for a pencil like this. Perhaps premarked components originally made for different figural pencils were utilized for this special-order design. Another possibility is that the date refers to  a Winchester patent for a method of manufacturing hollow-point bullets, US219840, though this seems less likely.

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.