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.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Uniface award medals

Early pen and pencil makers proudly boasted of their medals won at the national and international exhibitions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not many examples survive, though it is possible some are being held by collectors of medals, unknown to collectors and historians of writing instruments (a medal awarded to Livermore in 1879 can be seen here).

Pen collectors hold a number of Waterman medals, but nearly all are electrotypes -- near-exact electroformed replicas, consisting of a plated copper shell over a lead alloy core. This was discussed in a past post on a Waterman medal from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the gist being that we know that Waterman had electrotypes made so that they could exhibit their awards in multiple locations, but that we have no idea how many were made, nor how typical this might have been for other medal winners.

The situation is further complicated by the existence of uniface replicas -- that is, medals with blank backs, their faces copying just the obverse or reverse of the original. These are often found with threaded posts on their backs, indicating that they were made to be mounted on a board or plaque for display. Were these privately commissioned by award recipients, though, or were they given out alongside the original medals?


I've not had much luck searching for information online, but on a recent visit to the Corning Museum of Glass I stumbled across the display shown above. Hawkes was a major manufacturer of cut glass, and the topmost plaque beautifully illustrates how these uniface pairs were used. It is still not clear, however, if this plaque was presented by the Exposition Universelle, or if Hawkes had it made. Perhaps the Corning Museum will be able to add some information; perhaps there are other similar plaques in their collection, not on display, and there might be a label on the plaque's back.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mythbusting: Japanese jumbo pens and arthritis


Stubby oversize novelty pens were a popular pre-WW2 import item in the United States -- so popular that they can still be found in plentiful supply and modest cost. Most are flat-top eyedropper-fillers, but one also will find lever-fillers, rounded ends, and combos. Quality is only so-so. Nibs are typically plated stainless steel, with trim plating decidedly on the thin side. Some examples may be postwar, but the great majority are prewar.

For some time now, American collectors have been repeating a story that these pens were originally invented for the use of arthritis-stricken writers. I have always doubted this tale, inasmuch as these were clearly cheap and cheerful novelty items, and no mention of arthritic hands is to be found in any of the US importers' catalog listings. Just to make certain, however, I recently posed the question to one of the leading Japanese pen authorities -- who, it turned out, had never heard of this story, and did not hesitate to debunk it.

After a bit of Googling of "Japanese, 'jumbo pen", and arthritis," using both regular web search and Google Books options, it seems that the now-busted myth of jumbos being designed for the arthritic originated between 2007 and 2008 -- I was unable to find any earlier trace of it. And from what I can see, it seems to have arisen from misquotation of speculative commentary as fact.

In an FPN thread from August 2007 a Japanese jumbo pen was being discussed. Someone asked, "does the size serve a purpose or this more of a novelty?" The response in the last post was, "I suppose it might be useful for someone with arthritis, maybe." In a similar thread from November 2008, someone else commented, "It looks like an example of the type of pen that was manufactured for arthritis sufferers in Japan during the 1960s-70s." This kind of chatter was already being recast by April 2008, though, when in yet another thread one reads, "I believe that it was mentioned in another thread on the FPN that these were made for people with bad arthritis, who couldn't hold a normal sized pen without pain." And in a review of a vintage jumbo pen posted in August 2009, it was stated "I read somewhere that these Jumbo Pens were designed for elderly Japanese with arthritis." From there the repetitions continue, all citing previous hearsay -- some with qualification, most without -- spreading into blog posts, other forums, catalogs, and eBay listings.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 3: meet the older collectors

So far, most everything posted about pen show frictions has been from the newcomers' point of view (our previous installments excepted: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders; Part 2: the Generation Gap). But as they say, there are two sides -- at least! -- to every story.

It is frustrating when older collectors rave about a recent article in the Pennant, yet have never heard of the blog whose posts the article distills. It is equally frustrating when younger pen lovers, fully immersed in the digital world, seem unable to connect with other enthusiasts without online assistance. When pen bloggers have discussed older collectors, it often comes across like a group of Victorian scientists pontificating about some exotic tribe: expostulating about the Other, inferring beliefs and modes of thought, all without having ever actually entered their world. Quite aside from the tone, the observations -- not surprisingly -- tend to be wildly off the mark.

I can't emphasize enough that pen show veterans are just ordinary people. Interesting people, by and large -- and sometimes a bit quirky, as one might expect from the pen-obsessed. Demographically they skew strongly male, white, and professional, though they run the range geographically and in political orientation. Their personalities are diverse; socially, they are in no way a monolithic bloc. The imputation of devious ulterior motives to them, across the board, is frankly absurd. In fact, each field of collecting has its own character and culture, and those with wide experience of different collector groups have often remarked on the unusually welcoming and sociable nature of the pen collecting community. I certainly had no trouble finding a place there, back when I was a poor grad student in my late twenties. Over the years I have seen many others warmly received, too. So I find it more than a little puzzling that this, of all groups, should be viewed with such distrust and hostility.

Though it was downplayed in my previous posts, I wonder if some of this may indeed be due to changing generational attitudes: not in the pen community specifically, but in American society at large. This would be exacerbated by a reduction in mixing across age groups. If your interaction with elders has been limited to family members and teachers, you may find that experience insufficient preparation for dealing with older strangers as equals. Exploring the question of generational change is a topic for multiple books, not a simple post on how pen enthusiasts might get along better. It bears consideration, though, and particularly as regards differing attitudes towards resilience and individual self-sufficiency. What one generation sees as supportiveness, the other disdains as coddling. What one generation sees as indifference, the other sees as not treating young adults as children.

I'd like to close this installment with a look at the belief that older collectors paid nothing for their pens, and are therefore greedy profiteers trying to rip off newcomers. Yes, pens could be found in the wild very cheaply thirty or forty years ago. Tales of Dick Johnson filling 55-gallon drums with flea market finds are part of pen collecting lore; nearly every oldtimer can also contribute a fish tale or three. The thing is, very few of the people buying back then are still active. Those that are, have been trading pens continuously since. So while they may have got their start on the cheap, you can bet that the great majority of the pens on their tables were bought within the last five or ten years, and at market price. For those who started later, say twenty years ago, pens could still be found in the wild, but it took time and dedication, a lot of driving and getting up before dawn. At the big antiques markets and shows, most of the pens were scooped up shortly after the gates opened (or, often, before) by a relative handful of hardworking pickers. Most pen collectors of that era ended up buying from the pickers or from each other, at prices that by the 1990s were, on average, no different from those today. And while there is no shortage of pen show sellers with what I like to call "optimistic" asking prices, in many cases the sellers are simply trying to get back what they paid for items that have dropped in price over the years -- of which there are quite a few.

Continued in Part 4: users vs collectors

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pen show frictions, Part 2: the Generation Gap

While clashing expectations regarding the nature of pen show commerce (see Part 1: retailer shoppers vs traders) appears to be the largest single cause of recent show-related frictions, other factors are in play. That the lines of division have been perceived in terms of age is not an accident -- though as we shall see, this is more a matter of correlation than causation. At American pen shows, the swap-meet style traders are predominantly older, while the buyers unfamiliar and uncomfortable with swap-meet style trading are predominantly younger. In part this is the natural result of new enthusiasts finding themselves in a collector-to-collector trading environment for the first time, but it is also due to the manner in which pen shows and the community of pen enthusiasts have evolved, which opened up a generation gap that persists to this day.

When I began collecting pens in the second half of the 1980s, organized pen collecting was still a new field. Just ten years before there had been no magazines, no guidebooks, no clubs, no shows. Much still wasn't known; of what was known, much was unpublished. With a bit of legwork, one could buy pens cheap at flea markets and antique shops, shows, and auctions -- pens that were then brought in staggering quantities to pen shows where they were quickly traded, sold, and resold.

Pen shows back then were virtually all vintage. The reason was simple: that's pretty much all that was available in the way of interesting and affordable fountain pens. There was next to no retail or restoration infrastructure. To be a pen geek entailed scrounging, swapping, and learning to do one's own repairs. And though I refer here to collectors and collecting, that doesn't mean that no one used their pens -- quite the opposite. Then as now, most pen collectors were both collectors and users, the big difference being that vintage pens were so affordable and abundant that most active collectors pretty quickly ended up with far too many for them all to be used. At that point, one would either have to stop acquiring (no!) or embrace the realization that even pens that one doesn't use can be enjoyable to own for different reasons.

Through the 1990s, pen collecting steadily grew. There were more collectors, more resources, more information. The pen market was strong, and interesting new pens were introduced, carving out a growing presence at pen shows. There were online forums, but the main action in pens was still face-to-face. What changed everything in the space of only a few years was eBay. By the end of the 1990s the old days were largely gone (in the USA, that is -- the changes took longer elsewhere). The pens that once could be found at flea markets, general antiques shows, shops, and auction houses, were now sent to eBay instead. The central exchange for pens fresh to the market had been the pen show. Now it was online. At the same time, eBay opened up pen collecting to an unprecedented degree, drawing in pen lovers worldwide with no previous contact with pen shows or other pen enthusiasts. eBay was like a full-time pen show, and in combination with online collecting forums, offered formidable competition to the world of shows and club meetings.

The immediate effects of these developments were dramatic enough; their long-term effects were greater yet. While a few collectors and dealers managed to keep up, most did not. Show organizers hired publicists to get their events mentioned in local newspapers and broadcasts, but did next to nothing to promote themselves online. Many pen clubs and collecting organizations were equally remiss. As a result, the first-generation collectors of the pen show era and the second-generation collectors of the online era failed to connect. Even if show organizers and club leaders had seen what needed to be done, however, the task would not have been easy. By the time pen collecting began to move online, many first-generation collectors were getting older and less active, and while most were fine with buying and selling on eBay, very few ended up participating to any significant degree in online forums (far more time-consuming, it should be noted, than monthly or bimonthly club or show attendance). This was especially the case for the more advanced collectors, first-generation leaders but virtually invisible online. Second-generation pen enthusiasts thus ended up relying on their online communities, where leadership was more a function of participation than of experience or depth of knowledge. Relatively few found their way to pen shows (the hassles of flying post-9/11 played their part, too) and when they did, they tended to stick to themselves and follow their own interests. In some cases this was constructive -- new attention to underappreciated brands and models, for example -- but in others, less so. Knowledge and experience that should have been passed on, wasn't. Friendships that could have been, weren't. And while eBay and the internet seemed to have rendered the pen market fully visible, this apparent transparency was an illusion that kept many from realizing how much of the picture they were actually missing.

One telling symptom of what was lost is the still-anomalous distribution of strength and weakness in the pen market. In any field of collecting, an episode of market weakness normally plays out in a predictable pattern, with demand for the very best pieces remaining strong, the low end holding steady, and the middle collapsing. Yet from the end of the 1990s into the early 2000s on, something very different happened in the vintage pen market: the high-end pieces went weak, with the mid-range holding steady and the low end strongest of all. Demand for certain brands and subfields also shrank -- typically the more esoteric items, including ephemera. This wasn't so much a natural change in tastes as a massive reboot. It was the commonly available items in the low to middle range that the internet generation had been exposed to; the rare and the esoteric remained too remote, inaccessible, and incomprehensible to make it onto their collecting radar, let alone their want lists. There were exceptions, of course. And the overall level of knowledge has steadily increased -- though it sometimes feels like watching the wheel being reinvented. More progress has come in the last several years, as social media platforms have allowed a comparative handful of advanced collectors to share and discuss notable items from their collections with the pen community at large. Meanwhile, more online collectors are making their way to pen shows, yet too often there is more parallel play than mixing and interchange.

So where do we go from here? The fact that this has become a topic of conversation strikes me as a good sign, and an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and misperceptions. There is no shortage of good will in the pen community, which should pull it through (and together) in the end.



Pen show frictions, other entries: Part 1: retailer shoppers vs tradersPart 3: meet the older collectorsPart 4: users vs collectors