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