Wednesday, July 5, 2017

1942 time capsule

Every now and then one runs across a hoard of new old stock pens, packed away decades ago. Sometimes they belonged to a salesman or a distributor, or were left over when a store closed. Behind each of these time capsules there's a story, but few are as poignant or compelling as the one behind the hoard shown below.

These items all came from an Oakland, California shop owned by Japanese-Americans who were interned shortly after America's entry into WW2. The family did not reopen the shop after the war. These leftover items remained in storage for some 75 years before being offered to us. Opening the package was a moving experience; some items were packed with bits of contemporary newpaper, and two letters from Waterman to their dealers were dated only shortly before Pearl Harbor turned everything upside-down. A good number of the items in the group were contemporary Watermans, stickered and mostly boxed. There were also a few older pens, including a few Waterman overlays and a couple of solid gold Conklins from the 1920s or early 1930s -- expensive and for most retailers, slow sellers. Most notable, however, was the large number of colorful Japanese-made celluloid Pilots, unusual enough but doubly so as export models with English-language labels, boxes, and instruction sheets. Cheap Japanese novelty pens were widely imported in the prewar era, most notably the now-ubiquitous stubby jumbos and glass-nibbed SPORS crescent-fillers. Better-quality prewar Japanese pens were another story, and any found in the wild in the USA were likely acquired by soldiers as war trophies or purchased during the postwar occupation. This hoard represents an exceptional case, with Japanese goods that would have found little interest outside of the Japanese-American community. In fact, the Pilots were far from cheap, with the prices penciled on the bottoms of the boxes running from $3.50 to $7 -- in the same range as the contemporary Watermans, which were mostly priced around $3, with a large Hundred Year priced at $8 (with the Watermans decidedly better made).

Some of the Pilots are conventional lever-fillers, but most are either plunger-fillers (US patent 2070461) or the distinctive nomikomi-shiki (呑込式) "easy-drink filler". The nomikomi-shiki pens have a special long-tailed feed and internal celluloid reservoir. They are filled using a special bottle with a central opening into which the pen can be inserted nib-first, sealing around the section. Bottle and pen are then inverted together, allowing ink to flow through the feed and into the pen's reservoir. Since the latter design was only patented in the US on January 17, 1939 (patent 2144296), the mention of the US patent in the instruction sheets helps narrow down the date of these particular examples.

Factory-new nomikomi-shiki pens must be exceedingly rare, so I made sure to make notes when taking one apart. The celluloid barrel is a slip fit over the section, not at all tight, but instead held by a thick, tacky transparent compound. The same substance holds and seals the clear celluloid reservoir housed inside the barrel. The reservoir is made of very thin material, and though it is threaded to match the threads on the section nipple, it is so loose that it can be pulled straight off, resistance coming almost entirely from the sealing compound. Using plain cold water on a cotton swab, I cleaned off the compound from the inside of the reservoir, only to find that exposure to water was enough to cause the material to open a crack along its longitudinal seam. Clearly, these pens should be preserved as relics, as they are emphatically not users! I did carefully measure the reservoirs, though, as it would be very easy to make new ones out of sturdier modern plastic.

I have been promised more information about the store and the family that ran it. When that comes, I am looking forward to publishing a much more extensive and comprehensive article about these pens and their singular history.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Nibs, flossing, and shims

Once upon a time, not so very many years ago, nib flossing was virtually unheard of. Yet nowadays flossing is one of the first things recommended in pen forums when solutions to ink flow problems are sought. Perhaps this is a function of the recent popularity of highly saturated boutique inks, and novelty inks with paint-like particulates ("shimmer" inks, for example). Indeed, with traditional inks, even a badly clogged pen's nib slit is easily cleaned with an ordinary detergent solution, with no need to force thin sheets of plastic or even metal between the tines.

For flossing is not risk-free. Plastic can leave residue behind, and metal can scratch the inner faces of the slit, affecting proper capillary ink flow. This is not so much an issue with brass shim stock used on stainless steel nibs, but on gold it is very much a concern. There is also the risk to the integrity of the nib's tipping, most pronounced with gold nibs with very fine tips. For nibs like the one below, sheet stock used for flossing should be introduced into the slit from the back end, not the tip.

Sideways pressure can easily detach the tipping on vintage nibs such as this Parker Vacumatic
Where things have really gotten out of hand, however, is in the use of shim stock to widen the slit. It's no accident that experienced pen professionals avoid this method, favoring careful bending of the tines instead. In addition to the risk of tipping loss and scarring of the inner faces of the slit, using a shim to force the tines directly apart in a horizontal plane puts enormous stress on the metal surrounding the vent hole. This may not be such an issue with a modern nib, made either of tough stainless steel or of thick gold that is soft and without any springiness. But with a vintage gold nib, tempered and resilient, it is all too easy to start a crack from the vent hole which will only grow as the nib is subjected to further use.

Vintage nibs with stress cracks from the vent hole