Sunday, August 13, 2017

The introduction of Waterman's "Spoon Feed"

Waterman's original feed was narrow, just wide enough to carry the grooved ink channel. It was protected by US patent 293545, issued on February 12, 1884 with a term of 17 years and thus due to expire on February 12, 1901. So it made sense that the successor design, the wider Spoon Feed, would have been introduced in 1901 -- as per the conventional wisdom -- even though it had already been patented a few years earlier (US625722, filed August 24, 1898, issued May 23, 1899). But pinning down an exact date wasn't easy. Waterman often introduced new models or features well before advertising them, and the application for the Spoon Feed trademark (37530, filed April 27, 1901, registered December 31, 1901) claimed use since August 1, 1900. And yet a Google Books search for "Waterman" and "spoon feed" from 1899-1900 yields no hits at all, while an ad in Scribner's Magazine Advertiser, vol. 29, 1901, p. 59, suggests an introduction at the very beginning of 1901:
"Most bookkeepers and stenographers have used Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pens for years. After January 1st, 1901, you will not be up-to-date without one, since our new Spoon Feed brings them to absolute perfection for professional writers."
Even this mention is less than authoritative, though, inasmuch as it appears in a spring advertising supplement that is undated, but full of ads for summer cruises and the like, and bound messily with tables of contents for issues up to July 1901. Another early mention is found in a different spring advertising supplement, this one in McClure's (vol. 16, no. 6, p. 109):
"Painting the Lily and improving the Waterman Feed seem equally absurd. Yet Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen is now furnished with a new Spoon Feed which is better than the old."
This also can only be dated indirectly, including as it does an ad on p. 20 for the Pan-American Exhibition, which ran from May to November of 1901. Otherwise, the only securely datable ads that I was ever able to find mentioned the Spoon Feed date no earlier than May (Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, vol. 52, May 1901).

The material cited so far was assembled some time ago. But now with the recent digitization of the key issues of The American Stationer spanning the years 1900 to 1901, the longstanding question of when and how Waterman introduced its "Spoon Feed" can finally be answered. As it turns out, an unexpected factor in the rollout appears to have been the rivalry with Parker, which had taken its most recent ugly turn with litigation arising from Waterman's attempt to enforce its limited and rather questionable patent on a slip-cap (US604690). That Waterman was engaging in serious lawfare is in no doubt, with the extent nicely illustrated by this entry (August 10, 1901, p. 23 -- oh, to have access to those twelve volumes now!):

At the Philadelphia Export Exhibition in fall of 1899, Waterman had served papers on a Parker exhibitor for a claim of patent infringement. The wrangling lasted until March 1901: Parker's lawyers objected and the service was ruled invalid; Waterman appealed, but lost again (American Stationer, Oct 13, 1900, p. 34; Mar 30, 1901, p. 11). Meanwhile, Parker struck back with ads in July 1900 that openly taunted Waterman over their respective cap patent claims (July 7, 1900, p. 16; also July 14, p. 16):

The taunting took on a new twist in the American Stationer of January 12, 1901, with a series of Parker ads that touted the Jointless as not being "covered with EXPIRED patents" (p. 7; also January 19, 26, Feb 2, all p. 7; the January 5 ad lacks the dig).

The week after the last of the above ads ran, the gloves came off. What had been alluded to was now spelled out in black and white. It was a barefaced attack, without even the pretense of being part of advertising Parker's own products.

These ads ran for three weeks, starting February 9, in Parker's usual spot on p. 7. Waterman's response was immediate, with their front cover ad in the next issue (February 16) formally announcing the Spoon Feed, noting that "Most of our customers have seen this successful invention, since it has already been offered in our special bookkeepers' and stenographers' pens".

Further mention of the new feed appeared inside the same issue (p. 23), as part of a report on a recent Waterman's publicity coup in which each guest at a dinner of the Stationers' Board of Trade was given a gold-mounted fountain pen (that is, with gold filled trim bands).

Reading between the lines, it seems as if the transition from the old feed to the new feed was intended to be gradual, but the company ended up scrambling to speed up the changeover. And though the professed reason was market demand, the threat of Parker trumpeting the expiry of the patent and the implicit obsolescence of the old feed to the general public (the salvos above were in a trade journal) surely weighed heavily in Waterman's decision to kill off the old feed sooner rather than later. This is consistent with the account below -- all mention of patent status discreetly omitted -- published once the dust had settled, in the American Stationer of August 17, 1901, p. 62:

The key passages include: "Early in the spring of the present year [1901] they started to introduce their new spoon feed", "the company supposed it would be nearly a year before a complete change in their output would be necessary", "in two months they were almost swamped", and "now . . . the plant has been entirely changed over".

It would seem then that the August 1, 1900 "first use" date for "Spoon Feed" in Waterman's trademark application would represent the beginning of market testing, which according to the earliest ads began with pens for bookkeepers and stenographers -- long and slender models, presumably. The switchover for other models would have been underway by early 1901, but drastically accelerated in mid-February, old feed production being phased out over the next few months, ending by mid-August at the very latest.

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