Monday, March 18, 2024

More on the overflexing of vintage nibs

I've been sounding the alarm about the abuse of flexible nibs for years now, and though others have also tried to spread the word, far too many irreplaceable vintage nibs are still being destroyed by being pushed far beyond their safe limits. The simple fact is that even very flexible vintage nibs were only meant to open up in routine use by a millimeter or so. 

A recent post by Otto Yang in the Facebook group Vintage Flex Fountain Pens rekindled the discussion in a big way. Otto shared a selection of 19th and early 20th-century handwriting in support of the observation that normal writing of the era was quite restrained when it came to line width variation, and that pushing vintage nibs to line width variations of 2 mm or more is far beyond what they were ever intended to handle. This was all well and good -- but things really blew up when, primed by this still-ongoing conversation, a seller was publicly called out for heedlessly posting in the same group an advertisement promoting the exact sort of extreme nib abuse under discussion. 

The pen community is small and congenial, and up until now the desire to keep the peace has prevented most such confrontations. Yet given that sellers have been given ample notice (though it may be that many never bother reading or otherwise participating in the groups in which they hawk their wares) such an intervention is long overdue. As long as sellers are allowed to brazenly mislead buyers about the capabilities of vintage nibs without being publicly challenged, the destruction of old nibs will continue. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Erasers for vintage Eversharp pencils


When it comes to old writing instruments, the least standardized consumables must be erasers. There are some hard to find lead sizes, to be sure, but the number of different eraser sizes is mind-numbing. Nor is there any comprehensive list of what pencils take what size, though there have been efforts made.

Up until recently I was content to leave erasers to others. Then I stumbled across a hoard of 7mm erasers, which ended up listed for sale. Then I made a video on all-metal Eversharp pencils, part of which involved eraser replacement. So replacement erasers in those sizes (5mm and 1/4 inch) ended up in the catalog. Next came 5.5mm for Snorkels and TM Touchdowns. And now 8.5mm has joined the lineup, the size for the big Eversharp pencils with the exposed erasers, along with the variants with an eraser cover (two of which are shown at the bottom of the photo above).

Friday, February 9, 2024

Touring Waterman's Newark factory

New Jersey: A Guide to its Present and Past, 1939, p. 335

I'm afraid we are a little late to book a group tour of Waterman's New Jersey factory. Would surely have been interesting. Waterman left it not long after the publication of the entry above, moving its Newark  operations back to New York in early 1941 (an announcement that the move was pending appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle on September 11, 1940, p. 23). The Conmar Zipper Company and the Margon Corporation moved in shortly thereafter and stayed for decades. There are some reminiscences about Conmar posted in this Reddit thread; George A. Tice took the photo below in 1973. 

Margon was a major manufacturer of dolls and doll parts, notably heads and glass eyes. It seems that the building was only torn down in the mid-1990s after standing empty for several years.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Waterman and Heath

It has long been known that Waterman purchased overlays from George W. Heath & Co. A number of early Watermans bear silver overlays with the Heath "H" mark, and though the mark is absent on later examples, the continuity of style and workmanship strongly suggests continuity of sourcing. The same pattern of marking is seen with other penmakers using Heath overlays, and it is reasonable to suppose that all eventually chose not to give their subcontractor free advertising -- especially as Heath began to manufacture and sell fountain pens under their own name around this same time. It is not known why the Heath mark only appears on the silver overlays and never on gold filled or solid gold examples, even though their common source is clearly evident.

Nearly ten years ago I wrote the following about Heath's operations from the mid-teens onwards:

While the company continued to offer items under the Heath name, by all evidence the bulk of its business lay in contract manufacturing. Quantity of surviving examples isn't always a reliable gauge of quantities produced, but in this case the contrast between the scarcity of Heath-branded pens and pencils and the size of the factory and workforce is too stark to ignore. I strongly suspect that Heath continued to be the prime supplier of high-quality overlays to the US fountain pen trade as long as overlay pens continued to be made. In particular, Heath was probably the maker of all of Waterman's overlays -- early electrodeposited fine silver examples a possible exception -- from around the turn of the century all the way to the end of overlay pen production at some point in the 1930s. Waterman often publicized its production methods, and in some detail, yet never in any of these accounts is there any mention of in-house manufacture of overlays.

This speculation about the company's later history must now be amended, as there is good evidence that Waterman was manufacturing overlays in-house by at least the beginning of the 1920s. This is found in the description of Waterman's newly completed and occupied factory in Newark, New Jersey, published in the American Stationer of March 26, 1921 on p. 11 (and subsequently republished in other periodicals, such as Pacific Ports, June 4, p. 158, and India Rubber World, August 1, 1921, p. 840). The factory was notable for both its size and the horizontal integration of operations, including ink production and the distribution of dealer display material. On the third floor was the "gold and silver mounting department" and on the second, the "chasing and ornamental mountings department" -- "mountings" being the contemporary term for what we call overlays (also used to denote trim bands, but in this context clearly referring to overlays as well). I have not been able to find any mention of such departments in earlier Waterman factories, but for now this should be taken as absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. 

What was Heath doing at this time? In my 2014 post I noted that "The later history of Heath is particularly obscure, with many of the usual online sources unavailable in volumes postdating the 'teens." Yet it was clear that the company was moving in new directions in the early 1920s: 

The brothers were already diversifying . . . while they held a number of patents, the latest that has anything to do with writing instruments is US 1514965 (an extending pencil), applied for in 1922. All subsequent patents, starting with US 1605723, also applied for in 1922, are radio-related, and from the 1923 Newark city directory on, we find the Heath Radio and Electric Manufacturing Company ("radio parts and condensers") listed alongside George W. Heath & Co. at the same address. 

While the (possibly older) company letterhead still proclaimed George W. Heath & Co. "Manufacturing Gold and Silversmiths" as well as "Patentees and Sole Manufacturers of Heath's "Tribune" Pencils and Fountain Pens" in a receipt dated October 26, 1923, the company had also placed a wanted ad a year before in The Iron Age seeking to buy a screw machine -- a large investment and a clear commitment to automated mass production.

In retrospect, my interest in Heath's overlay work led me to underestimate the extent of their pen and pencil manufacturing operations. It should have been clear that Heath was moving into manufacturing in a big way in the 1910s -- mass production, not artisanal hand work -- and I have recently found further corroboration of how early this started in the April 19, 1911 testimony of Hobart W. Geyer in the legal battle between Waterman and the Modern Pen Company, appealed all the way up to the US Supreme Court. On p. 1419 of the record, Geyer is asked, "Have you been in any factory during the last three years?" to which he answers, "I have been in Heath's several times in that time." "What kind of factory is it?" he is asked, to which he answers, "They make rubber holders and they make mountings." On the following day another witness, gold nib maker DeWitt C. Van Valer, also mentions Heath's factory in an exchange recorded on p. 1517. "When were you in Mr. Heath's factory?" "Within the past year." "Mr. Heath is a comparatively new man in the manufacture of rubber holders, is he not?" "I think he has been turning holders to my knowledge for the last four years, and may have been turning them before that." This lines up with the change in how Heath's business was described in directories of the time, from chasing and gold and silver novelties to fountain pens and pencils. This also lines up with the expansion of Heath's workforce and the move to a new factory in New Jersey in 1912. The demand for hand-worked gold and silver was declining, not growing: it wasn't the traditional bench jewelers leaving New York for New Jersey, but rather the manufacturing firms that required ample floor space for large machine tools and multistep production operations.

At this point we can only speculate about what happened in the 'teens and early 1920s, as Heath moved away from handwork and Waterman brought overlay manufacture in-house. I have found no record of workers moving from Heath to Waterman, let alone a formal transfer of a whole department. But skilled workers in the pen trade often moved from company to company, as is shown repeatedly in the testimonies cited above. And with Heath and Waterman's Newark factories only a little over a mile apart -- neither unionized -- continuing cooperation at some level can by no means be ruled out.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Please stop calling them "Continental safeties"

Once upon a time and long long ago, American collectors would occasionally come across safety pens with fancy overlays like the one shown above. They knew that these pens were European but not much more, so borrowing a usage from the antiques trade they started to call them "Continental" -- the umbrella term for furniture that was neither American nor British, but from somewhere in continental Europe. You don't see antiques called "continental" as much nowadays; the trade is more sophisticated and less insular, greatly reducing the need for catchall categories of this sort ("oriental" or "Asian" is another, much less used now with increased ability to differentiate between antiques from China, Japan, Korea, etc). And yet "continental" persists among pen collectors, even though English-speaking collectors have known for at least thirty years now that these fancy overlays are distinctively Italian and not generically European at all. This may largely be force of habit among older collectors, with the continuing influence of classic reference books a factor as well.

Let us finally retire "Continental" -- it is misleading and obsolete. Let us give credit where credit is due and call these pens what they are, which is Italian. No other country had so many independent workshops making such a variety of overlays, nor can the characteristic style and elaboration of these Italian overlays be mistaken for the product of any other European country. Not that French and German overlays aren't also distinct in design and style -- which is all the more reason not to lump them all together under the same catchall name.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Unpacking "made on original Parker machinery"

There is a misconception among pen collectors regarding the claim that certain aftermarket pen parts were made on original Parker machinery. While the claim might be narrowly true, the use of an ex-Parker buffing wheel or drill press isn't what is called to mind. Rather, the implication is that the aftermarket parts were made in exactly the same way as the originals and to the exact same specifications. If we are talking about plastic parts, this they were not.
These parts were machined, not molded. Parker made them using automatic screw machines, which were large and very expensive programmable analog machine tools that could be configured to produce all sorts of parts. The size and cost (even used) of such machines made them utterly impractical for a small shop, along with the difficulty and expense of setting them up. They were only suitable for large-scale mass production, and nowadays have been almost entirely replaced by digitally-controlled CNC machine tools. Even if one were to gain access to an ex-Parker screw machine, it wouldn't be any different from one that had been used to make bicycle or clock parts. The machine itself wasn't what made the parts so much as its programming. 

Friday, August 4, 2023

Plastic replacement cartridges for Eagle glass-cartridge pens


Eagle's glass-cartridge fountain pens are relics that I've always been content to regard as nonfunctional historic curiosities. A few years ago though after multiple requests for usable examples I adapted a few to use rubber sacs as simple squeeze-fillers. I only used pens missing their cartridge attachment nipples (originally soft rubber, they harden with age and sometimes crumble away entirely) which I replaced using hard rubber or plastic. A sac could just as well have been attached to an original hardened nipple, which would have been completely reversible. Nonetheless, I felt more comfortable installing sacs only on pens which already needed some degree of reconstruction, a few of which I already had around. Though the squeeze-filler conversion was less than elegant, implementing something closer to the original design was stymied by my inability to find a suitable modern replacement cartridge.

Completely by chance a small hoard of plastic storage vials came my way that turned out to be just the right size, requiring only to be shortened by 1/4 inch. Since their wall thickness is significantly less than that of the original glass cartridges, an original cartridge nipple is too small to fit.

The pen above was missing its original nipple so a new one of hard rubber was made to original dimensions. As an experiment, a retaining groove was cut so an O-ring could be installed to provide a seal. While the same could be done to an original nipple, leaving it intact would be far preferable. And, as I found out after further experimentation, far easier.

The section assembly above retains its original cartridge nipple. Rather than fit it for an O-ring, I cut a short ring from the end of a #14 ink sac and attached it with shellac. A smaller size sac was used so it would stretch to fit, its end wrapping around the end of the nipple slightly to create a rounded profile, allowing for easy insertion into the cartridge.

The photo above shows the same assembly with the cartridge mounted (though barely visible: I should have roughened or fogged the clear plastic to make it more visible). This adaptation is both cheap and fully reversible. If you try it, you will probably find that the rubber plug that the nipple is part of does not fit the section's metal outer shell tightly enough to prevent leakage. Since the material was originally soft rubber, when new it would have fit inside the metal shell like the cork in a bottle. Now that it has hardened, an ink-tight seal can be obtained using shellac or a product such as Captain Tolley's.

Please don't try mounting an original glass cartridge onto a nipple modified in this way. The glass is thin and sure to break. Instead, you could cut a slightly longer piece from a #16 sac, attaching it to the nipple with shellac and inserting the other end into the glass cartridge. A smear of silicone grease should keep the joint ink-tight. Make sure the sac is big enough; not all #16 sacs are identical, so it would be wise to pick one that is on the larger size.

The photo above should give you an idea of how this works, though I only had a damaged original cartridge handy (you can see the mouth isn't fully intact). The intact cartridge shown at the bottom of the photo below might have served, but it was stuck too firmly in place. 

NOTE: When cut to 2.75 inches long the new plastic cartridges fit Eagle barrels perfectly. So why are the original glass cartridges 1/4 inch shorter? The reduction in ink capacity is not a big deal, but that extra space at the end of the barrel could conceivably allow the cartridge to move far enough to come off the nipple. The answer is that these cartridges were designed to fit inside the barrel, filled and stoppered with a little cork plug, abutting the section nipple without being mounted upon it. 

The cartridge above has been emptied and cleaned, but the photo otherwise shows how these pens were originally sold, with a cartridge inside the barrel, sealed and uninstalled.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Rendell and Fairchild revelations from the R. G. Dun collection

The R.G. Dun collection of 19th-century credit reports first came to my attention years ago with the publication of Barbara Lambert's A. T. Cross monograph (Writing History, 1996). Though housed nearby at Harvard's Baker Library it was only last week that I finally made my first visit. While I had been hoping to find new insights into the relationships between early manufacturers of fountain pens and pen parts, it turned out that the collection ends a few years too early to be helpful there. Where it proved to be most informative was in the span from the 1850s through the 1870s, the heyday of the dip pen.

As I am still learning my way around the collection -- the librarians have been unfailingly welcoming and helpful -- it will be a while before there are any proper writeups. Nonetheless, there have been enough fresh discoveries that it's worth sharing a few of them now.

The first entry in the Dun records that I have found for gold pen pioneer John Rendell is from 1855. His partnership with Leroy W. Fairchild was then less than three years old. While I had previously speculated that Fairchild had apprenticed with Rendell, it appears that Fairchild hadn't come to Rendell as a penmaker at all, but rather as a salesman and bookkeeper having been previously employed in that capacity by the stationery firm of William H. Arthur & Co. While the report praises both men only Rendell is described as "a practical pen-maker", while Fairchild's business and money management skills are cited as the mainstay of the business's success.

My previous efforts to find out when the Rendell & Fairchild partnership was dissolved were not successful. The Dun records, however, put the date of dissolution at the beginning of August 1857 with Fairchild buying out Rendell for $5400, partly in cash and with six months to complete payment. Rendell was to stay on as an employee for up to three years -- though as we know, he died only eighteen months later under tragic circumstances.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Making safety pens yet safer

A customer was recently asking about safety pen leakage. A safety with good seals should be as leakproof as any fountain pen could be. That doesn't mean, however, that it can't leave a mess quite without any leakage. One example is how ink can end up spattering in tiny droplets when the nib is extended if there happens to be a film of ink spanning the barrel opening when the pen is uncapped, like the soap solution across a bubble-blowing wand.

My customer's issue was something a bit different, though. It seems it was a matter of ink sticking to the plug inside the cap. When the cap is tightened the plug is pressed firmly against the barrel mouth, as can be seen in the photos above and below. Yet as the closeup below shows, any ink that ends up sticking to the face of the plug is going to drip into the threads once the cap is removed and set on its side. And from the cap threads it will soon enough end up on the barrel threads and thence on the writer's fingers.

I've never seen any discussion of how to deal with this issue -- neither in original instructions and repair manuals, nor by modern-day collectors or repairmen. So here is a solution I came up with: 
Moisten a cotton swab with a little alcohol and clean off the face of the plug, then once it is dry use another swab to give it a thin coat of wax. This should greatly reduce the ability of ink to stick to the plug, and is similar to how ink bottle caps are typically equipped with a sealing disk of ink-shedding plastic.

For anyone contemplating making new safety pens, I would suggest making the plug out of a modern material that is inherently ink-shedding. Teflon immediately comes to mind, though acetals such as Delrin are also quite hydrophobic and much easier to machine.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Research in progress: rewriting the history of the first retracting-nib safety pens


I recently promised Pennant editor Jim Mamoulides a few short articles on early safety pens. Over the years I'd managed to accumulate some interesting examples by Horton, Moore, and Caw's -- the "Big Three" in this rather obscure byway of fountain pen history -- and it seemed as if it would be easy to throw together some simple descriptive articles.

Silly me. "Can of worms" doesn't begin to describe what I've opened up. It turns out that a lot of what has been repeated for decades about the first safeties simply doesn't add up. Nor is it proving any easier to figure out what actually did happen. Clearly there are huge missing pieces to this particular puzzle, which is why I am putting this post out here in the hopes that others may have information that I might have overlooked -- though I suspect the answers I'm seeking are not to be found in any online records currently available, as I've been quite diligent in searching all the standard databases, free and paid.

Here are some of the more interesting issues I've identified to date:
  • The Caw's safety was introduced in 1895. Ads and imprints reference patent US533942 of 2/12/1895. No one seems to have remarked that the only claim in that patent is for the nib and feed arrangement. In fact, the pen shown is a sliding-action safety of the sort described in Moore's patent of 1896! 
  • The key patent for a safety with a turning internal helix was Peck & O'Meara's US523234 of 7/17/1894. And in 1895 the Horton Pen Company was just getting started after having acquired Peck & O'Meara's entire manufacturing operation -- including, it would appear, their patents. How could Caw's have gotten away with such a brazen infringement? The more I think about it, the more impossible it seems. Surely F. C. Brown was a licensee, though no mention of the Peck & O'Meara patent appears in Caw's ads, catalogs, or imprints. Seeing how Brown didn't lose an opportunity to trumpet all the patents he had (on later Caw's safeties the patent imprints run almost all the way around the barrel, headed by "F. C. BROWN PATENTS") I can only surmise that the flip side of this was an aversion to acknowledging any patents other than his own. [UPDATE: Upon closer examination, I can now see how Brown might have been able to evade the Peck & O'Meara patent at least in part by using a single-slot mechanism and a separate internal sleeve to carry that slot]
  • It has been claimed that Caw's bought up all the assets of the Horton Pen Company after it failed. I can find no evidence of any such failure. Horton appears in New Haven city directories all the way through 1901, after which it was acquired -- but by Frazer & Geyer, not Brown. There are plenty of retailer ads for Horton pens through 1899 at least as well as other mentions indicating production overlapping with that of Caw's for several years.
  • If Caw's was a licensee of Horton, as the notes above suggest, was Horton also supplying pens or pen parts to Caw's? Caw's was already producing the Dashaway so did not necessarily need a new subcontractor. On the other hand, making the safety spirals was something new. It may be significant that the interior structure of Caw's and Horton safety barrels is different, the straight tracks being cut directly into the barrel interior for the Horton, but cut into an inserted sleeve for the Caw's. 
  • Whether or not Horton was doing any manufacturing for Caw's, it does appear to have been doing so for Morris W. Moore during his short-lived effort at independent pen production, prior to selling out to Cushman. The evidence for this is just one pen: the unmarked safety that I shared in a private Facebook group a while back that is virtually identical to what is shown and claimed in Moore's first 1896 patent. There are a couple of construction details that differ from the patent diagrams but which correspond to peculiarities of early Hortons, including near-interchangeable caps.
  • The one patent date that appears on Caw's safeties that doesn't reference one of Brown's inventions is Sep 8, 1896 -- the date of the two Moore patents assigned in part to F. C. Brown. It is likely the second that was actually used, which claims a tapered rather than a cylindrical barrel mouth bore. This raises the question of what relationship Brown had with Moore at the time that the 1896 patent-style pen was made (which could have been as early as late 1894). Did Brown provide any sort of assistance to Moore? Or was it nothing more than Brown paying Moore for patent rights?
  • It has also been claimed that Waterman acquired or licensed patents belonging to F. C. Brown for their own safeties. I can find no evidence for this, and it is noteworthy that no such patents are referenced in Waterman safety imprints where one would expect them.
  • It has been claimed that Caw's patent US612013 of 1898 was for the helical retraction mechanism, and that this patent was sold to Waterman. Except that's not what the patent claims: it is solely for an improvement to such mechanisms, where the driving peg is equipped with a rolling bearing to reduce wear.
  • The Nichols patent of 1903, referenced on the caps of older Wateman safety pens, doesn't seem to contain much that is novel aside from the inner cap plug closure.
  • Possible missing-link or offshoot models that I don't own but would like to be able to acquire or examine: Phelps Safety; Lincoln Safety; Atlantis.