Friday, July 5, 2024

Happy 120th anniversary to the inner cap!

The humble but indispensable inner cap was patented 120 years ago today. One of August Eberstein's  greatest contributions to fountain pen design, US patent 764227.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Gooptu's pens: two that got away


The following was written back in 2005 as a short piece for the now long-defunct magazine Stylus. From what I recall it didn't end up getting published, and I never got around to sharing it properly afterwards.

The two pens shown above were acquired together some years ago.  One is a U.S.-made Waterman 55 from the 1920s; the other is an Indian-made eyedropper-filler with a transparent barrel, probably from the 1940s.  The latter is identified on its clip as a Gooptu’s “Perfection”, and it would appear that the Waterman belonged to its maker – for its barrel bears the personalization “RAI. SAHEB. F. N. GOOPTU/1925” [Fanindra Nath Gooptu, the company founder].

A small story, to be sure, but one that leads to another.  For while an online search for “Gooptu” and “pen” yields nothing about the penmaker [NOTE: this was back in 2005], it leads to an anecdote about Gandhi and another Gooptu pen, as recounted in 1948 by writer, teacher, and politician P. G. Mavalankar (d. 2002):

“It was May 1944. Bapu [Gandhi] was at Juhu.  I went to him with my father. After the talks (between him and my father) were over, I placed in Bapu's hands my autograph- book for his autograph. He took the book with the five- rupee note, and asked for a fountain pen, which was then offered to him by my father. But he returned it, stating that it was of foreign make. He even rejected my pen, which was known as 'Gooptu's Perfection' and was made at Calcutta, under the impression that it was of foreign make. He signed his autograph with a pen lying near him. While signing his autograph, he gave us, in a romantic manner, the history of his own pen. He said: "Once I had been to Banaras.  Mahadev was with me.  I lost my pen there.  Mahadev was naturally upset. So our host, the late Shivaprasad Gupta, presented a pen to me.  He gave one to Mahadev also.  I am still using that pen.  It is entirely Indian-made – manufactured in Banaras – and it works well." After saying this, he said with a smile: "I was told the story (of the manufacture of the pen) by Shivaprasad.  I do not know anything about it. But what he stated must have been true."

Several years later I ended up selling both of the two pens to an Indian collector, with whom I have unfortunately lost touch. Now, of course, there is much information to be found online about Indian pens and their makers, with Gooptu the subject of a biographical entry in Wikipedia and his pens eagerly sought after though very difficult to find. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

Dating those reverse-threaded Conklin crescent-filler sections

As if I weren't busy enough already, I've been serving for some time now as Librarian for the Pen Collectors of America (a venerable nonprofit collector-run organization, well worth supporting -- please consider joining, or rejoining if you've let your membership lapse). If you've not checked out the online Reference Library lately, you are in for a surprise: over the last few years fresh material has been added at a steadily accelerating pace, with no slowing in sight.

A recent addition is the Conklin service manual whose cover is shown above. While preparing the listing I noticed something remarkable: on pages 3 and 8 Conklin's notorious left-handed section-barrel joint is illustrated and described as a newly introduced feature. 

These left-handed four-start threaded sections have long been known to pen collectors, but I've never seen anyone propose a date or proffer any company literature in which they are described. Finding these mentions in a datable Conklin document is therefore a bit of a discovery. "Datable" rather than "dated", however, as the manual has to be dated indirectly. We can start by noting that the San Francisco address shown on the cover was in use no earlier than the very end of 1920, while the listing of the Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston branch offices has to predate September 1922, when London and Barcelona were added. On top of this, we have in the Reference Library a mailing that went out from Conklin to dealers under a cover letter dated January 20, 1921. The mailing was to promote Conklin's service kits, and the flyer included reproductions of two pages from the kit's manual, which correspond exactly with our manual. While it is possible that the manual was published in more than one version, in all likelihood we are looking at just one edition, printed at the very beginning of 1921. This would put the introduction of the reverse-threaded sections towards the end of 1920. How long they remained in production is another matter. To my knowledge they never appeared on any Conklin lever-fillers, nor do they show up on the Endura-era crescent-fillers with flat cap tops. I would guess that this "improvement" was quickly dropped after Conklin was flooded with dealer complaints about broken barrels.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

A repair manual for early mechanical pencils

 Information on the repair of antique pencils is much more difficult to find than for fountain pens. The skill set required is different, and notably eclectic.

So it is with considerable gratitude that I am conveying the offer of a specialized repair manual by its author, Winfried Neu. He has asked that any interested collectors contact him directly for the pdf files at no charge, at novusneu (at)  Please put "Repair telescopic pencils" as the subject to keep your emails from being treated as spam. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Parker Wood Pen

The Parker Wood Pen is one of the most enigmatic of limited editions. Solid documentation is hard to come by, and most of what is known to collectors is hearsay. This is not surprising for a design that was reportedly squelched by Parker's top management before it was fully produced or marketed, as noted on Tony Fischier's page -- one of the few online references to discuss the Wood Pen at all. 

I recently acquired a small group of boxed Wood Pens and in one box came the letter shown below. Although undated, it must date between 1980, when Willi Sieberger became president of Parker's writing instruments division in Janesville, and 1982, when he resigned from Parker "for personal reasons".

This letter raises questions. If the Wood Pen really was launched by Parker Germany without authorization from Parker USA, how is it that Sieberger would be putting his name on a promotional letter such as this? Could it have been that Sieberger thought that his appointment gave him authority to produce such a pen, only to find out otherwise? The letter certainly suggests that even if the Wood Pen idea came out of Germany, it also met with the approval of the head of the writing equipment division in Janesville -- a German, but in charge of operations worldwide. It would seem the story must have a few more twists than Parker Germany simply going off on their own only to be reined in by Parker USA. I have been in touch with Tony Fischier about this question, and from what he understands the directive to kill the Wood Pen came from the very top: the Parker family, who felt the Wood Pen did not comport with their idea of a Parker. How this would be connected to Sieberger's sudden departure shortly thereafter is for now only a matter of speculation.

Another puzzle posed by the letter is the list of seven woods. Fischier's site lists and illustrates eight, and I know of at least two German sample sets of eight pens, all in one box. Confusingly enough, each of these sets has paperwork that identifies the woods used -- different paperwork, but each lists only seven woods! The presence of one additional wood (which would seem to be angelin or partridgewood) isn't that hard to explain, especially if very rare: likely as not it is a material that was tried out and then dropped. The difficulty is in reconciling the other seven. Cocus is to be identified with Jamaican ebony, which is fairly straightforward. "Grendailla" (sic) is a little tougher, since grenadilla is another name for the African blackwood that comes first in the list, but it seems what was meant was granadillo, whose bold striping is consistent with the pen shown second from the bottom in Fischier's photo. Quajak and guajak both refer to lignum vitae. The "rosewood from Peru" is not a true rosewood and is probably what Fischier's site calls redwood. That leaves the tough question of reconciling the violet wood (or purpleheart) in the letter with the cocobolo in the sample sets' paperwork and in Fischier's list. As I have yet to see a Wood Pen in purpleheart, which is quite distinctive, it seems most likely that this wood was dropped and cocobolo substituted. 

A more straightforward insight from the letter regards the observed mismatching of the woods used for pens and boxes. Nearly all Wood Pen boxes are of the same material, no matter the wood used for the pens inside. The letter specifies that all boxes were to be made of Pau Rosa wood -- a reddish tropical hardwood that has usually been misidentified as redwood by pen collectors. It is certainly possible that early on the intention was to match woods, but the extreme rarity of boxes in other woods suggests that the idea was abandoned by the time production started.

The letter is silent on what happened to the pens remaining after the project was cancelled. There is some evidence in the packaging of the pens, however, which is notably inconsistent. Most have been found without boxes and some without numbers; the cardboard outer enclosures are seldom seen and yet still vary in how they are marked. While it is possible that unsold pens were recalled and destroyed, the evidence suggests that at least some ended up being disposed of otherwise, likely to Parker employees or their friends.

And though the sample size is too small to be definitive, the Wood Pen packaging that I have been able to examine also points to the pens being released in 1981 rather than 1980. A couple of examples would be pen #426 whose sale and guarantee certificate is dated October 20, 1981, and pen #368 which came with a generic Parker instruction sheet with a copyright date of January 1981. If any readers have other Wood Pens with documentation of date of sale, please let us know about them in the comments.

ADDENDUM: I have been informed of another example of the letter shown at top, accompanying a Wood Pen sold on eBay which came with warranty cards dated August 1981. There also seem to be multiple examples of boxes with the plaque engraved "A. B. Cremer" and "000". My guess is that this is a made-up name (the initials "ABC" are a clue) used for salesman's samples. 

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.