Sunday, April 11, 2021

Why toothpaste is a bad choice for pen polishing

Popular recommendations can lead you astray. One example is the use of toothpaste to polish pens, and especially nibs and metal trim. Experts on antique silver warn against using toothpaste, but the websites I've seen don't explain why. So here's the scoop.
The abrasives used for toothpaste aren't carefully graded for particle size, unlike abrasives specifically intended for polishing precious metals and plastics. In large part that's because they are specifically chosen to be hard enough to scour off gunk sticking to your teeth, without being so hard as to scour off the hard outer layer of your teeth themselves. On a gold nib or gold plated trim, though, it's a different story. The toothpaste abrasive is much harder than those surfaces, and because the grit size is uneven, will remove an excessive amount of material while still leaving the surface covered with fine scratches.

Overall, you are best off using a jeweler's cloth -- the Sunshine brand being one of the most popular and widely distributed.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

An unusual 1880 patent Cross stylographic pen

This unprepossessing Cross stylograph arrived along with a group of early Cross nibbed fountain pens -- the centerpieces of the lot. Upon closer examination, however, this conventional-looking stylo turned out to have some unusual features.

The writing tip is typical enough on the outside, but the gold needle is stepped, with a thicker body and a thinner end. Needles are normally made from wire of constant thickness. Then there is the oddly fastened retaining wire through the hard rubber shaft.

Once the end cap at the other end of the barrel is unscrewed, there is something else out of the ordinary: a metal ball. Trying to figure out how the pen worked, I pushed down on the needle to see if it was spring-loaded. It was, but not in the usual way where the needle moves and the central shaft stays fixed. Here the entire central shaft was spring-loaded, and when it was pushed back into the barrel, the little metal ball at the end was pushed off its seat as well. Clearly they formed a single assembly, with the ball hooked to the central shaft via an attached loop and hook.

What was this supposed to accomplish? My initial thought was that this was some sort of early valve design, where the pressure of writing would move the needle back and allow the ball valve to admit just enough air to keep the ink flowing. Such overelaborate valve designs are found in many early fountain pen patents of this same era, though few actual examples are known. In this case, however, the possibility was immediately ruled out by the length of the needle -- not long enough to protrude, nor to be pushed back in use -- and the excessive stiffness of the spring. Fortunately, this guesswork did not have to be relied upon, since the pen bears good clear patent imprints for June 29, 1880. Issued on that date to A. T. Cross was US patent 229,305.

Several variations are shown and described, with the same central concept. The actuation of the mechanism is not via the needle, but rather via the ball -- which is a knob, not a valve. The patent explains that the arrangement "provides convenient means for clearing the fine tube at the lower end of the ink-chamber, or at the point of the pen, from interfering sediment or ink deposit, without the necessity, as heretofore, of either opening or partially opening the ink-chamber". The inks of the 1870s and 1880s were not always optimally free-flowing, hence this attempt to create a pen with a self-unclogging mechanism -- a "tube-clearing spindle", in the parlance of the patent. In case of a stoppage, the end cap was to be unscrewed and the little ball pulled and allowed to snap back into place. Whether this would have squirted ink out the nozzle is not noted in the patent, though it seems all too probable.
Cross patented numerous stylographic pen mechanisms, not all of which are known to have been produced. This is one that I do not recall having seen before.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Inks for vintage pens

As more fountain pen enthusiasts venture into the world of vintage pens, the question often arises -- what inks are safe? We've had a discussion of this posted for some time in our website FAQ, and I'd encourage readers to click through to read it. What I'd like to emphasize here is that vintage pens are not all alike. 

Older pens can differ radically in both materials and construction. Hard rubber pens that are filled manually with a dropper -- mostly dating to the 1920s and earlier -- can handle any ink around. Hard rubber is extremely resistant to chemicals of all sorts, more so in fact that any modern pen plastic. Hard rubber retracting-nib safety pens can even be used with India inks. 

Pens with a built-in filling mechanism which have hard rubber sections and feeds and which hold their ink in a rubber ink sac fall into a different category. No harm is going to be done to the hard rubber section assembly, and since the ink isn't in contact with other parts such as the cap or the barrel, they don't have to be worried about. The concern with this class of pens is pretty much exclusively the ink sac -- a relatively cheap and usually easily-replaced part. The standard material for sacs is latex rubber, and some inks are known to play badly with latex. In some cases this can be gotten around by using a sac made from a more resistant material such as silicone or PVC. For more information on this, see our FAQ discussion linked above and our Pen Sacs Primer.

Those vintage pens for which ink selection is most important are the ones which hold their ink directly in contact with celluloid or cellulose acetate parts. These materials are more permeable than hard plastics such as acrylics, and are thus vulnerable to staining. Examples of such pens are Parker Vacumatics, Sheaffer plunger-fillers, and older German piston-fillers, as well as a multitude of pens that use ink sacs but which have celluloid sections with transparent ink windows. 

Finally, it should be noted that it can be a real pain to change inks with certain older pens. Perhaps the most extreme example would be the capillary-filling Parker 61, but earlier pump-filling Parker 51s and to a lesser extent Vacumatics also take a lot of work to empty and rinse. These pens were not designed for regular ink-switching, so best to select another model if you plan to change inks frequently -- or just buy more of them!

Friday, August 21, 2020

Replacement Duofold arrow-imprint nibs

One thing new collectors soon learn about Parker Duofolds -- Senior and Junior sizes, in particular -- is that a large number are now found with later nibs. Whereas the original nibs from the 1920s and 1930s bear a PARKER/DUOFOLD imprint, these replacements are marked with an arrow similar to that used on the nibs of Vacumatics. Though these are sometimes called Vacumatic nibs, those found on Senior-size Duofolds are not: they are shaped completely differently from Vacumatic nibs, and if you want to get really into details, the arrow has a different number of feathers. In fact, these nibs were specifically made as replacements. If you pull one out of its section, you'll typically see two stamps, "R" denoting "replacement", and a star indicating coverage under the original Duofold guarantee (see the 1946 and 1947 Parker Service Manuals, pp. 44-5 and pp. 57-8 respectively). When you find an older Duofold with one of these factory replacement nibs, it will inevitably be mounted with a replacement comb feed, which Parker considered an improvement over and upgrade from the original "spearhead" feed.

I have not made a systematic study of these nibs as yet. Going through examples on hand, I found none earlier than 1941. Quite a few bear date codes for 1946 and 1951, suggesting significantly larger production runs in those years. This may have been due to a surge of postwar repair demand, but could also reflect Parker's practice of periodically clearing out stocks of older spare parts by assembling them into complete pens.

ADDENDUM: Arrow nibs found in 1920s and 1930s Duofold Juniors do seem to be standard Vac nibs with added stamps to the heel. I'll follow up on this to confirm, and will update in a few days.

Early examples of replacement Senior nibs, date codes for first quarter and last quarter 1941. Production clearly began before the USA's entrance into WW2.

These nibs were produced throughout the war years. These examples are dated 1944 and 1945.

Postwar nibs are more common, however: these are from 1946 and 1948. Parker clearly took customer service seriously, continuing to provide warranty support for their former flagship pens decades after they were originally sold.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Greek nib breaththrough

It's now been several years since I posted on a mysterious group of early 20th-century American-made pens with Greek imprints. Not having worked on them in the interim, it was an especially pleasant surprise to have received this note from my fellow pen enthusiast Panos, reproduced here in full with his permission and my gratitude:

Dear David,

I hope you are keeping well in these difficult times.

I'm writing you because I believe that I can offer a humble contribution to your blog on the subject of the "Greek Nib" pens article

I actually read your article for the first time a couple of years ago (or perhaps more), but it was only recently that I decided to do a little research of my own on the subject. After all, speaking the Greek language provides a certain advantage in such cases…

After completing my research, I can safely say that the reason, for which you were unable to discover any information on these pens, is that you are looking for the wrong name…. But, let us look into this in detail.

Indeed the pens in question were produced by the Kritikaki Brothers, which appear to have been active members of the Greek community in N.Y., and many of their customers must have been fellow Greek New Yorkers of the time. I have no information for a potential reseller in Greece, for these pens, but I suppose that Greek-Americans of the time may have brought their pen(s), or some pens as presents to relatives and friends, back to Greece on one of their visits. One way or another, this explains why one of the pens mentioned in your article, was "rediscovered" in Greece.

Now, it was more than often the case (and still is) that immigrants changed their names as part of their integration to the society they lived in. After all, the number of native English speakers that can properly pronounce Greek names must be minute in our days, and certainly, back then, in the beginning of the 20th century N.Y., it must have made the grand total of…. none at all. And this is, admittedly, not good for business… So, among the Greek community the company was known as the "ΑΔΕΛΦΟΙ ΚΡΗΤΙΚΑΚΗ" (Kritikaki Brothers), but to the general American public, they were the... "KRITIKSON BROTHERS" or "KRITIKSON BROS."! And although the Greek flags and the references to Beautiful Greece must have appealed to the customers from the Greek-American community, they also had pens for the rest of the American public.

But let's look at the actual evidence…

The weekly magazine "Η ΝΙΚΗ" of 17/08/1913  (The title means "The Victory" and we have to note that during the period of 1912-1913 Greece and its neighbours were awfully busy fighting the Balkan Wars, and thus both the title and many articles of the publication seem to depict this). I also like the typo in the title page (which only exists in this particular issue of the magazine, so it is indeed a typo) : "PUBLISHED BY THE GREEK BUBLISHING CO."

So, in its second [to] last page we have the advertisement for the model No 58, a black chased pen, featuring two gold plated bands with the Greek and the American flag. By the way "ΜΕΛΑΝΟΦΟΡΟΣ" actually means that the pen carries its own ink, and not that it has a black cladding. The thing that probably confused you is that the ancient (but also the modern) Greek word for "ink" comes from the ancient Greek word for "black", probably because the ink of the old times used to be always black…. But perhaps the most intriguing fact is that the advertisement states that their catalogue (which they are happy to send to you for free) contains 75 different kinds (of pens)!
By the way, I believe that you are right about the pen featuring King Constantine I. It must have been a  commemorative edition, for the accession of the king to the throne. He was also very successful in leading the Greek army during the Balkan Wars, and thus he must have been very popular among the Greeks in general. You can also see him on page 3 of the same magazine above "commanding an officer of his entourage".

Now, things become more interesting in this advertisement from the N.Y. Greek newspaper "ΑΤΛΑΝΤΙΣ" ("Atlantis", first appeared in 1894), from the 1st of January 1914. Here the Kritikson Brothers propose gifts from the new year's day (Greeks traditionally exchanged gifts on the first day of the new year, and not on Christmas) and it has a list of different models, including No 58.
I shall try to translate the model descriptions - Note that the description is using the word "jewel" where - I suppose - we would use the words "pattern" or "design" these days :

No 182. GOLD DECORATED. Gold plated with bright bands. $4.50
No 444. FLOWER DECORATED. Gold decoration with jewels depicting clover. $6.00
No 312. CLUSTER DECORATED. Gold plated in its entirety with clusters of colourless Greek and American flags. $6.50
No 121. GOLD BAR DECORATED. Gold plated in its entirety with clusters of bars. $7.00
No 484. FLOWER DECORATED. Gold plated in its entirety with jewels of orange tree flowers. $7.50
No 390. RIBBON DECORATED. Gold plated with ribbon like jewels. $6.50
No. 642. FLOWER WREATH DECORATED. Gold plated with wreaths of flowers and
branches. $9.00
No 560. VARIOUS DECORATIONS. Gold plated with various different jewels. $9.00
(Number missing) FLOWER DECORATED. Gold decorations with jewels depicting violets (Viola odorata). $6.50
No. 58. Black chased with two beautiful gold plated bands on which the Greek and the American flags are engraved $2.50 - With only one band $1.50. (note here that in the 1913 advertisement, the price of $1.50 was without any bands).
No. 805. Gold plated in its entirety, with square jewels.
No. 810. Gold plated in its entirety with jewels of squares and flowers.
No. 815. Gold plated in its entirety with jewels depicting stars.
No. 800. Gold plated in its entirety with jewels depicting flowers (which look suspiciously like fleur-de-lys, in other words, lilies).

Finally, and as all the pens appear to be clipless, the note at the end reads "Clip for the protection of the pen, gold plated 50c, nickel 15c".

Also, notice the nibs of the pens. I see mainly three different versions: - One with the letters A K, standing for the Greek version of their name ("ΑΔΕΛΦΟΙ ΚΡΗΤΙΚΑΚΗ"). - One with the letters K B, standing for the English version of their name ("KRITIKSON BROTHERS") - And the ones featuring all or some of the following: the Greek flag, the words "Η ΩΡΑΙΑ ΕΛΛΑΣ" (The Beautiful Greece), and the initials A K.

So far so good. But what happened to the Kritikson Brothers of New York? Well, it seems that they became the Kritikson Brothers of Chicago, and that they concentrated on producing their patented SECURITY PEN. I suppose that it was a good idea, as it would be very difficult to compete with companies like Waterman and Parker….

So, their Security Pen patents were filed between 1919 and 1921…

Security pens do not feature the Greek flag nibs, of course, and in the English language advertisements there is no mention of the Greek name of the brothers or anything like that…..

But, have a look at this advertisement in the Atlantis of 1921, providing the missing link…
The advertisement has the title "Where can I get one?", referring to the wonderful "SECURITY" CHECK PROTECTOR PEN, and, after enumerating the awesome features related to the pen (mechanism, nib, feeder and clip), it goes on to say "All the above features are PATENTED INVENTIONS of (the) Brothers Kritikaki, having 17 years of experience in this field and having founded, three years ago, the company "SETTLES PEN COMPANY" with a capital of $250,000. The factory is one of the largest and one of the most perfect in America, with annual production of 500,000 pens." It goes on to mention a provided 5-year warranty and prices of the pens. Interestingly, the pens were also available without the CHECK PROTECTOR, in which case they were lowered by $1.00. It also says that they  are seeking for partners in America and abroad.

So, we also learn that the Kritikaki Brothers were related to the SETTLES pens as well! And their 17 years experience means that they were involved in the fountain pen manufacturing since 1904!

Alright, I think this is enough research for this week! Surely this info does answer a good number of questions, and you may feel free to use it to expand your original article. On my side, I am glad that I seem to have discovered a previously unknown (?) Greek contribution to the fountain pen saga. Sadly, none of the Kritikakis Brothers' pens have made it to my
limited collection so far. Perhaps one day…


As noted in the previous articles, the pens offered by the Kritikson/Kritikaki Brothers during their early years in New York were made by other companies, such as Aikin Lambert and Eagle. It was only later that they began manufacturing on their own.

For those delving into the later history of the brothers, this account is found on p. 104 of Walden's Stationer and Printer, vol. 45 (November 1921), describing a tour of the factory by the former Prime Minister of Greece. The brothers are described as "native Greeks". For some reason Settles is misspelled as "Settels" throughout this volume.
In the following issue (December 1921, p. 64) there is some further biographical information on the brothers. Of particular interest is the mention of them buying "a few job lots of seconds from the factory which they assembled at home in the evening". From the phrasing it is not entirely clear, but it would seem to be saying that the seconds came not from Waterman, where John worked, but from the other, unnamed factory where George was employed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

While putting my reference shelves in order, I spent a little time browsing through this 1943 Spors catalog. Spors is best known to American pen collectors as the main prewar importer of cheap Japanese fountain pens, most notably the glass-nibbed crescent-fillers imprinted with the Spors name. With the outbreak of WW2 supplies of these pens were cut off, and this is duly noted on an inside page.

With evident discretion no mention is made of exactly where these pens had been coming from ("present conditions do not permit importations"). One wonders how seriously Spors was actually pursuing the possibility of manufacturing glass nibs on their own. Despite the loss of their Japanese suppliers, Spors managed to find other sources for pens -- which included not just their usual bottom-tier stuff, but also closeout stocks of models prized by collectors today.

Most notable must be the Conklin Nozacs, offered in multiple colors and as sets with matching pencils. The most expensive V-line pens were offered at just $5.95, or $6.90 as a set. By 1943 Conklin lived on in name only, its name affixed to the cheapest of economy pens (some of which appear elsewhere in this same catalog), but these Nozacs were from the company's better days -- and undoubtedly dumped as part of the company's sale and liquidation.

Wahl-Eversharp was still very much in business in 1943, though reorganized under the Eversharp name. They too had liquidated a great deal of older stock a few years before, some of which clearly made its way into Spors' inventory. Though not a top-line model, the Pacemaker shown above was a quality pen with strong Art Deco styling -- not common today, and a collector favorite. In 1943 you could have bought a dozen sets for $42, though for that price you had to make do with a manifold nib.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Hicks and Tiffany

It's long been clear that many pens and pencils were not actually manufactured by the companies that sold them. The majority of so-called makers relied heavily upon subcontractors. In some instances parts were purchased and assembled. At other times all was done by other firms. This is nicely illustrated by two pairs of sterling silver pencils, nearly identical but for their markings. All were made by Hicks, but one of each pair bears Tiffany markings instead.

The first two, at top, are good-sized magic pencils with octagonal barrels. They really are near-twins, the main difference being the treatment of the end knobs. The Tiffany version has a reserved rectangular cartouche on the shaft for the imprint, whereas the Hicks version carries its imprint on the front ferrule, with the Hicks acorn.

The second pair is of unusual form. They are both cedar pencil holders, but where most such holders use a slider to extend and retract the wooden pencil insert, these are twist-action and very heavily constructed. The markings are much the same as those on the magic pencils.

Once again the main stylistic difference is in the treatment of the end caps, though with these two there is also a significant difference in overall length and in the form of the scrolling surface decoration. Beaded bands, characteristic of Hicks, are present on both.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Los Angeles pen show recap

This was going to be a more extensive writeup, but I managed to delete most of what I had written while trying to add photos via my phone. The photos you can see on Instagram. These notes will be short and to the point.

The good news about the LA show is the venue. The old site in Manhattan Beach, for all its benefits and history, was no longer an option. The new location offers plenty of food and shopping options within easy walking distance. Most importantly, there was lots of space in the exhibition ballroom. The table layout allowed for much wider aisles, keeping public-day congestion under control.

The bad news about the LA show is theft. There were two five-figure losses involving entire trays being taken, along with many more single losses. One of the big losses was on Sunday, but the other was on Thursday. The show is clearly being targeted, and it is a virtual certainty that the thieves are working in teams. Modern Montblancs seem to be their target of choice. As far as I know, no pens were taken from closed cases, and the biggest thefts were from tables piled high with inventory and difficult to watch closely.

In any event, this has become a problem that cannot be ignored. It is by no means limited to this particular show or indeed even to shows in the USA, but the recent losses have been so severe that we may finally be at a turning point. Where we go from here will be up to exhibitors and show organizers. Video recording of the exhibition area would be a likely first step. One of my colleagues recently set up at a jewelry show, and the cost to dealers for video monitoring was just $25 per booth. There are plenty of companies that provide such services to trade shows. Show organizers should also contract for rental of locking display cases. I would suggest that cases be made mandatory for exhibitors displaying merchandise over a certain value, or at least heavy pressure be applied for their use. From my own experience, if some dealers have their pens in cases and other have them out in the open, sales will go overwhelmingly to the dealers not using cases. To keep everyone safe while keeping the sales playing field level, it will be vitally important that everyone -- or at least, nearly everyone -- uses display cases in a consistent manner.

Video recording may not be all that effective if the local police force does not pursue property crimes aggressively. Unfortunately, that seems to be the trend in many urban areas in the USA. Some dealers have been wondering about the practicability of using RFID tags as theft detectors. From what I can see this could be a possibility, but would require show attendees leaving the trading area to go through a single exit door equipped with a scanner. Some of the necessary equipment could surely be rented; much would have to be purchased by the individual dealers, though, at a cost of thousands of dollars for off the shelf systems. The other measure to be looked into would be hiring undercover detectives, as opposed to the uniformed security guards used to date. Clearly, the latter haven't had a sufficient deterrent effect. Perhaps we would have better luck with specialists who can spot thieves without the thieves spotting them.

The other bad news about this year's LA show was weekend trader attendance. Saturday was pretty much dead, in terms of both traffic and sales. It's hard to pin down the cause, but surely the show's problems over the past few years have taken their toll. Two years ago the hotel was an active construction site, subjecting guests to closed facilities, concrete dust, noise, and multiple health and safety code violations. The year after, the exhibition space was moved downstairs to a room that was badly laid out and dangerously overcrowded (and thief-ridden). No surprise that former regulars might have decided to stay home after such experiences, waiting to see if the new venue worked out.  The big question now is if they will come back next year -- and that I cannot pretend to foresee.

Finally, there is the question of admissions structure. Once upon a time it made sense to have only two admissions options: a weekend trader pass, or a cheap Sunday-only admission ticket for the general public. When virtually all the trader-to-trader action is done on Thursday and Friday, however, Saturday becomes a wasted day. Why not offer a third option for Saturday admission, priced somewhere between the $65 of the weekend pass and the $8 of the Sunday ticket? Charge $15 or $20, call it "preview day" or "early admission".

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

An overmarked stylo

Quite a few penmakers offered stylographic versions of their standard fountain pens. Such pens tend to be uncommon, since nibbed pens were much more popular, so I was happy to add this big and colorful flat-top to my stylo collection.

Adding to its interest is its imprint -- or rather, imprints. The barrel was originally marked "WEIDLICH PEN CO./CINCINNATI, O. U.S.A." and was then overstamped "SWENSEN PEN CO./LOS ANGELES, CALIF."

There weren't a lot of West Coast pen companies back when this pen was made in the late 1920s or first part of the 1930s. Swensen is a company I've been meaning to look into for some time. It is listed as a Racine, Wisconsin company up until 1919. It had relocated to Los Angeles by 1921, and remained in business at least into the 1950s. "Venus" was one of Swensen's trademarks from an early date, but there does not seem to be any connection with the American Lead Pencil Company's yet earlier trademark for "Venus" wooden pencils, nor is it clear what happened when American Lead Pencil began making "Venus" fountain pens in the 1940s.

Like many smaller regional companies, Swensen likely did little if any manufacturing of their own.

Friday, December 6, 2019

An Eagle with filled imprint

I am not a fan of the fashion among many pen collectors of using china markers or the like to highlight imprints. In the vast majority of cases, imprints were not originally filled, and to my eye an imprint filled with bright white pigmented wax is glaring and throws off the overlay aesthetic balance of a vintage pen. There are some cases in which imprints were originally filled, but typically the infill was colored rather than white.

Eagle, for example, often filled their imprints with gold pigment. The pen above nicely retains its original infilling, in a special imprint for the well-known Albany, New York company, W. H. Sample & Sons, founded in 1871 and using this business name from 1917. The company sold cutlery, leather supplies, and sporting goods; its name is especially familiar to collectors of vintage straight razors.

Although the Eagle name does not appear anywhere on the pen, "Capitol" was an Eagle trademark, registered in 1906 but in use since 1890, and both the shield imprint on the nib and the ribbed section are characteristic Eagle design features. The pen likely dates to the later 'teens.