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 has 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.

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Conway Stewart "pump-action" pen

One never knows what might be lurking on a table at a pen show. This unprepossessing black hard rubber pen caught my eye with its unusual shape and obvious quality. On closer inspection, its imprints identified it as a very early Conway Stewart, but not a model I recognized.

The nib bears no name, and is ventless. Underneath, its front part is roughened -- a holdover from gold dip pen nibs that was eliminated from fountain pen nibs during the 'teens. 

The screw cap has an imprint with an arrow at its top to show which way to turn it to unscrew, another typically early feature. The feed is notable, consisting of two flat fingerlike projections, with a narrow rectangular projection below. The projections are so flat they reminded me of the Wirt safety, and sure enough there is a axial post inside the cap that extends under the feed when the cap is on, making contact with the rectangular projection, which can slide back and forth. Clearly it was originally spring-loaded, and the post would push it down and seal the central hole in the feed when the cap was fully tightened.

Once I got home, I took a look at Steve Hull's Conway Stewart monograph, Fountain Pens for the Million. Sure enough, on page 15 our mystery pen appears: The Conway Pump-Action Pen. At the time the book was written no actual examples were known to the author, but the engraved illustration turns out to be an accurate depiction in all details.

Coincidentally, on the same page there begins a discussion of how Conway Stewart made no pens of their own from the company's founding up through 1909. Elsewhere it is noted that a substantial number of pens sold by Conway Stewart during their early years were American-made. Could this pen have been a Wirt product? The shutoff valve and the ventless nib certainly point in that direction.

The reciprocating valve on Wirt safeties is different, as it uses a weight rather than a spring. The flat feed is gold and one-piece, not hard rubber. Just as was the case with stylographic pens, a weight is less likely to break than a spring. Though our Conway does not appear to have seen a great deal of use, its gold spring had broken (a replacement was made from corrosion-resistant stainless steel).

Wirt's patent was issued on December 13, 1910 as US978419. Actual manufacture and sale started earlier -- judging from advertising and trade journal mentions, around the time the patent application was submitted on October 31, 1908.

The Wirt safety patent is written rather narrowly, making quite specific claims for a metallic feed and the form of the valve. No mention is made of alternative feed materials or the possibility of using a spring, so while the Wirt design is tantalizingly similar, it is also sufficiently different that the Conway's design may well be covered by another patent entirely which I have not yet been able to identify. Perhaps that patent is British, as a close examination of all the US patent databases turns up nothing.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Anomalous Aikin Lambert fountain pen nibs

As prior research has shown, until well into the 20th century almost all American fountain pen manufacturers bought their nibs from specialist suppliers. Even some of the largest and most successful companies did not bring nib manufacture fully in-house until the 'teens or twenties. Exactly who was making what for whom and when remains a puzzle that will take years to put together, but we can be sure that certain companies with a long history of gold dip pen nib production were not only making nibs for themselves. One such company is Aikin Lambert, which was taken over by Waterman from around 1906, but which was working closely enough already in the 1880s to have their nibs listed alongside Fairchild's in the charts in Waterman flyers showing which size nibs went with which holders. Not surprisingly most Aikin Lambert fountain pen nibs closely resemble Waterman-marked nibs. They have similar proportions and have heart-shaped vent holes. But there are exceptions which make the experienced collector sit up and take notice.

The nib at left has a very distinctive keyhole pierce, identical to those found on Parker Lucky Curve pens of the first and second decades of the 20th century. Offhand I cannot think of any other contemporary pen brand with a pierce anything like it. What does this suggest regarding where Parker was getting at least some of its nibs?

The nib in the center has an oval pierce that is also distinctive, albeit not to the same degree. While it also recalls Parker-marked nibs, similar pierces are also found on gold dip nibs from multiple makers. I have included it here nonetheless, circumstantial as its evidence may be.

The nib at right has a pierce at least as distinctive as the keyhole. Star-shaped pierces on gold nibs are virtually unique to Fairchild, with it generally accepted that the few known examples of early Waterman nibs with such pierces were Fairchild-made (Fairchild being Waterman's first documented nib supplier). So what is such a pierce doing on a nib made by a rival firm? I can only speculate that any earlier rivalry dating back to the dip pen era would have been history by the time this nib was made in the early 20th century, and that Aikin Lambert and Fairchild's nibmaking operations likely ended up converging under Waterman. We know that Waterman absorbed Aikin's nibmaking operation into their own by around 1910; so far, we know much less about the later history of Fairchild. This nib, however, suggests that by the 'teens Fairchild may no longer have been producing their own nibs -- suggesting in turn that their nibmaking operation had by then been sold to Waterman.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Fairchild figural pencil: Winchester 1890

This figural magic pencil I hadn't seen before. It's a Fairchild in the shape of a rimfire round, gold filled with a silver "bullet".

Between its proportions and the prominent "WINCHESTER" visible once the pencil is extended, it is clear that the round represented is a .22 Winchester Rim Fire (WRF). This pencil was likely made as a promotional item at the time the round was introduced in 1890. Its dimensions are about half again as large as an actual round, however, with the "bullet" around 0.3 inches in diameter.

Opposite the "WINCHESTER" imprint is the Fairchild mark, along with a patent date of September 23, 1879. Several Fairchild patents were issued on that date, all design patents for different novelty pencils, but none for a pencil like this. Perhaps premarked components originally made for different figural pencils were utilized for this special-order design. Another possibility is that the date refers to  a Winchester patent for a method of manufacturing hollow-point bullets, US219840, though this seems less likely.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Unbranded pens: a French case study

The number of companies that made pens was considerably smaller than the number of companies that sold them. Many pen retailers did no manufacturing at all, relying instead upon contract manufacture. This is neatly illustrated by the group of French safety pens from the 1920s shown above, all but four unimprinted. The imprints all differ, though the pens themselves are otherwise identical.

Only one pen in the lot retains its original warranted 18K nib. It is an unmarked pen, shown below. Who was the actual maker? I don't know -- but I do know that it will be interesting to see what pen history sleuths will be able to find out in the years ahead about all the behind-the-scenes arrangements between makers and sellers. 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Shellac on sections

The above passage is to be found in the July 1919 issue of Parkergrams, a Parker publication for dealers. By all evidence, this was standard practice for the era -- and for many modern-day repairers, remains so. Although some now advocate omitting the shellac, there are further reasons for using it that should be borne in mind. A shellac-sealed barrel-section joint must be warmed to be opened, which greatly reduces the brittleness of the parts and the risk of breakage in disassembly and reassembly. If the joint is not threaded, shellac reduces the risk of breakage in use, as the bond evenly distributes the stress of writing pressure across the entire section-barrel contact area. Without shellac, the stress is concentrated at the top front edge of the barrel mouth. Shellac also acts as a seal, preventing ingress of ink into the section-barrel joint should the pen be dipped too deeply into the ink bottle when being filled.

ADDENDUM: Shellac is also called for when the section is a tight fit inside the cap. We recently had to re-shellac a pen where the friction between the section and the cap interior was greater than that between the section and the barrel; uncapping the pen, the section ended up detached and stuck inside the cap. This is even more of a consideration where the cap threads onto the section, not the barrel.