Saturday, June 29, 2013

The collapse of B. B. Stylo

The Bird Bill Pen Company (previous post here) had little success with its namesake product, but found a solid seller in its stylographic pen, the B. B. Stylo. At the beginning of the 1920s it all seemed very promising, yet in the space of some two years something went wrong and by the end of 1924 the company had gone bust.
Office Appliances, Dec 1921, p. 122
There are still many pieces missing from the puzzle, but the reason for the collapse now seems clear. While B. B. Stylo was making pens, the real action was in flogging its overpriced stock to naive investors. It seems the prime culprit was Arthur A. Smallwood, an operator best known for his machinations in the early film industry ("greedy" and "scheming", in a modern historian's assessment, along with his brother Raymond C.). Smallwood's connection to the company becomes visible only relatively late in the game, when he joins Albert S. Zimmerman and his son Albert I. (replacing his mother, Cora D.) as a B. B. Stylo director in the 1922 Brooklyn and Queens, New York, Copartnership and Corporation Directory (p. 390). Yet the shenanigans had already begun years before, as the following ad from the New York Herald (Nov 2, 1919, p. 20, col. 2) demonstrates.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Nib talk

The manner in which tipping material was applied to nibs a century ago often differs markedly from how it is done today. This is particularly pronounced with broad nibs; two good examples recently crossed my repair bench, one of which is shown above (the other was a Waterman slender #2 New York nib, mounted in a 402 straight-cap). At first glance, it seems there is no tipping at all.
Flip the nib over, however, and it is apparent that there is a healthy chunk of tipping present -- but attached so as to be covered with gold when viewed from above. The tip has not been worn down; rather, the tipping material was soldered into a recess ground into the underside of the nib's tip, so that the gold of the nib wraps around and supports the tipping material to the greatest extent possible.

This nib is a New York-made Mabie Todd #3, from a slip-cap eyedropper with an ebonite underfeed and a gold overfeed. Note that the forepart of the nib's underside has deliberately been roughened: a carryover from gold dip pen nib manufacturing practice, soon abandoned for fountain pen nibs.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Waterman clip discovery

A friend acquired the pen shown above earlier this year. Our page on Waterman overlay patterns describes it as follows:
An uncommon Filigree pattern from c. 1905-07 . . . found in both gold filled and sterling silver; a solid gold version was also offered in #4 size. This sinuous, abstract scrolling pattern appears to have been the first Filigree offered in materials other than fine silver.
Uncommon as this pattern is, this pen has a feature that is more unusual still. The clip bears a "PAT. APL'D FOR" imprint -- a mark that I had postulated existed, but had not found despite several years of searching.
I had suspected that Waterman had begun using its "Clip-Cap" clips prior to September 26, 1905, the date of issue of the US patent for that clip design (800141). But since the patent was granted relatively quickly (the application was filed on April 7, 1905), the "PAT. APL'D FOR" clips would have been made for less than six months -- and given how scarce they have proven to be, perhaps for a much shorter time than that. The picture below shows a clip bearing the post-issuance imprint with the September 26, 1905 date.
Our story has an unfortunate postscript. The pen with the "PAT. APL'D FOR" clip was recently stolen and is still missing. If it should resurface, do not hesitate to let me know so I can alert its owner.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

1942 Sugar Bowl pin

An ongoing project, eventually to be published in the PCA's magazine, The Pennant, has centered on a small number of early Parker 51s with smooth sterling caps and applied emblems for the 1942 Sugar Bowl. I'm not a football fan myself, but since I own one of these pens, I've picked up a few bits and pieces of related ephemera over the years. Recently I acquired a Missouri pin, complete with ribbons and attached stamped metal football. The football arrived rather squashed, probably because the pin had not been packed very well, and in straightening it out, I noticed something.
You may have to click on the detail above, but the football is clearly stamped, "JAPAN". The attack on Pearl Harbor had taken place just a bit over three weeks prior; this was probably one of the last such trinkets, at least for a good long time.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A flashy taper

Pearl tapers on Victorian dip pens are common; abalone, much less so. And alternating pearl and abalone? This is the first example I can recall seeing.
While alternating pearl and abalone slabs were commonly applied to magic pencils and to fountain pens, for some reason it just wasn't done for tapers. Perhaps the work was just too tricky to shape the ends without unacceptable rates of chipping or breakage. In any event, I know I'll be handling this one carefully.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Salz as a celluloid pioneer

The question of who started making celluloid fountain pens, and when, is somewhat reminiscent of discussions of who discovered America. Sheaffer is the equivalent of Columbus here: others had done it before, but without any lasting effect.

Everyone knows that Leboeuf started using celluloid several years before Sheaffer, but other companies were using it by the second decade of the 20th century -- though as a substitute for black hard rubber, rather than for its potential for color.

Years ago I noticed that some of the earliest colorful celluloid pens were Salz Brothers ringtops, often marked "GERMANY" on their caps. I didn't have any way of dating them precisely, though, nor did I have access to any advertisements or catalogs that would help. But tonight I found this, in The American Stationer of March 11, 1922, p. 20:
By the later 1920s, the question wouldn't have needed to be asked; it is telling, though, that in 1922 such a pen would have required some effort to find, and that the one manufacturer that this major trade journal could identify was Salz.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Held and B.B. Stylo

Most pen collectors have never heard of John Held and the Held Fountain Pen Manufacturing Company. Held's pens are not often seen, and they are best known for their distinctive "swing-filler" -- a short metal lever that does not pull away from the barrel, but pivots sideways instead. Despite years of effort, pen historians still have not been able to find any record of a patent or patent application for this lever, which also appears in identical form on pens made by B.B. Stylo and Williamson. The example below is a B.B. Stylo; the lever assembly is an elegantly simple design consisting of a piece of rod stock bent to shape, with the lever end stamped into a rectangular section. It is threaded through the pivot hole in the side of the barrel, and its end is snapped into place into a matching pivot hole on the other side. The lever is lightly sprung so that its end snaps into a shallow recess, preventing accidental movement once the pen has been filled.
Held was talented, multifaceted, and tirelessly enterprising. Much biographical information has been unearthed by Pete Sacopulos, who published a short article on Held in the summer 2010 issue of The Pennant (online access requires PCA membership), but one big question has been why Held pens all seem to bear a New York imprint. Held himself lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, operating a shop there that sold and repaired fountain pens and offered engraving services and stationery. None of the biographical sources I have found give any indication of any New York connections, and census records from 1900 to 1930 consistently place him in Salt Lake City, though it should be noted that only the 1920 census lists his profession as a manufacturer of fountain pens (the 1910 census has him as an engraver and stationer, which certainly does not preclude involvement in other related ventures).

Friday, June 14, 2013

A very special overlay

Even though they were manufactured in large quantities, filigree overlays required a great deal of hand work. Still, it is notable how minor the variations are from example to example -- and how rarely one finds a truly custom-made specimen. This pen is a Heath Tribune, a known model with a gold filled overlay identical to that supplied to Parker for its #16 pens. The cap overlay on this particular pen, however, was specially made to incorporate a monogram into the filigree pattern. Coincidentally, my friend Luiz recently acquired a very similar Parker 16, also with a monogram worked into the cap filigree pattern.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Two unusual Held pens

Held pens are scarce and their background story is not yet clear. I will be posting some new research results shortly, but for now let's take a look at a couple of rather unusual Held designs.
The first is rather roughly made, with a cap and barrel of aluminum decorated with zigzag incisions. The filling mechanism is the characteristic Held "swing-filler", where the lever pivots sideways rather than pulling away from the barrel. The lever is the only place marked "Held", and the marking is crude indeed.
The feed is a conventional wide-finned design, with the addition of a couple of vent holes drilled through. The nib is a contemporary Mabie Todd #2. Overall, the whole thing looks experimental -- a mockup thrown together using conveniently available parts.

The second pen is much more refined, and is fully marked. It was advertised as the Bird Bill Pen; the earliest advertisements I've found appear in 1915. I will discuss the ads and production dates in the upcoming Held post, and will concentrate on the pen itself here.
Capped, it appears conventional enough, though the sharp-eyed will notice the Held swing-filler lever.
Uncapped, one is suddenly confronted with what looks like a Parker 51 but 25 years too early: a hard rubber pen sold in the same year that Waterman introduced its first lever-fillers, equipped with a radically streamlined hooded nib.
The Held's hood might better be described as an integral overfeed. The feed channels are clearly visible with the nib removed. There is no underfeed, only a plug that holds the nib in place.
The nib itself is entirely conventional, though modified with an additional vent hole that immediately recalls the added holes in the other Held's feed. Others had been experimenting with similar vent holes on larger pens around this time, and Wirt had adopted a standard configuration comprising a ventless nib and a vented underfeed. Held's multiplication of vents goes still further.
Even though this was a production pen, it came with a warranted nib. Perhaps Held felt there was no sense in paying for imprinted nibs for a pen design in which the imprint would be covered.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

President Taft's other pen

A while ago I wrote about a special Waterman made for presentation to President Taft. Inquiries about this pen to the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Ohio went unanswered, so I'll try to contact them once again this coming week. In the meantime, here is a picture of a presentation pen that the Taft site definitely has in their collection. According to the description at the Ohio Memory site:
This gold quill pen was presented to William Howard Taft by Pope Leo XIII in 1903. The pen was used in signing the agreement between the Vatican and United States stating that the church-controlled land in the Philippines would be sold to the Philippines.

Sending an Eversharp home

Sometimes the sale is as interesting as the item. In this case, a fine silver-plated Eversharp pencil is now headed back to where it was manufactured -- as a gift to residents of the Roscoe Village Lofts, as the residential conversion of the former Wahl-Eversharp factory at 1800 Roscoe Street in Chicago is now known. The image below is from Wahl's 1928 catalog, available online through the PCA Reference Library.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Dissecting the Dictator

When this silver-overlaid Dictator fountain pen turned up at this year's Chicago Pen Show auction, a couple of thoughts went through my head. One was that this was a very well-made pen with a quirky design that few other bidders were likely to recognize: an ink-making sleeve-filler intended to be filled with water, with a powdered ink reservoir in the section. The other was that it had been many years since I had worked on a Dictator, and that while I did not remember the gory details, it had been an absolute beast to resac.

Nothing daunted, I brought the pen home and took it apart. And for good measure, I took apart two other Dictators I happened to have around the shop, photographing all three and taking notes. It was as beastly as I had remembered -- but now the details are recorded for posterity and future repairs should be much easier!
The picture above shows a plain black chased hard rubber Dictator that came apart nicely, albeit with lots of slow and gentle persuasion. You can see that the section consists of two parts that screw together, allowing access to the ink reservoir. What you can't see is that the barrel is fully lined with metal -- the sleeve-filler housing extends all the way through the barrel to its mouth -- and that the back half of the section is made of celluloid, and is especially thin-walled right where it gets the most stress during disassembly. Breakage here is extremely common, and since all other non-metal parts of these pens are conventional black hard rubber, it's all too easy to overdo it with the heat, further multiplying the chances of bad results. The picture below illustrates typical breakage, though in this example the broken part is hard rubber, not celluloid.
In order to make a repair with sufficient strength, a brass tubing liner was turned to fit and was epoxied inside. Luckily there was plenty of clearance between the inner walls of the ink-mixing chamber and the narrow ink reservoir tube inside. The inside of the brass tube was then given a protective coating of black-tinted epoxy to prevent direct contact between ink and metal. On reassembly, the inner walls of the barrel lining were cleaned and the mating surfaces lightly waxed to prevent them from seizing up.

But what about disassembly, you ask? Well, you may get lucky and succeed in wiggling out the section in the conventional manner. A bit of naphtha (lighter fluid) into the joint to loosen things up, heat applied to the metal of the filler housing, and a gentle patient touch. A safer approach, however, is to use a tube sized to fit over the sac nipple to apply pressure from the filler housing end, pushing the section out from the inside (unscrew and set aside the front section assembly first: this will prevent the ink reservoir from being damaged by being forced against the back of the feed). Indeed, this is the only approach that can be used if the section plug is already broken off inside the the barrel.

Even when pushing from the inside, however, naphtha and heat may not be enough to loosen things up. The pen with the gold filled overlay shown above had shellac all over its interior. In this case the broken-off plug was hard rubber, so I could soak the assembly in alcohol to free it up. More often, the plug is celluloid, so the best option is ammonia, which must be carefully kept off the exterior of a hard rubber barrel. Stand the barrel vertically, threads downwards, and drop the ammonia inside the filler housing so that it collects around the sac nipple, soaking the joint between liner and plug. Note that there is a threaded tubular plug that goes into the end of the sac nipple. It is reverse-threaded, and only needs to be removed if the powdered ink reservoir is to be replaced. This is a feature common to all Dictator pens.

The Dictator Pen Company was incorporated in New York City early in 1920 and then reorganized in August 1921 as a Delaware corporation (the company was always based in New York; the Delaware incorporation would have been for legal purposes). How any changes in the company's structure or ownership relate to production of their pens is not entirely clear, but a September 1921 advertisement states that the pen has "just been introduced, the first advertising appearing in New York July 14th." A note appearing in the February 11, 1922 issue of United States Investor gives more details about the company, including this:
The Dictator Company is using the plant of the Standard Vulcanite Pen Company of which (Dictator Vice-President John Douglas) Turner is president. It has been understood that the company is being merged with the Dictator Company. The Standard Vulcanite Pen Company has been in existence for some two years [in fact, it had been incorporated in 1913 - D.]. Opinions differ as to the merits of the Dictator Pen. Stock of the Dictator Company is being sold by Wheten and O'Dare Inc. Thousands of dollars must be expended in advertising a new article before any kind of a demand for it can be said to exist. Some money is being spent in advertising the Dictator pen but we believe that more attention is being given to the sale of stock at this time. In view of the fact that the merits of the pen must be proven over a period of time and a demand for it built up we cannot consider the stock of the company other than a doubtful speculation.
The company does not appear to have survived for much beyond this. In the Schenectady Gazette of January 11, 1927, the business section published a reader's inquiry: "I should like to have you tell me something about Dictator Fountain Pen stock of which I bought in 1922". The response: "The stocks are worthless . . . Dictator Fountain Pen was a hopeless promotion and never made a scratch on the surface of Wall Street."
A number of US patents relate to the Dictator -- 1433325, 1443515, and 1450398, in particular -- but oddly enough it is British patent 178406 that most closely describes the pen as actually manufactured. Aside from the components relating to the powdered ink reservoir, Dictator pens are nearly identical in construction to the sleeve-fillers produced by the Standard Vulcanite Pen Company.
The inventor and main promoter of the Dictator pen was Arthur Winter. Dictator production did not last long, but Winter kept on inventing, receiving patents for other items as late as 1957. There appears to be no connection between the American Dictator pen company and the British-made Dictator button-fillers.

Dating a Vacumatic pencil

While some pens and pencils can be dated precisely by date codes or hallmarks, most can only be dated approximately. Nonetheless, some items can be dated much more closely than others, which unfortunately isn't usually explicitly noted in our catalog listings. The pencil above, for example, we listed as circa 1933. It is strongly imprinted, but lacks the date code that Parker started using in 1934. The same basic pencil was test-marketed in 1932 as a Golden Arrow, but since this pencil bears a standard generic Parker imprint, the odds are overwhelming that it was produced in 1933 -- a good thing, since its purchaser was looking for an item produced in just that year!