Monday, January 27, 2014

Back to the future (of pen collecting)

One of the most amusingly prescient articles in the American Stationer ran on September 24, 1896 (p. 517). It begins:
If it should ever become a fad to collect pens, what a collection could be made from ancient and modern writing instruments . . .
The article goes on to recount how McKinley's letter accepting the Republican nomination for president -- published nationally a few weeks before -- had been signed with a Waterman pen, specially furnished for the purpose, and that that very pen (a 5-sized taper-cap) would be auctioned for charity. It concludes:
It would be a good pen for a prospective collector of writing instruments to begin with, as it is probably one of the pens destined to be famous in history.
No doubt -- if only it could be found now!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Shrink those images!

As the megapixel count of cameras goes up and up, with even the cheapest camera phones cranking out multi-megabyte images, it is more important than ever to reduce the size of those images before sending them. We now routinely receive emails asking us to help identify pens, with photo attachments totalling 10Mb and more. In nearly all cases these are deleted unread.

Harsh? Attachments of this size take considerable time to download, especially when on the road. And if you are asking for free advice, clogging up your correspondent's inbox might not be the best approach.

So what to do? First, crop out unnecessary background. That will usually reduce image file size by a good 70-80%. If you are using a phone or tablet camera, cropping is normally a built-in image processing option. On a computer, you can crop using the most basic image tools included with the operating system (Paint or iPhoto). Free apps are an alternative for both. Next, resize the cropped image. Again, there are multiple free apps that make this dead simple (e.g. Image Shrink Lite for Android, Simple Resize for iPhone and iPad) and there are websites that will do this for you as well (some Google search results here and here).

To give you an idea of how bloated most images are, nearly all of our larger catalog close-ups are under 50Kb -- that's one-twentieth of a megabyte -- yet are much crisper and more detailed than the multi-megabyte files we routinely receive.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Los Angeles, yes; Philadelphia, no

No, we're not at the Philadelphia pen show this weekend. Too many conflicts with family events this year, so we will be staying home. The scheduling of the show actually isn't bad, since the Martin Luther King holiday weekend makes it a good candidate for a family trip -- and we are long overdue for some Philadelphia sightseeing.

We will be at the Los Angeles show in February. As usual, we will not be setting up, so if you are planning to attend and want to see something from our inventory, please get in touch beforehand so we can be sure to bring it along.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Hard rubber parts manufacture

Many fountain pen manufacturers (and manufacturing subcontractors) did not vulcanize their own hard rubber. Those that did, however, had a considerable advantage over those who had to machine caps and barrels out of pre-made tube and rod stock. Instead, caps and barrels could be molded out of pliable raw rubber, hardened by vulcanization, and then finish-turned to final dimensions, minimizing both machining and wastage of material.

A good description of how this was done in is found in a 1905 article in Geyer's Stationer (vol. 39, Feb 16, pp. 7-10) which profiles Waterman's hard rubber factory:
After being thoroughly rolled the material is ready to be worked into shape. In order to make a barrel or cap the rubber, thoroughly warmed so as to have it pliable, is rolled on what is called a mandrel -- a shaft or spindle of iron with centers in each end upon which hollow work such as this rubber is driven for the purpose of turning the exterior. To form the closed end of the cap or barrel a small piece of rubber the size of the mandrel is placed at one end; then this little cap and the mandrel are wrapped together several times with a thin sheet of the rubber. Being hot, these parts of the rubber are thoroughly cemented as soon as they come together, leaving no air spaces and no leakage. This leaves the cap and the barrel perfectly tight at the lower end. The covered mandrel is then placed in the vulcanizer and subjected to steam heat of the proper temperature for a number of hours. After leaving the vulcanizer the metal rods are withdrawn from the rubber, and it is then ready for the turning lathe. The original mandrel leaves the hole the proper size for either barrel or cap, but the outside is made a trifle larger than the finished holder. This allows for turning down and removing any blemishes in order to give the surface a high finish.
The rough finish often seen on the inside of slip-on caps of the era would be consistent with manufacture as described, with little to no interior finishing after vulcanization. The account is somewhat inconsistent in that it first implies that the mandrels used in vulcanizing are also used to hold the parts for exterior turning, but then describes how the mandrels are withdrawn before sending the parts to the turning lathe. The latter procedure does seem more likely in a production environment, however, and especially if the machining operations took place in a location removed from the molding and vulcanizing work. Removing the mandrels would be much easier with the rubber still warm, and it would make more sense to leave another mandrel mounted on each lathe used for finish turning, onto which the blanks could be press-fitted.

It may not be so easy to see how the closed ends were formed when examining pen parts of unfaded black hard rubber. It is much more obvious with patterned, colored, or faded hard rubber, where breaks in the patterning and subtle color differences show where the end disk was inserted. In the big red hard rubber Williamson cap above, there is even a small gap where the material didn't join completely prior to vulcanization. While some pen components were made by cementing (or even vulcanizing) an end plug into pre-made tube stock after vulcanization, in such instances the plug will be perfectly round and precisely centered -- not the case here.

A more subtle example is the Waterman Ripple cap top above. The plug was made by slicing a disk from a spirally-wrapped rod. The plug is slightly darker so its circumference is readily apparent. Note, too, that were the entire cap to have been made from spirally-wrapped rod stock, the patterning would have been entirely different, with random mottling of the sort seen here.

Certain pen parts were nearly always made by being molded to shape prior to vulcanization. Taper caps, for example, are easily made by molding, but are tricky to machine out of solid stock. Oversized caps and barrels likewise can be molded with great efficiency, while hogging them out of solid rod is both time-consuming and hugely wasteful.

UPDATE: There is a much more detailed (and better illustrated) article on Waterman's manufacturing methods in the December 1911 issue of Machinery, pp. 249-53. And there is a companion article on the manufacture of gold pens (nibs) in the January 1912 issue, pp. 377-79.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A major Waterman history discovery

This week, George Rimakis and Daniel Kirchheimer have published a real blockbuster concerning the very beginnings of Lewis Edson Waterman's involvement in fountain pens. Their 33-page article, "Blotting Out the Truth", can be downloaded here in .pdf form.

A number of us have spent years digging into Waterman's origins; this is the great breakthrough. It has long been appreciated that most of the "official" stories were unreliable, if not pure fabrications: the ink blot; Waterman having to be persuaded to try advertising; Waterman moving straight from insurance to pens. As it turns out, Waterman ended up in the pen business almost by accident. It seems he was hired to sell the fountain pens of one Frank Holland, a Connecticut inventor whose backers had set him up in business in New York City. Holland was volatile, and after several weeks there was some sort of blowup and Holland walked out, leaving his backers in the lurch. Waterman then stepped in, fitting up Holland's pens with an improved feed. Success came rapidly, and Holland was soon forgotten.

While the authors describe what followed as a deliberate coverup, I'm not so certain. As I posted in a Fountain Pen Board thread:
I think that the case is pretty clear for the active shaping of the founding narrative after LEW's [Lewis Edson Waterman's] death. What happened during LEW's lifetime, however, is rather more complicated -- and interesting. No doubt that LEW was an aggressive operator, yet I'm not sure that his reticence about how he got into the pen business was entirely calculating and self-serving. Though Holland's backers might have felt that Waterman stole Holland's success, from the story as reconstructed, it seems Waterman was guilty of nothing more than picking up the pieces of what Holland threw away. And even then, the success he made of it was in very large degree due to his abandonment of Holland's feed, so there really is no question of unjust exploitation of any of Holland's patents. Nonetheless, there still would have been ample room for unpleasantness, and I wonder if LEW's silence about Holland had as much to do with discretion and decorum as anything else. It would have been impossible to talk about what really happened without making Holland look bad, and that would have reflected badly upon Waterman: one just didn't air dirty laundry in that way back then, and as Holland continued to self-destruct, it would additionally have been perceived as kicking a man when he was down -- however much his downfall was his own doing.
ADDENDUM: In case you rushed out and downloaded Rimakis and Kirchheimer's article as soon as you saw this post, do go back and download it again. The latest version has quite a bit more material on Frank Holland, and some additional illustrations.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Credit card processing changes

We are starting out the new year with some long overdue upgrades to our shopping cart gateway. If you are paying for orders with Paypal or by check, you won't see any changes. If you are paying with a card, however, you will be taken to a different screen when it comes time to enter your payment information -- so don't be concerned if the page footer identifies it as belonging to NMI/Strategic Payment Systems, for they are our processing service providers. One of the many benefits of the new system will be the elimination of the occasional problems we've had when accepting debit cards, which appear to have been entirely due to shortcomings of our old processing system.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Waterman's cigar cutter

Not long ago, online research resources allowed us to pin down the story of how Waterman's legendary Prohibition Pen came to be. And now we have written documentation of another well-known Waterman rarity: the celluloid cigar cutter, shown above. The mention is in Geyer's Stationer (vol. 58, Mar 4, 1915, p. 15), citing the Seattle Rotary Club's February 22 Weekly Bulletin:
"Rotarian Frank D. Waterman, a member of the New York Rotary Club, contributed a very useful souvenir to those present, this being a combination envelope opener, cigar cutter and fingernail cleaner."
At first glance, I wasn't entirely certain about this reference. The cigar cutter's blade doesn't seem a very effective letter opener, nor much of a manicure tool.

Fortunately, there is one surviving example that retains its original box. And there is its official description: "Envelope opener, cigar cutter, nail cleaner" -- along with the personal imprint of Frank D. Waterman himself.

The Seattle Rotary meeting report allows us to place the Waterman cigar cutter, but likely as not the cutters were also given out at other times and at other events. Frank D. Waterman was an active Rotarian who traveled extensively; although Waterman cigar cutters are now rare, this may be a reflection of a low survival rate for an item that was both fragile and utilitarian. On the other hand, the slogan found on all known examples, "The Handiest Thing in the World", was not widely used in Waterman advertising, appearing in only a few ads and only in 1915.

Kut-No-Chek, the manufacturer, made similar promotional cutters for other clients. The company is listed at 1 Madison Avenue in New York City in Polk's New York Copartnership and Corporation Directory for 1915.