Saturday, March 28, 2015

LT ≠ Louis Tiffany

The LT & Son mark is typically found on all-metal combos and pencils, and has confused pen collectors for as long as I've been collecting. Commonly misinterpreted as standing for "Louis Tiffany", in fact it has no Tiffany connection whatsoever, standing instead for Louis Tamis -- a prominent New York jewelry firm that is still going strong today.

According to the company's website, the firm was "Founded in New York in 1909 by Russian-born jeweler Louis Tamis . . . In the late '30s, Tamis met Paul Flato, a retailer with a keen eye for design, and their association produced money clips, pens and cufflinks. . . Louis' sons took over the company in 1948 and the company became one of the top high-end jewelry manufacturers in America."

Exactly when (or if) "& Son" became "& Sons" I have not yet determined. The listing above and the ad below both come from the same publication, Trade-Marks of the Jewelry and Kindred Trades, 6th edition, 1950, pp. 220 and 27, respectively.

Another question regards who manufactured what and for whom. A number of New York companies offered virtually identical all-metal combos and pencils in this era, including Louis Tamis, Edward Todd, Hicks, and Twinpoint. These combos and pencils are also found marked with the names of high-end retailers such as Cartier and Tiffany. Only Hicks and Edward Todd held actual pen and pencil patents, and on balance the evidence favors Hicks as the ultimate maker of all these writing instruments.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Taper cap construction notes

It can be difficult to understand the inner workings of something without cutting it open, and pens are no exception. But sometimes one is fortunate enough to be spared the need to cut -- as with this damaged Waterman taper cap, which nicely illustrates how these caps were originally made and how they can be told apart from recently-made reproductions.

Click on the picture to see the larger version, and you'll see that the interior of the cap has an evenly textured surface. There are no machining marks, nor is it polished smooth inside. This is because the cap was made by wrapping a steel mandrel or core with a thin layer of latex "dough", which was then vulcanized, still mounted on the mandrel. When the mandrel was withdrawn, the textured surface that we see was left behind where the hard rubber had been in contact [more on other traces left by this method here]. Since a smooth finish was needed on the cap's exterior, the cap was made slightly oversize and turned down to final dimensions on a lathe.

The mouth of the cap was the other area finished in this way. The rough surface left by the mandrel would not offer an optimally precise mating surface for mounting the cap on either the section or the end of the barrel, with the roughness also being prone to leave scratches. The localized smoothing is more clearly visible in raking light.

It wasn't only taper caps that were made in this way. This was the norm for all hard rubber cap manufacture, since molding to rough shape minimized the need to remove (and waste) material. Look inside slip-on caps and in nearly every case you'll see that same characteristic roughness left behind from where the hard rubber was vulcanized on the mandrel. This is not usually visible inside screw-on caps which were machined both outside and in, for the interior dimensions and finish had to be much more precise to accommodate both the threads and the inner cap.

That texturing is also absent from newly-made replacement caps, which to date have all been made from solid hard rubber rod stock. It isn't so difficult to make other types of cap in this way, but taper caps with their thin walls and narrow tapering profile are a bit of a challenge. Most reproductions are a bit heavier and thicker-walled than an original, and if you look inside, you will often see a series of telltale steps where the interior was hollowed out by drilling using a series of progressively-sized drill bits -- a construction method never used in the past. Buyer beware, for there are a lot of newly-made replacement taper caps out there, and even experienced dealers have been taken in. There are several regular pen show sellers who have not been sufficiently forthcoming about identifying such caps, sellers who most collectors still think of as honest and trustworthy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An unusual Touchdown

Even though I have written my share of articles, I have spent a lot more time collecting during the last 25-odd years than organizing and photographing. This pen is one I had never gotten around to sharing, though I did ask a few Sheaffer specialists over the years if they had seen anything like it. They had not.

At first glance it is an ordinary first-year (1949) Sheaffer Touchdown Sentinel Deluxe, unusual chiefly for having been made in Canada. And in fact, I did not notice anything else out of the ordinary until it was on the workbench, and I realized that the tool marks on the filling knob weren't tool marks at all.

Yes, the knob is deeply imprinted, "TouchDown". An experiment, a market test? Who knows?

UPDATE: A few other examples now reported, all Canadian. Raising a big question: why Canada? It seems most improbable that these specially-imprinted knobs were released after the regular ribbed knobs; that they were an initial design that was abandoned almost immediately is far more plausible -- and given their rarity, that they never went into full production. Is it possible, then, that these knobs were a feature of very early pens made for market testing, testing that was done in Canada?
Unfortunately, while we know quite a bit about how Parker did market testing, we know next to nothing about Sheaffer's practices. Testing acceptance of a radically new filling system in Canada before launching it in the USA, however, certainly makes sense. Looking back, we don't make all that much of Sheaffer's adoption of the Touchdown filling system in 1949, but in fact it was a major leap that could easily have gone disastrously wrong.

Painted Parker part

I was digging deep into the parts bins this afternoon, and ran across a cap I've had for at least fifteen years. It's a lined black cap from Parker's economy line of the 1920s, dressed up with swirled marbling of the sort commonly used in times past to decorate endpapers in fancy bookbindings. Back when I got it, few collectors were paying much attention to painted pens. Interest and knowledge has grown since then, yet very few examples of this type of painted decoration have turned up.

Although entirely different in appearance and effect than the hand-painted geometric patterns most commonly seen on Hollands, Sheaffers, and Conklins, this swirled decoration was surely aiming at the same result: to increase the saleability of pens that were beginning to seem a bit dull and old-fashioned next to newer models in colored celluloids.

NOTE: The cap is as likely to be black celluloid as hard rubber. The paint is probably oil paint. A site that discusses the various ways this technique can be implemented can be found here.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Seeking and using flexible nibs

I regularly receive requests for vintage pens with flexible nibs. Demand for flex nibs has spiked in the last few years, with buyers on eBay bidding up $40-60 pens to the $400-600 range if equipped with nibs of  sufficient flexibility -- though primarily certain pens, from certain sellers.

Luckily, vintage pens with flexible nibs can still be had for far less. As noted in my recent post on the Waterman 52, most high-spending newcomers to vintage pens in search of flex seem to be chasing just a handful of models in just a handful of venues. Yet there is so much more that is available. Pre-1900 pens, including gold-nibbed dip pens, are often extremely flexible. Pens predating 1920 or so also often have very flexible nibs, so eyedropper-fillers and safety pens are likely candidates. For self-fillers (pens with a built-in filling mechanism), good flex-nib candidates of the same date range include Conklin crescent-fillers, Mabie Todds, Wahls, pre-Duofold Parkers, pre-Lifetime Sheaffers, and many others. If you really don't care about the pen, only the nib, buy the pen for the nib and swap it into a pen you like better. It's not difficult, and if you want someone else to do it for you, not costly.

eBay isn't currently the best place to look for pens with flexible nibs at a reasonable price. Regular pen sellers have found out that emphasizing a nib's flexibility can pay off hugely, so exaggeration of a nib's capabilities has become routine. Nonspecialists and infrequent pen sellers may neglect to describe a nib's writing qualities entirely, making a bargain possible but also making searching out a suitable nib that much more difficult and chancy. All in all, you are best off working with a vintage pens specialist whose grading of nibs you can trust, but whose focus is on pens rather than special nibs.

"That poor nib! It's bleeding!"
Beware of the sellers who put out lavish photo displays and even videos trumpeting how wide a nib can open up. These typically show nibs being bent far beyond what they can sustain over the long term (the writing samples in our catalog are less dramatic, as they show writing with reasonable restraint). Flexible nibs can last a lifetime, but they can also be destroyed within weeks or even days if regularly pushed to their limits -- sprung (permanently deformed) or cracked or worse. The picture above is from an eBay listing; the caption links to a thread where the listing is discussed, and where a leading nib technician (along with others) openly expresses his dismay and concern. Signs of damage were already visible in photos of a similar nib on another pen simultaneously offered by the same seller, yet it was ultimately bid to over $500 -- a pen that most retail dealers would have priced at $80 to perhaps $150 at the most.

Aside from seller hype, the problem is that many flex-nib buyers are misinformed about what their favorite vintage nibs were designed to do. Even those nibs explicitly marketed for artists' work were intended to work within a rather restrained range of line width variation. The Waterman "Artist's Nib" has in recent years gained cult status as the ne plus ultra of flex, yet as the original instruction sheet above states, "Line widths range from filament width to 1/32 of an inch or more." That's nowhere near where the current crop of flex-nib aficionados are routinely pushing their nibs: 1/32" is just under 0.8 mm, and even though "or more" would seem to give an out, that "more" surely would still have been less than 1/16 of an inch -- 1.6 mm -- otherwise 1/16 is what Waterman would have written in the first place.

If you want a nib that will go from extra-fine to 2 mm or more, you may be best off with a very flexible steel dip nib. If you insist on a gold nib, that kind of line width variation simply cannot be sustained unless the nib is quite big, large enough that the tines don't have to be bent to an excessive degree to achieve the desired width. Perhaps the best solution is to learn to appreciate a more restrained degree of line variation: truly elegant effects can be had well under the 2 mm mark, and without risking an irreplaceable old nib.

Finally, a few comments about another recent cult object, the so-called "wet noodle". I've never much liked the expression, in that even the softest of super-flexible nibs should have a degree of springiness entirely absent from cooked pasta. Yet leaving that objection aside, the question remains why such extreme softness has become so sought after. A nib that opens up with next to no pressure can be difficult to control -- and at the same time, easy to damage. This was why, in times past, such nibs were recommended only for those who wrote with a very light touch, while calligraphers generally opted for nibs with a full range of flex but considerably more spring.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Why the Waterman 52?

Recently we've seen a spate of ridiculously high selling prices for plain black Waterman 52 pens with flexible nibs on eBay, with prices on similar Waterman 12 pens not far behind. These models are among the most common of quality vintage fountain pens, and are far and away the most common Watermans of the hard rubber era. Yet bidders seem willing to pay a premium of up to several hundred dollars for examples with very flexible nibs -- even flawed examples which have been reblackened or which have lost their clips, pens that up until a short time ago could be bought by the handful for a few tens of dollars (and of which there is certainly no shortage: many of us have bins full, as in the photo above). Clearly, these pens are not being bought by collectors. But why are the users who are spending so much on common-as-dirt Watermans ignoring other brands, and even higher-end Watermans that carry the same nibs?

As far as I can determine, it all began when pen fanciers new to vintage started asking online about how to find old pens with flexible nibs. They were typically told to seek out a Waterman 12 or 52 -- not because these pens were anything particularly special, but because they were plentiful, cheap, and could readily be found with a nib with some flex. In fact, there are other pens that are more frequently found with highly flexible nibs (for example, safeties, especially Moores; Conklin crescent-fillers; US-made Swans; sub-brands with nibs of thin gold), but pointing out the most common and most available models made perfect sense when recommending starter pens for the novice.

The unexpected result, however, was that the most common pens suddenly became the most sought-after. The Waterman 52, in particular, seems to have gained a bizarre cachet among flex-nib aficionados, who will diligently search them out while ignoring other models and especially other brands. This has left most vintage pen enthusiasts scratching their heads, while others have rushed to cash in on a bubble that clearly cannot be sustained indefinitely.

For while the demand for flexible nibs will surely continue, buyers will eventually realize that the supply consists of more than the Waterman 52 (or, for that matter, the 12 and the 7 -- and don't even get me started about the cult of the Pink and the "Artist's" nibs). At present, though, flex-nib bargains are to be had for those willing to broaden their horizons.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Jaxon and Conklin

Uncommon but not rare, Jaxon self-filling pens have left collectors more than a little confused. The Jaxon's side-mounted stud filling system with a metal lock ring is clearly a close relative of Conklin's crescent-filler, while the barrel imprint referencing Conklin's US patent 685258 of October 29, 1901 indicates that this was no infringement. Some authorities have claimed that Jaxon made pens under license from Conklin, some further stating that Jaxon was based in Philadelphia. Others, noting that the same pen was also sold as the Conklinette -- a truly rare pen -- have averred that Conklin supplied unmarked pens to Jaxon to be imprinted and sold under their name.

Though presented as fact, all of this is wrong. The truth is far simpler: Jaxon was a Conklin sub-brand. Conklinette was too, but given the rarity of Conklinettes vs Jaxons, Conklin must have decided very quickly to use a name less closely connected to their main brand.

I have yet to find any advertisements or catalog listings for the Conklinette. Mentions of the Jaxon, however, are fairly plentiful. The ad above is from page 12 of the morning edition of The Daily Missoulian of December 21, 1911. Similar ads appeared on November 28 and 29, and on December 22 and 23. Another series of ads by a local drug store ran in the Willmar (Minnesota) Tribune in December of 1914 and again in 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918, listing Moore, Conklin, Houston, and Jaxon as fountain pen brands stocked and available. A similar series for another retailer ran in the Norwich (Connecticut) Bulletin in December 1915, this time listing Waterman, Crocker, Conklin, Boston Safety, Swan, Jaxon, "and others".

The ad above ran on page 5 of the Perrysburg Journal of December 16, 1915. Inasmuch as Perrysburg is a suburb of Toledo, it is no surprise that the list of pen brands sold is bracketed by Conklin and Jaxon.

Most Jaxon ads provide little information beyond the pen's price -- $1 -- but some explicitly note that the pen is a Conklin product. The ad above ran in the University Missourian on Jan 28, 1916, on page 4. It should be noted that misspellings of brand names in ads placed by local merchants was rather common in this publication, with "Jackson" for "Jaxon" a relatively minor offense compared to "Conkling" and "Schaefer". The illustration is also a bodge, not showing a self-filling pen at all, but instead a generic eyedropper-filler. Jaxon/Jackson pens are also mentioned by the same merchant in several unillustrated ads in the same paper in October 1915 and January 1916.

The Seattle Star of June 11, 1919 is the source for the image above, which is a detail from a full-page ad for the Fraser-Patterson department store. Once again, Conklin is identified as the maker. Another such identification appears in an ad in the Decatur, Illinois Daily Review of September 10, 1918, page 13. And if further corroboration were required, Conklin is named yet again as the maker of the Jaxon self-filling pen in the question and answer section of The American Stationer on both May 22, 1915 (p. 21) and May 13, 1916 (p. 16). This was a trade publication, and in context there can be no doubt that "maker" was also intended to be read as seller and distributor. If this had been a case of contract manufacture for another firm, that other firm's name and address would have been supplied, not Conklin's.

As the ads indicate, Jaxon pens were distributed across the United States. They were offered as a sub-brand, often marketed to students, and not as any one retailer's private house brand. When the ads mention pen brands other than Jaxon, Conklin is there -- just as one would expect if Conklin sales representatives were distributing both lines. I cannot find any hint why collectors ever associated Jaxon with the city of Philadelphia. The name surely derives from Conklin's location in Toledo, at the intersection of Jackson and Huron Streets. The ads suggest that Jaxons were mostly made and sold between 1911 and 1919, the earlier date consistent with the statement in the ad above, which ran in the Meriden (Connecticut) Morning Record on September 26, 1916.

Lest we fall into the trap of relying too strongly on advertisements, however, let us consider the pen above. It too is a Jaxon -- but a screw-cap eyedropper-filler! Eyedropper Jaxons are much less common than self-fillers, and are not mentioned in any ads found to date. Are they earlier than the Jaxon self-fillers? Probably not, given that no eyedropper-filling Conklinettes are known. Yet another pen history mystery.

ADDENDUM: The #3-size Jaxon eyedropper-filler shown below provides us one more data point. The box top is marked in pencil, recording that the pen was a present given on December 29, 1912.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Sub-brands, house brands, and private labels

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in major penmakers' pens sold under other brand names. In some cases these other brands were wholly owned by the penmakers, and were typically used for economy models. Such sub-brands allowed companies to sell at a lower price point without tarnishing the image of their top-line models. Pen companies also supplied department stores and other retailers with pens bearing the retailers' brand names. Where the pens are otherwise very similar to models sold by their makers under their own names, some collectors have taken to describing these pens as "rebadged", while others prefer to call them "private label" or "house brand" versions.

Whether a given marque is a sub-brand or a house brand isn't always apparent. The pen shown above is an example: a bulb-filling Pencopen Deluxe, clearly made by Parker and bearing Parker-style date codes for 1937 -- but did the Pencopen brand belong to Parker, or to someone else?

An online search for Pencopen isn't very helpful, but Penco turns out to have been a house brand of J. C. Penney -- initially for toys and games, but by the late 1920s one finds old newspaper ads for Penco pencils and pens, all unillustrated. And in the 1939 Consumers Union buying guide, there is a review of fountain pens where Penco's connection with J. C. Penney is clearly listed. 

In addition, Kreko (also spelled "Kreco") is shown to be a house brand of S. H. Kress, and Fifth Avenue a Woolworth brand. The situation of other lower-end brands isn't always so clear, however, as Majestic is listed as "sold in Emporium stores" much as Wallace is listed as made by Inkograph but "sold in Woolworth's", suggesting that these brands might not have been exclusive to these particular retailers.

This is certainly the case with Wearever, which is linked to a number of different stores in this review. But what about the association of Onward with Grand stores, Varsity with Walgreen, and Ambassador with Sontag's?