Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mythbusting: Japanese jumbo pens and arthritis

Stubby oversize novelty pens were a popular pre-WW2 import item in the United States -- so popular that they can still be found in plentiful supply and modest cost. Most are flat-top eyedropper-fillers, but one also will find lever-fillers, rounded ends, and combos. Quality is only so-so. Nibs are typically plated stainless steel, with trim plating decidedly on the thin side. Some examples may be postwar, but the great majority are prewar.

For some time now, American collectors have been repeating a story that these pens were originally invented for the use of arthritis-stricken writers. I have always doubted this tale, inasmuch as these were clearly cheap and cheerful novelty items, and no mention of arthritic hands is to be found in any of the US importers' catalog listings. Just to make certain, however, I recently posed the question to one of the leading Japanese pen authorities -- who, it turned out, had never heard of this story, and did not hesitate to debunk it.

After a bit of Googling of "Japanese, 'jumbo pen", and arthritis," using both regular web search and Google Books options, it seems that the now-busted myth of jumbos being designed for the arthritic originated between 2007 and 2008 -- I was unable to find any earlier trace of it. And from what I can see, it seems to have arisen from misquotation of speculative commentary as fact.

In an FPN thread from August 2007 a Japanese jumbo pen was being discussed. Someone asked, "does the size serve a purpose or this more of a novelty?" The response in the last post was, "I suppose it might be useful for someone with arthritis, maybe." In a similar thread from November 2008, someone else commented, "It looks like an example of the type of pen that was manufactured for arthritis sufferers in Japan during the 1960s-70s." This kind of chatter was already being recast by April 2008, though, when in yet another thread one reads, "I believe that it was mentioned in another thread on the FPN that these were made for people with bad arthritis, who couldn't hold a normal sized pen without pain." And in a review of a vintage jumbo pen posted in August 2009, it was stated "I read somewhere that these Jumbo Pens were designed for elderly Japanese with arthritis." From there the repetitions continue, all citing previous hearsay -- some with qualification, most without -- spreading into blog posts, other forums, catalogs, and eBay listings.


Giovanni Abrate said...

Interestingly, some Jumbo pens were also made in France.
I have a few novelty catalogs showing the Japanese Jumbo pens and pencils sold as "funny" pens. No mention anywhere in my research of arthritic hands, but I have heard that the eyedropper pens may also have been used as discreet liquor flasks....

Unknown said...

I have arthritic hands and also have (am stuck with??) 1 or 2 of these... and they are miserable for for me to use. You need a pen that fits your hand easily with minimal grasping- and that's also why I won't buy any of the trending pens with smooth polished chrome/brass section grips. Just too hard to use; they roll around and have to be gripped. My Esterbrook J is a perfect size and proportion; other's results may vary :)

David said...

Comments on Facebook have stated that the French jumbos were also imports from Japan.

lindamller said...

I agree...I had a bout of Trigger Thumb last year and bought a jumbo to see if it would help. No sale: it was too heavy and clumsy to boot.
A shot of cortisone was much more helpful, as was slitting a silicone pencil-grip and using it with my pens.