Wednesday, July 5, 2017

1942 time capsule

Every now and then one runs across a hoard of new old stock pens, packed away decades ago. Sometimes they belonged to a salesman or a distributor, or were left over when a store closed. Behind each of these time capsules there's a story, but few are as poignant or compelling as the one behind the hoard shown below.

These items all came from an Oakland, California shop owned by Japanese-Americans who were interned shortly after America's entry into WW2. The family did not reopen the shop after the war. These leftover items remained in storage for some 75 years before being offered to us. Opening the package was a moving experience; some items were packed with bits of contemporary newspaper, and two letters from Waterman to their dealers were dated only shortly before Pearl Harbor turned everything upside-down. A good number of the items in the group were contemporary Watermans, stickered and mostly boxed. There were also a few older pens, including a few Waterman overlays and a couple of solid gold Conklins from the 1920s or early 1930s -- expensive and for most retailers, slow sellers. Most notable, however, was the large number of colorful Japanese-made celluloid Pilots, unusual enough but doubly so as export models with English-language labels, boxes, and instruction sheets. Cheap Japanese novelty pens were widely imported in the prewar era, most notably the now-ubiquitous stubby jumbos and glass-nibbed SPORS crescent-fillers. Better-quality prewar Japanese pens were another story, and any found in the wild in the USA were likely acquired by soldiers as war trophies or purchased during the postwar occupation. This hoard represents an exceptional case, with Japanese goods that would have found little interest outside of the Japanese-American community. In fact, the Pilots were far from cheap, with the prices penciled on the bottoms of the boxes running from $3.50 to $7 -- in the same range as the contemporary Watermans, which were mostly priced around $3, with a large Hundred Year priced at $8 (with the Watermans decidedly better made).

Some of the Pilots are conventional lever-fillers, but most are either plunger-fillers (US patent 2070461) or the distinctive nomikomi-shiki (呑込式) "easy-drink filler". The nomikomi-shiki pens have a special long-tailed feed and internal celluloid reservoir. They are filled using a special bottle with a central opening into which the pen can be inserted nib-first, sealing around the section. Bottle and pen are then inverted together, allowing ink to flow through the feed and into the pen's reservoir. Since the latter design was only patented in the US on January 17, 1939 (patent 2144296), the mention of the US patent in the instruction sheets helps narrow down the date of these particular examples.

Factory-new nomikomi-shiki pens must be exceedingly rare, so I made sure to make notes when taking one apart. The celluloid barrel is a slip fit over the section, not at all tight, but instead held by a thick, tacky transparent compound. The same substance holds and seals the clear celluloid reservoir housed inside the barrel. The reservoir is made of very thin material, and though it is threaded to match the threads on the section nipple, it is so loose that it can be pulled straight off, resistance coming almost entirely from the sealing compound. Using plain cold water on a cotton swab, I cleaned off the compound from the inside of the reservoir, only to find that exposure to water was enough to cause the material to open a crack along its longitudinal seam. Clearly, these pens should be preserved as relics, as they are emphatically not users! I did carefully measure the reservoirs, though, as it would be very easy to make new ones out of sturdier modern plastic.

I have been promised more information about the store and the family that ran it. When that comes, I am looking forward to publishing a much more extensive and comprehensive article about these pens and their singular history.


Octoberchild said...

It must have been amazing to open up this trove, and it's great to hear that such treasures are still coming to light. The Pilots sound fascinating.

As always, a great article, and lokking forward to more info on the shop.

Will you try to keep the collection together?

Thank you.


David said...

My main concern at this point is to document the hoard, and to share the information with the museum which was given some other items from the shop (which didn't just sell stationery and pens). Keeping all the items together is not going to be practicable, I'm afraid; the celluloid Pilots in particular are not suitable for museum display, and would be best cared for by individual collectors appreciative of their provenance.

Bob Page - Charlotte, North Carolina said...

This post starts a rich account of a story that deserves to be told. Thank you for your care in preserving this history and sharing the experience with us.

dputydwg said...

Very interesting thank you for sharing

Lisa H. said...

Is there any effort being made to get them back to the family of those interned?

David said...

They were purchased from the family.

menoeceus said...

Very nice story!

H. Doug Matsuoka said...

Wow, thanks for posting this. My grandfather had a shop in San Francisco, near the top of the hill on Grant Ave in SF's "Chinatown" where Japanese families also lived and ran businesses. My grandfather moved his family back and forth between the US and Japan as the kids grew up so they would be at home in both cultures. He did this to prepare them for participation in what would have to be a booming trade between the two countries. Then The War happened. I hope they find the family that owned the store. Maybe the collection, or part of it, could be put in a museum. I'd love to see those specimins!

Unknown said...

I grew up in Oakland so was particularly interested in this "horde". Do you know at this point where the original shop was located? Address?

David said...

There's an article in the upcoming Pennant that provides more detail. The original shop building is long gone, but it stood on 8th near Broadway, in Chinatown.

Unknown said...

I look forward to the Pennant article.