Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A 1947 snapshot of the German fountain pen industry

At the most recent Madrid pen show Duncan Sewell was selling reprints of a most interesting British government publication. Titled simply "German Fountain Pen Industry", this is a 29-page report published in 1947 by the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee (B.I.O.S. Final Report No. 911, Item No. 35). This particular reprint is of a copy bearing the library stamp of The Institute of Mechanical Engineers, dated 20 Jan 1947, indicating publication at the very beginning of the year and compilation the year(s) previous. The report is not unknown, as there is an Open Library record for it, as well as a listing on the Books About Pens site, but as far as I can see there is no online access to digitized copies at this time.

The report is one of many that came out of the Allies' attempts to assess and manage the situation in occupied Germany. There is clear concern for getting German factories back to work, but the report openly puts Britain's interests first, both in protecting British penmakers' market share and access to raw materials, and in copying private German commercial technology for the benefit of the British pen industry. On page seven, in fact, there is a list of proprietary machine tools to be taken back to the UK for study, basically as spoils of war.

Given the constraints of time and access (the inspectors were only able to work in the British Zone, though they attempted a visit to the US Zone, which included among others Kaweco, Osmia, and Merz & Krell) the report is of limited scope and detail, but there are some noteworthy bits of information to be found. Some that I found especially interesting follow.

The inspectors found that prewar German penmaking capacity was mostly ("at least 80%") intact, but at "a complete standstill" due to lack of raw materials, celluloid in particular. In contrast to what had happened in the USA during the war, where pen factories shifted production capacity from pens and pencils to war materiel -- typically precision parts for fuses, bombsights, and the like -- the German government had largely kept its penmakers making pens:
"During the war period the industry worked to maximum capacity producing Pens as it was considered to be an essential Export, by reason of its high price; the small amount of material used and minimum amount of freightage involved.

The main Export markets were Sweden, Switzerland and The Balkans. Incidentally, if gold nibs were required, gold was supplied by the importing country."

Pen collectors have generally assumed that the withdrawal of gold nibs from the German market in 1938 meant that German penmakers stopped making gold nibs then. For export sales, however, this did not apply.

How many pens were the German penmakers turning out in this era, and prior to the war? The inspectors estimated production capacity in the British Zone to be something like twice as great as demand in the same zone. Planned output as directed by occupation authorities was to be 207,000 pens and 30,000 pencils per month, with full capacity of the industry within the British Zone at least twice that.

The report notes that most of the large firms were fully self-sufficient, while the smaller firms typically relied on specialist subcontractors in Hamburg or Pforzheim for metal parts. Celluloid tubing was identified as the main raw material used, and it was further noted that before the war the British pen industry had imported "a considerable amount" of the tubing that they used from Germany, which was also the principal exporter of celluloid to Britain. This was of particular concern, since the inspectors reported that after the war there was only one British supplier of celluloid tubing, B.X. Plastics, whose capacity was insufficient to meet British demand.

According to the inspectors, the German penmakers also made wide use of clear polystyrene tubing for ink windows, solvent-welding it to celluloid tubing as required. Rolled gold (gold filled) trim was not available at the time, only plated. The 1938 restriction on gold nibs had not been lifted, and at the time of the report still only steel was permitted.

It was recommended that a portion of German celluloid production be allocated to the UK, and that German pen export be restricted until the British pen industry had recovered. The suggestion was also put forward that export of German steel nibs to Britain be considered for use in lower-end pens, given the acute shortage of gold nibs in the UK, and that German pencil mechanisms be exported to Britain to be made into pencils for export.

One gets the impression that the report was written by men with long practical experience in the pen industry, rather than by professional administrators or academics. Capitalization is rather haphazard, and no allowance is made for foreign tastes -- though the high quality and precision of German manufacture is duly acknowledged throughout (at least for the top brands). For example, in the introduction, regarding German pens and pencils in general (p. 6):
"In the main, both Pens and Pencils are of clumsy design and inferior to United Kingdom designs"
In the section on Montblanc (p. 12):
"The products of this factory, whilst being rather inferior in external design, were of high quality and workmanship. A system of floor inspection exists, and rigid tolerances in dimensions and finish appear to be the rule."
And in the section on Pelikan (p. 17):
"In respect of design, the products of this factory are not up to the standard of either U.K. or U.S.A. Fountain Pens and Propelling Pencils, but the quality of workmanship and finish is of the highest order."
The inspectors also tended to focus on techniques and tools that differed from British practice, and so did not bother to describe manufacturing methods shared by German and British makers -- however interesting and useful that might have been to us now. And even when methods are discussed, it is often in the briefest of terms. For example, Montblanc's method of tipping nibs was noted as being of particular interest, yet without description of that method. A little more can be gleaned from the comments on Pelikan's nib operation, where it is stated that their electric welding of nib tips closely resembled the practice at Montblanc, and entailed the use of a "simple carbon block (negative) with a flexible carbon finger to complete the circuit". But this is still far from enough to reconstruct the full operation in any detail. One tidbit that is comprehensible, if phrased in decidedly nonmodern terms, is that "much thread cutting was done by stone" at Pelikan -- which is to say, threads were cut by grinding, rather than by dies or single-point on a lathe. The inspectors also took an interest in the common German practice of black lacquering of components, especially barrels. They recorded that at Montblanc both spraying and immersion was used, with hot air to speed drying, and at Pelikan they requisitioned the formula and samples of the cellulose solution used to blacken the grip section of one-piece transparent barrels.

Of course the report noted war damage. Montblanc's factory was described as about 50,000 square feet of which 60% was usable, the rest war-damaged. Wartime production was 66% pens and pencils for export and 34% small metal screws for applications unknown to Montblanc. Pelikan's factory was recorded as having received blast damage only, and had not been used for war production -- perhaps in part because of their larger degree of automation in production and corresponding reliance upon purpose-built machines. Soennecken was described as making only steel dip pen nibs and office equipment, with no production of either fountain pens or mechanical pencils. 30% of their building was out of service from fire damage