Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Waterman PSF chronology

When did Waterman first offer lever-fillers for sale, and what are the likely dates for the various design changes in the first few years of production? This is very much still a work in progress, but we're far enough along that I'd like to assemble and share the evidence compiled to date.

Though the first known appearance of lever-fillers in Waterman ads isn't until mid-March of 1915, the testimony in the Chapmans vs Waterman litigation indicates that they were put into production anywhere from a few to several months prior. We also have some circumstantial evidence from two patents, US1197360 (application Aug 17, 1914, issued Sep 5, 1916) and US1156748 (application Mar 19, 1915, issued Oct 12, 1915). The first patent is a big one, covering the classic Waterman lever box -- but it also covers a distinctive form of pressure bar with a spring attached by a rivet and anchored in the barrel with a sort of C-shaped base akin to that later used by Sheaffer. The second patent is more limited, covering the toggled two-piece sprung pressure bar commonly found in PSF-series pens.

In a blog post from 2012 an early PSF was discussed which has a pressure bar and lever box identical to those described in the first patent (second issued, but first applied for). Inasmuch as it predates the much more common toggled pressure bar of the second patent, it was most probably made between August 1914 and March 1915, and suggests that the first date may be taken as the probable start for Waterman lever-filler manufacture. As for the end of PSF production, my best estimate so far is late April to early May of 1917 for the changeover to the 5x model designation. That leaves us with a total PSF production span of two years and eight months, of which the first five to eight months might be regarded as test marketing leading up to a soft launch. The lack of advertising is telling, as is the extreme rarity of the earliest first-patent pens.

Setting aside the earliest PSFs for the moment, the series has two major design changes which we would like to be able to date. One is the change from narrow raised barrel threads to flat threads; the other is the change from the two-piece sprung pressure bar to the classic Waterman one piece unsprung bar toggled to the end of the lever. Both changes occurred at close to the same time, though the coincidence does not appear to be exact. Advertising images give us some indication of when raised threads were discontinued, as flat threads begin to show up in Waterman ads from October of 1916 and possibly somewhat earlier. There is some inconsistency, however, as raised threads do sporadically appear in later ads, likely the result of reuse of printing blocks. 

Ads are no help in dating the change in pressure bar design; we have to rely upon the evidence of the pens themselves. That evidence is not just individual, but also collective -- that is to say, we can glean some idea of what was made when by comparing the how many pens survive with what specific features. A full census of PSF pens would be an ambitious undertaking. What I have done so far is much more modest, taking my sample from pens in my parts boxes plus pens that have been through my catalog inventory over the past 25 years. 

This sample yields a total of 73 pens with raised threads vs. 36 with flat threads, almost exactly a 2:1 ratio. Given our best guess above that full production of PSFs ran only for some 24 to 27 months, and assuming that the rate of production increased over that span, we can surmise that the flat thread PSFs were produced for no more than 8 or 9 months and probably less -- entirely consistent with the evidence of the ad images.

Examination of our pens also suggests that all raised-thread pens were originally manufactured with two-piece sprung pressure bars. While some of our parts pens have unsprung bars, they also have later replacement levers. Among the pens in better condition, no unsprung bars are to be found. Among the flat-thread PSFs in our sample, however, a substantial number have the sprung bar. It must be noted that there is a discrepancy in the ratios between the pens from the parts boxes and those from catalog inventory, with the six out of 24 ratio of the former probably more trustworthy than the five out of nine of the latter (pens with unusual features such as sprung pressure bars are much more likely to be acquired and listed for sale). If so, introduction of the unsprung pressure bar would have postdated the introduction of flat threads by some two months, or a quarter of the overall flat-thread production span.

There is one more data point, however, that may call for some adjustment of our timeline. This is a single flat-thread pen with an unsprung pressure bar with a toggled lever with early-style imprints, with the 1903 Barnes patent date on one side and "PAT. APLD. FOR" on the other [see Addendum below]. Every other PSF with the unsprung bar that I've seen has the September 5, 1916 date opposite the 1903 date. The existence of this pen strongly suggests that introduction of the unsprung bar predates the issuance of the 1916 patent, while its rarity suggests that the interval between the two events was extremely short. By that line of reasoning, we'd be looking at later August to early September 1916 -- whereas our reckoning from total numbers points more towards late October to early November. 

Can these estimates be reconciled? Perhaps the new unsprung bar wasn't adopted all in one go, but instead was quietly introduced alongside the older sprung bar, only replacing it over a period of a few months. A further consideration is the possibility that our numbers for the flat-thread PSFs are skewed by the greater vulnerability of the two-part pressure bar to damage. Replacement by an unsprung bar would be undetectable as long as it took place before the levers were redesigned to leave off the patent dates entirely. So perhaps our catalog sample isn't so far off after all, and the adoption of the unsprung bar stretched over a period closer to four months than to two.

One investigation inevitably leads into another. While wrestling with the bigger questions about PSF chronology, I realized that there was also a more limited design change in the line which would prove more far-reaching. The redesign of the overlay versions of the 12½ VPSF so that they were shorter than their plain equivalents and with overlays that extended all the way over the barrel end set the pattern for all the overlay 52½V models for the next decade and a half, as well as all the full-length LEC models. This is still a work in progress, but from what I have been able to find so far, the earliest appearance of the redesigned x12½ VPSF pens is in December 1916. They show up in multiple Christmas advertisements without any fanfare, indeed without any acknowledgment that they might be in any way novel. Though the sample size is too small to give it much weight, of the eight x12½ VPSF that have gone through my inventory, three were the redesigned version. And for whatever reason, Waterman's 1919 catalog still shows one solitary old-style vest pocket overlay without the "E. C." (end covered) designation, a 452½V Filigree. Leftover old stock? Continuing demand? We may never know.

Saturday Evening Post, Dec 9, 1916, p. 71

ADDENDUM: Here are some photos of the single example -- known to me -- of a PSF with the unsprung one-piece pressure bar and "PAT. APLD. FOR" lever imprint. Note that the pressure bar also bears a "PAT. APPLIED FOR" mark. Digging in my parts stock of Waterman pressure bars, I was able to find two other examples with this same mark.

I'm not sure why the pressure bar would have been imprinted. The pending patent application referenced on the lever would be the one for the Waterman lever box; the toggled connection between an unsprung pressure bar and the end of the lever would have been covered by the 1903 Barnes patent. Perhaps an application was filed for the tab that keeps the pressure bar from sliding out past the connection point with the lever, yet I'm not aware of any patent being issued for this feature (and if there were, it surely would have been stamped on later Waterman pressure bars).

Sunday, October 23, 2022

More American Stationer volumes available online

 It has been a while since I last checked, but digging into some 1920s Waterman research I found to my surprise that several volumes of the American Stationer that had formerly been snippet-only at Google Books are now fully readable, including volumes 92 through 99. In addition, quite a few volumes that had formerly been available only through Google Books are now also available through HathiTrust. The full master list here has been duly updated.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Waterman and the Barnes lever-filler patent

Pen history has largely been written by collectors rather than trained academic historians, so one often has to scramble to find solid references for what has become accepted knowledge. An example which recently sent me scrambling for documentation is Waterman's acquisition of John Barnes's lever-filler patent. For future reference, I will share the material I found in this post.

Firstly, let us note that there are two Barnes patents that are often confused with each other. The first is US726495, issued on April 28, 1903. The second is US738876, issued September 15, 1903. The first is referenced in the second, but with a misprint (725,495 for 726,495). Neither patent is for the use of a lever as a filling method per se, nor is the method by which the lever is attached to the barrel covered. As with Sheaffer's patents, there is much misunderstanding about what is claimed as original. Both Barnes and Sheaffer patented improvements to lever-fillers -- in Barnes's case, a pressure bar with an attachment to the barrel at the end and formed so as to be toggled to the end of the lever. The lever box was patented by Ferris, and had nothing to do with Barnes.

Both patents were initially assigned to W. F. and John Barnes Co. The exact date of their acquisition by Waterman I have not been able to establish as yet, but the following will help narrow down the range.

Earlier Waterman lever-fillers typically bear the date of the first Barnes patent on their levers, along with "PAT. APLD. FOR". And on March 13, 1916 Waterman filed for a disclaimer to this patent which was duly published in the US Patent Office Official Gazette of March 21, 1916.  The L. E. Waterman Company is there identified as "the assignee by mesne assignments".

1916 would also appear to have been the year that Barnes died, at least according to Edward F. Dunne's Illinois: The Heart of the Nation (1933). In volume 3, page 109, we read "John Barnes, who was also the inventor of a fountain pen which was sold to and is now being handled by the Waterman Fountain Pen Company, died in 1916, at the age of eighty-three years".

Also undated is the well-known anecdote from Walter A. Sheaffer's autobiography, in which he recounts (pp. 34-35):
"In the early days of the lever pen it was a novel device, but there was an old lever patent taken out by Barnes of Rockford, Illinois, that I could have bought for a few dollars; but this was one place where my patent attorney advised me wrong. He said, "It isn’t worth anything and I wouldn’t advise you to buy it." However, it was sold to/the L. E. Waterman Pen Company for about $100. This patent was the basis for the Waterman Pen Company to make a lever pen. As they were a very large concern, they showed lots of dealers a lever pen before we were able to get to them."
Indeed, the date of the Barnes patent appears on all early Waterman lever-fillers, even the very oldest examples known (see previous posts here and here) which likely date to the end of 1914 and certainly no later than the very beginning of 1915.