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?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

An early Plum

"Plum" (a deep purple) is a scarce and highly sought-after color in the Parker 51 -- and indeed, purple was not a color commonly used for pens in the old days. So it was with some surprise that I found the pen shown below: an Eagle glass-cartridge pen with original deep purple lacquer.

These all-metal pens were made from the 1890s on (you can read more about them here), with nearly all sporting a plain black lacquer finish. Similarly constructed Eagles with later filling systems -- coin-fillers and lever-fillers -- are commonly found with other finishes, most often an orange-red but sometimes a multicolor swirled pattern. Such variation isn't seen in the glass cartridge pens, though, and this is the first purple metal Eagle of any model that I've ever seen.

Like the 51's Plum, this Eagle's color is dark enough that it is difficult to photograph, and the richness of the color only comes out in bright light.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What is a stub nib?

In current usage, a stub nib is a rounded italic: its point is wider than it is thick, but its profile is smoothed for easier writing. There are those who object to this definition on historical grounds -- a detailed discussion can be found here -- and as it turns out, the confusion of what "stub" means goes back quite some time.
The passage above appears in Waterman's Circular No. 55-25, which can be dated sometime between the later part of 1898 and 1900.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A noble shard

Many years ago, Pier Gustafson organized a show-and-tell display among Boston area pen collectors of what he aptly termed "noble shards" -- the wreckage of once-notable (and perhaps, still notable) pens.

The remnants of the end-lever Crocker shown here amply qualify. The cap may be missing its top half, and the section assembly is absent. But this battered survivor is still very special, for it is not hard rubber, but casein. The pattern is a sort of woodgrain, though it is now stained and faded. The end knob is imprinted "2S", and in raking light the characteristic alligatoring of aged casein is clearly visible.

I am not aware of any advertising or catalog listing for casein Crockers, and I have only seen one other example over the years -- much better preserved, in a solid green similar to that of a Parker Ivorine. But sometimes the only survivors are fragmentary, overlooked in a parts box.

Friday, December 19, 2014

An unusual wartime Sheaffer

With the entry of the United States into WW2, penmakers were faced with production quotas and restrictions upon materials needed for the war effort. Aluminum, brass, and stainless steel were replaced by silver and gold, which the USA had in abundance. The pen shown above, a Sheaffer Feathertouch Defender, shows the characteristic tarnish of gold over silver wartime trim: a greyish-black film, often blotchy, caused by silver atoms migrating to the surface and oxidizing on exposure to the air.

The over-the-top "military" clip is another characteristic wartime feature, allowing the pen to sit low enough in a uniform blouse pocket so as not to interfere with closure of the pocket flap. But the wartime features of this particular pen don't stop there. The section is celluloid, rather than hard rubber (rubber was a critical war material) -- not uncommon -- and so is the plunger shaft.

Wartime plunger-fillers typically used celluloid-covered carbon steel plunger shafts instead of stainless steel. These worked well enough, though the carbon steel was susceptible to rust swelling should any moisture penetrate its coating. All-celluloid shafts were another matter, as they were insufficiently rigid and prone to warpage. They are rare enough today that it is likely that they were only made experimentally -- and quickly rejected.

It would be easy enough to retrofit this pen with a postwar stainless shaft and matching blind cap (the original blind cap has a simple unthreaded hole into which the celluloid shaft press-fits), but we have put it back together as it was made, minus its original piston seal washer -- not functional as a pen, yet eloquent as witness to an era.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Waterman dummy


The pen above looks like a commonplace Waterman 52.  Flip it over, and you will see that it isn't a working pen at all, but a dummy made up for window display.  Real pens left on display were always a theft risk, dummy pens, much less so -- and display dummies also kept the real pens from being faded by sun exposure.

Dummy pens were often made up from rejected parts, and this one is no exception. In this case, the barrel isn't even a Waterman, for it bears a clear Aikin Lambert imprint. And though a Waterman lever box has been installed, it doesn't fit quite right since there isn't a cutout at the end of the lever slot, as the Aikin lever was of simpler form. By this time, Waterman had owned Aikin Lambert for a good ten or fifteen years, and production facilities had long been consolidated.

If you look more closely at the finish of the smooth part at the end of the barrel, you will also see another dummy-specific feature: the pen has been painted black, to better resist fading while in a shop window.  The paint is partially worn off here, and another patch of wear-through is visible on the cap top as well.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Parker 1.0 mm lead pencil converter

By the 1930s, lead sizes for American mechanical pencils had been thoroughly standardized. There was the older standard of 0.046 inches (metricized as 1.1 or 1.2 mm) and the newer standard of 0.036 inches  (0.9 mm), and for drafting pencils there was 0.075 inches (2 mm). The plethora of odd sizes used in the 19th century had all been dropped in the first decades of the 20th.

So it was to my complete astonishment that I recently discovered that Parker, in the later 1960s, briefly adopted a completely nonstandard lead diameter of 0.040 inches (1.01 mm). Not in a mechanical pencil, strictly speaking, but for its "pencil cartridge", shaped like a Jotter ballpoint refill and used to convert any Jotter-style ballpoint into an injector pencil. The example shown above came in a sterling silver Classic ballpoint; it was still full of lead, but I thought I'd add a little more before offering it for sale (Parker didn't advertise these cartridges as refillable, but all it takes is to hold one tip-up, press the back button down, and feed new lead into the front). Yet when I put in some 0.9 mm lead, it didn't work properly. The lead was held firmly when the end button was released, but when the button was depressed, the lead shot out instead of advancing a millimeter or two at a time. Upon closer examination, the original lead that came inside the cartridge measured a hair over 1 mm and worked perfectly -- as did some 1.0 mm lead that I then added as a test.

According to Jotter: History of an Icon, p. 204, Parker's pencil cartridge was introduced in 1968 (other authorities specify that it was at the beginning of that year). No mention is made of the lead size used, however, though in external form our 1 mm cartridge is the earliest model shown, all metal with only a bit of black plastic at the end, and no eraser. How long it remained in production is not clear, though I was able to find the image below from a 1969 Parker catalog, originally posted by Graham Hogg here.

It seems clear that Parker adopted a slightly oversize lead diameter to prevent users refilling their cartridges instead of buying new ones. Customers would assume that the cartridges were worn out, never suspecting that the lead diameter was the issue. Indeed, Parker advertised the cartridges as being good for up to a year, or up to 50,000 words -- clearly positioning them as consumables, despite building them stoutly enough for years of service.

I haven't had the time to go back through all the different Parker pencil cartridges in my shop to check lead diameters, but I've handled quite a few of them over the years and this is the first I've found that didn't work when refilled with standard-sized lead. My guess is that later models all used standard lead, and that perhaps even the original model was reconfigured at some point to use standard lead as well.

ADDENDUM: At the Columbus pen show I was able to ask around about this. I found only one person -- a former Parker employee -- who knew about the 1 mm lead. Unfortunately, this was from observation, not company lore, so we still don't know how this all came to be. Did Parker anticipate that consumers would try to refill the cartridges, and made them to use the nonstandard lead from the beginning? Or were they originally made to use standard lead, and a modified version using nonstandard lead was introduced only later, after the problem of refilling became apparent?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Equi-Poised combos in a catalog

Among the top-line American penmakers of the 1920s and 1930s, the response to the fad for pen-pencil combinations varied considerably. Wahl-Eversharp made some fine combos, but did not appear to have advertised them; they are very scarce today, and were surely made in small numbers at the time.

To date, I have found one catalog showing Wahl-Eversharp combos. It is not a Wahl-Eversharp catalog, though the illustrations were surely supplied by the company. The catalog is dated 1932-1933, and the combos shown are economy-line versions (Wahl-Eversharp combos are based upon either the top of the line Gold Seal Equi-Poised pens -- an example here -- or the smaller and less solidly constructed non-Gold Seal pens of similar profile, also often found branded as Wahl-Oxfords).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A late Heath magic pencil

What at first glance appears to be an unprepossessing silver golf pencil, turns out, with a pull on the end, to be a magic pencil -- and one made by the fabled firm of George W. Heath & Co.

It's no accident that its styling recalls the streamlined golf pencils of the 1920s and '30s, for this is a very late magic pencil. The design, with the screw-off lead reservoir shown below, was the subject of US patent 1,514,965 -- the very last of Heath's writing equipment patents. The application was submitted on July 19, 1922 and the patent was issued on November 11, 1924. The "PAT. APP. FOR" imprint locates the pencil between those two dates.

The pencil is also of interest in that it bears both of the standard Heath marks. The famous H in a square is on the extending shaft, while "G. W. H. CO." appears on the barrel. The Heath marks stop appearing on the overlays of name-brand pens well before this pencil was made -- suggesting that the omission of the marks from contract work was customer, not Heath's, choice.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chapmans vs Waterman: Miscellaneous

There are a lot of scattered historical tidbits in the Chapmans vs Waterman trial record (background here). Some notable nuggets are listed below:
As of 1915, A. A. Waterman production was around 100,000 pens annually (p. 153) -- less than a tenth of Waterman's volume, per William I. Ferris' testimony (p. 179).

A. A. Waterman's sacs were guaranteed for only two years, replacement cost 25 cents (p. 349).

The Sterling Fountain Pen Company originated in the February 1899 dissolution of A. A. Waterman & Company and its takeover by Rhodes Lockwood, formerly a silent partner and the firm's financial backer (pp. 185-86).

A December 2, 1909 letter from the Modern Pen Company states, "Within the last year Mr. [Arthur A.] Waterman was withdrawn from the Chicago Company and is now with the Held Pen Co. of Salt Lake City, Utah" (p. 592, see also p. 595).

In December 1907, Waterman bought 1512 gold nibs from the Modern Pen Company for $393, including a $15 charge for "Altering tools" -- presumably, the tooling charge for the imprint stamp (pp. 547-48). The transaction was indirect, the nibs being sold by Modern to William L. Chapman and by him to William I. Ferris (pp. 118, 126). According to Chapman, he dealt directly with company president Frank D. Waterman (mistakenly called "Fred") and Ferris, and set up the transaction at their request to conceal that they were buying nibs from a rival (pp. 146-48). Ferris later claimed that the nibs were bought for Aikin Lambert, but court adjourned for the weekend before he could be pressed on this, and when the trial resumed the following Monday, the questioning moved in other directions (p. 191).

According to Walter L. Rieman, in charge of Waterman's repair department, 350-400 packages arrived by mail per day, some with more than one pen. This impressive repair volume did not include repairs received over the counter, as there was a separate repair department attached to the retail department (p. 406).