Design Features: Combos

(This page revised March 24, 2014)

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Julius Schnell was one of the major figures in the manufacture of fountain pens during the first quarter of the 20th century. Using proprietary and jealously guarded processes, he made barrels for Conklin beginning in 1903, and at the same time he began assembling sections and setting nibs for Edward Todd. He made parts for Salz and Banker. He worked with Sheaffer and was called to testify as a witness in a lawsuit over Sheaffer’s lever filler patent. But he is perhaps best known for his introduction in 1929 of the Schnell Penselpen, which was — if Schnell’s own advertising is to be believed — the first widely successful fself-filling fountain pen/pencil combination (known colloquially as a combo).

Schnell did not invent the combo concept. Eyedropper-filling combos had existed for decades; one such is this black hard rubber Eagle:

Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Eagle combo lent by Daniel Kirchheimer

In fact, although Schnell already held many significant patents for pen design, the Penselpen was not his idea — or even his patent. Several combo patents were granted in the latter half of the 1920s, including those of Joseph F. Day (U.S. Patent Nº 1,495,890), Gustav A. Lundmark (U.S. Patent Nº 1,479,996), and Edward M. Slack (U.S. Patent Nº 1,510,613). But it was the combo design of Charles S. Nudelman (U.S. Patent Nº 1,526,365) that Schnell put into production. Here are two Schnell Penselpens, an oversize Jade Green example and a standard-sized model in Black and Pearl:

Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass

These pens illustrate clearly a nontrivial difficulty that the combo form factor imposed on designers: fillers that worked from the back of the barrel, such as button, plunger, Vacumatic, or piston types, were less than ideally suitable because their use entailed removing — and potentially losing — a blind cap that was actually a complete pencil. Thus, there were only a few button, bulb, and plunger-style pump fillers. Shown here is a Sager plunger pump filler:

Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass

Most combos had lever fillers. The most prominent departure from relatively common filling systems was the Penselpen itself, which Schnell fitted with his own 15-year-old slide filler (U.S. Patent Nº 1,144,436).

A Twofer for the Working Folks

During the Depression, the opportunity to combine a pen with a pencil, saving a significant chunk of change and at the same time reducing the number of items in one’s pocket, seems to have appealed mostly to working-class people who had little discretionary income with which to purchase writing instruments. Because of this appeal, the majority of combos appear to have been third-tier models. Here is a sampling of these pens, ranging from the very small to the gargantuan:

Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Salz Bros. “Peter Pan” combo (31/2" capped, 49/32" posted)
 
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
No-name combo (49/32" capped, barrel too worn to post)
 
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Arnold combo (55/8" capped, 65/16" posted)
 
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Wearever combo (61/32" capped, 61/2" posted)
 

The combos shown above are of mediocre, or even poor, quality; of these pens, only the red/black no-name has an iridium-tipped nib (a surprisingly good stub). But not all third-tier combos were cheap — or, to put it perhaps more charitably, not all combos were third tier, even if their makers are now unknown. The unidentified sterling silver combo shown here is of exceptionally fine quality:

Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass

An unfortunate consequence of his having launched the Penselpen in 1929 was that, as the Depression took hold, Julius Schnell found himself virtually bankrupted by the costs of business, and his company failed.

The Big Boys Were There, Too

The production of combos was not the exclusive province of lesser makers, be they cheaper or merely smaller. Conklin, Parker, Sheaffer, Wahl-Eversharp, and Waterman are all known to have produced combos.

Sheaffer tried to carve out a position in the high-end and low-end markets alike by making both Lifetime and non-Lifetime versions. Pictured are a J 5-30P combo in Jade Green, c. 1930, and a 5P in Black, c. 1936. (Sheaffer’s Lifetime offerings included Black combos but not Jade Green ones.)

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
 
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Conklin, still firmly ensconced in Toledo, Ohio, during the combo era, named its combo the Ensemble. Shown here are an early Ensemble in Pearl and Black and a slightly later one (note the more streamlined clip) in Leaf Green:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
 
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

L. E. Waterman made combos right on the cusp of its transition from hard rubber to celluloid; there are Waterman combos in both materials. (Waterman combos, specially those made of hard rubber, are rare and quite collectible.) The celluloid combo shown here was made c. 1932:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Dead, Dying, or Alive and Well?

The middle of the 1930s seems to have been the beginning of the end for combo production. Combos appear in Sheaffer's 1935 and 1936 catalogs but not in 1937. But “It ain’t over till it’s over,” as famed baseball catcher and philosophical wit Yogi Berra expressed it. He was talking about the way a baseball game can be won or lost on the final play, but his observation holds true for dual-use writing instruments, too. As recently as 2004, England's Conway Stewart produced a limited edition fountain pen/ballpoint pen combo based on its Churchill model:

Fountain pen/ballpoint combo Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/ballpoint combo Magnifying glass
Churchill combo lent by David Watts, Jr.

In terms of their collectibility, combos today seem somewhat underappreciated; few collectors seek them out. Given the large numbers of combos lying around (most but certainly not all produced by third-tier makers), there is definitely an opportunity to form a collection around these unusual writing instruments.


The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information. Some of the information about filler types was provided by Jon Rosenbaum.

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