(This page revised October 12, 2015)
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- Costello: What’s the guy’s name on first base?
Abbott: No. What is on second.
Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second.
Abbott: Who’s on first.
Costello: I don’t know.
Abbott: He’s on third…
— Abbott and Costello, “Who’s on First?”
Sidesplitting comedy aside, confusion isn’t limited to the names of baseball players. Pen designs can be confusing on occasion. In the 19th century, many pens looked very similar because they were all made of black hard rubber. To distinguish their pens, makers used features such as chasing, applied bands, overlays, and so on. Shown here are an H. M. Smith “Rival” pen from the 1890s and a De La Rue “Onoto the Pen” from a few years later. Except for the added decorative elements, it’s almost a case of “Which is which?” (The Rival, by the way, is the upper pen.)
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s said, but when your competitor imitates your very profitable design, you might not be exactly flattered. You might even take him to court — which is exactly what Conklin did when William Welty’s Wawco hump filler (below, lower) looked a little too much like Conklin’s patented Crescent-Filler (upper). Conklin lost the case. Welty’s patent was upheld, but Welty apparently decided not to risk litigation again: he went off and invented a new filler design.
In 1921, the era of blatant copying began in earnest with Parker’s introduction of its bright orange (red hard rubber) Duofold (below, top, a 1924 Duofold). The pen was a runaway success, and competitors jumped on the bandwagon, virtually flooding the market with red pens. Conklin, Sheaffer, Wahl, and Waterman made RHR pens using their own styles (below, second, a Waterman 55, and third, a Wahl 7209C). With the advent of celluloid, third-tier makers had a field day copying the look of the Duofold — not so exactly as to incur litigation, of course, but closely enough to ensure that the man or woman who bought one of their pens could flash a black-ended red pen (bottom, a Diamond Point) just as bright as the next person’s Duofold:
“Big Red” copies were so numerous that hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps even millions, are still around. For years, my longtime friend Jerry Jerard had a great way of summing up the competition to put out the most popular Duofold knockoff: he regularly set out among his display trays at pen shows one labeled simply “Red Stuff.”
Step forward another decade, to the 1930s. The era of the Flat-Top was over; Sheaffer’s Balance had shown the way of the future, and designers were free to create pens of many different shapes. But sometimes the shapes weren’t so different. In an effort to win customers, some pen makers produced pens that might be mistaken for those of other makers. One of the earliest such pens was Wahl’s first streamlined pen (below, upper), which looked suspiciously like that Balance in the next display cabinet (lower):
Who’s On First? Did Wahl deliberately copy the Balance, did it accidentally copy the Balance, or was its design conceived before the Balance made its appearance? It’s not known. But what is known is that in short order the ends of the Wahl pen changed:
Even this revised model may not have passed muster, for in 1930 it was superseded by the famous Equi-Poised, shown here in a soldier-clip model:
But Wahl was not yet out of the thick of things. In 1931, almost simultaneously with the introduction of the renowned Omas Paragon (below, upper), Wahl introduced its equally famous Doric (lower):
The 12-sided faceted Art Deco design that these two pens shared was then, and is still today, classic. In the U.S.A., however, times moved fast — and fashions changed with the times. After less than a decade, with “streamlining” the latest thing, Art Deco — and with it the Eversharp Doric — was “so last week.” The Paragon, on the other hand, remained essentially unchanged for more than 70 years — until 2006 — beyond migrating from its original lever filler to the more modern piston filler.
Each company accused the other of design theft. Who’s On First?
Copying design features, without necessarily making an attempt to produce a copy pen, can produce felicitous results. In 1937, Sheaffer introduced its Model 47, later named the Crest (below, upper). It featured a metal cap secured by screw threads at the end of the section rather than at the section/barrel joint as was usual. A slight step in the barrel allowed Sheaffer’s designers to avoid a distinct step in diameter between the cap and the barrel, maintaining a smooth, slender profile for the pen’s full length. Parker may or may not already have been working on a similar design, but it was another two years before Parker introduced the Vacumatic Imperial (below, lower). The Imperial lacked the barrel step that marked the Crest, so that it had a smoother profile in use, but its profile when capped showed a slight but noticeable step in diameter at the cap lip.
Both of these pens are remarkably attractive, but Who’s On First?
Parker’s 1941 introduction of the “51” and the numerous hooded-nib pens that followed are legendary. Design Features: Hooded Nibs discusses and illustrates several of these pens.
In 1942, Sheaffer introduced its new “TRIUMPH” line (below, top), featuring the company’s radical new conical “Triumph” point. The pen’s design featured an exaggeratedly broad cap band that allowed the designers to maintain a smooth, slender profile for the “TRIUMPH” as they had done with the Crest.
In 1945, Waterman introduced a hooded-nib pen to compete with the world-beating Parker “51”. The new Waterman Taperite appeared in a broad range of cap styles, most of them metal like that on the “51”, but for the consumer who couldn’t afford the price of metal Waterman also offered the Taperite Citation (below, middle). Because Waterman was using a cap design that featured a spring-loaded clutch like that on the “51”, the Taperite’s cap could not be faired into the barrel profile, but the distinctive look of the broad cap band (and of the Waterman clutch ring where Sheaffer used a metal thread ring) produced a remarkably similar overall look. Most of the Taperite models, including the Citation, were also available with open nibs.
Manufacturers in the third tier weren’t slow to jump on successful bandwagons, as had been demonstrated by the plethora of “Big Red” clones in the 1920s and again in the ’30s with myriad copies of Sheaffer’s Balance. In the case of Sheaffer’s broad cap band, Venus (below, bottom) followed the money. Venus also offered its broad-banded pen in a hooded-nib version.
This time, at least, it’s pretty clear Who’s On First.
Another classic example of similarity begins in the 1930s, or at least it appears to do so. In France, the Dominator company created a richly elegant pen that it named Globe d’Or (“Golden Globe,” below, upper). This pen’s highly stylized design, loudly proclaimed by the clip and the multi-banded hemispherical golden cap derby that gives the pen its name, is Art Deco.
But by the mid-1930s Art Deco had begun to lose its luster, and its gradual demise led directly into the rise of streamlining. Designers began to apply sleek, wind-cheating curves to everything from cars (the Chrysler Airflow) to vacuum cleaners (the Electrolux XXX), from railroad locomotives (the Pennsylvania T-1) to buildings (the Chrysler Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair). It came as no surprise, therefore, when in 1941 Eversharp introduced its new Skyline pen. Styled by noted industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, the Skyline featured a teardrop shape (below, lower) that epitomized the sleek look of streamlining — but was it all Dreyfuss’ idea? Or was he riffing, at least partially, on the Globe d’Or? What is certain is that he created the archetypical streamlined pen. Wrapped around Eversharp’s proven interior design and still existing in great numbers, the Skyline is today one of the most popular vintage pens.
As it happens, it’s not too hard to tell Who’s On First. The Skyline (1941-1948) appeared before the Globe d’Or (1942-1948). But did Dominator actually copy the Skyline’s styling? It’s doubtful, but nobody knows for sure.
Beyond illustrating yet again that, as Ecclesiastes 1:9 has it, “there is nothing new under the sun,” this article might suggest a somewhat different way to focus a collection: how many examples of possibly plagiaristic similarities really exist among pen designs? Remembering, too, that modern pen makers not infrequently look back to the Golden Age for inspiration, we have yet another interesting way to look at pens and their aesthetics.
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