Design Features: World War II and Its Effects on Pen Design

(This page revised October 16, 2014)

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World War II had profound effects on the home front, in almost every aspect of civilian life. Rubber and gasoline rationing changed travel habits, creating a boom in railroad ridership. Quotas on fuel oil made knitting fashionable again as families needed sweaters to keep warm in winter, and many women also knitted socks and scarves to be sent to the troops in the field. Diets changed as meat, butter, coffee, and sugar were rationed, and people saved their extra waste fat and turned it in at the butcher shop to be sent off and made into explosives. Victory Gardens sprang up everywhere to supply more fresh vegetables. Limits on clothing and shoes turned many housewives into seamstresses and even cobblers — and skirts got shorter. As the lyrics of a song by the Hoosier Hotshots put it, “So we’ll eat less, and see a bit more.” The War even touched that most prosaic of tools, the pen.

Army-Navy "E" award bannerArmy-Navy "E" award pinThe principal effect on U.S. pens resulted from the War Production Board’s restrictions. Rubber, steel, aluminum, brass, petroleum, and other raw materials were designated as critical war resources and strictly rationed, with most of the supply going to the manufacture and shipping of war matériel and the operation of the Allied war machine. Pen companies had to scale back their pen production, devoting their efforts instead to manufacturing war goods. (In November 1942, the WPB limited production to 46% of 1941 output.) Companies that excelled in war production received the Army-Navy “E” Award for Excellence in Production, and they proudly displayed the award banner (shown to the left) at their factories and in their advertising. The W. A. Sheaffer Pen Company received the “E” Award on May 13, 1944, for its efforts in the production of bomb fuzes and aircraft radio tuners. The enameled sterling silver lapel pin shown to the right is one of those given to Sheaffer’s employees at the award ceremony.

Furniture Goes Down- or Up-Market

Brass was the base metal for most pen furniture (clips, levers, and cap bands). With brass restricted, manufacturers turned to other metals. While cheap pens appeared with thinly gold-plated furniture of low-grade steel, first-tier models from the Big Four manufacturers acquired more intrinsic value in the form of gold-filled parts made with sterling silver instead of brass. (This material is not vermeil, which is plated, not sandwiched, and has much less actual gold in its makeup). Here are a cheap pen (Chicago Conklin, with a plated steel nib and painted-on cap bands) and a more expensive one (Sheaffer’s “TRIUMPH”, introduced in May 1942):

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Material Restrictions Lead to Changes, but That’s Not Always a Bad Thing!

Because of their popularity among collectors, the Parker Vacumatic and “51” are widely recognized as having “gone under the knife” due to material restrictions. The Vacumatic filler was made almost entirely of metal, primarily aluminum. With aluminum needed for aircraft manufacture, Parker went back to the drawing board and redesigned the filler, producing a new version that used much less aluminum and was also less costly and less likely to jam or suffer corrosion. The new filler’s plunger is made of celluloid and features an external spring instead of the one enclosed by the older tubular aluminum plunger. Here are a 1939 Vacumatic Speedline Major (upper) and a 1946 Vacumatic Major (lower):

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass

As the war went on, Parker tried further refinements of the new filler; the final version appeared in late 1943 or early 1944 and is made entirely of plastic except for the spring. This all-plastic version is often cemented into the pen barrel very securely and can be very difficult to remove when diaphragm replacement is required. Parker retained the new filler design after the end of the war but reverted to metal for the two collars that secure the diaphragm and the filler itself into the pen.

Parker also responded to the restrictions on brass by switching to a silver base for its furniture, and it took an additional step by redesigning the exterior of its pens to eliminate the blind-cap tassie. This change saved material, and — like the filler redesign — reduced the manufacturing cost of the pens. Shown here are the same two Vacumatics illustrated above:

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass

More immediately important to most pen companies’ designers, however, was the restriction on rubber. Pens that used only a little rubber, like Parker’s Vacumatic and Sheaffer’s Vacuum-Fil models, could skate through with minor functional changes; but pens that used more rubber, i.e., anything with a sac, presented a problem. Sac pens continued in production, but there were far fewer of them, proportionally speaking. Sheaffer’s Vacuum-Fil, with its tiny rubber usage, was immensely popular among those who could afford it; the number of lever-filling “TRIUMPH” pens still around is minuscule in comparison with the large numbers of the Vacuum-Fil “TRIUMPH” version.

Body Materials That Were Perhaps Not the Best Choice

When the U.S. went to war in December 1941, Parker had just introduced the revolutionary “51”, whose body is made of Lucite® (acrylic). The war put the success of the “51” in jeopardy because Lucite was suddenly needed in greater quantities for aircraft canopies. Parker did continue making the “51”, but in severely restricted numbers — of which the majority went to the military. The difficulty of obtaining a “51” in the civilian market only heightened the pen’s desirability; Parker’s wartime advertising used patriotic sentiments to capitalize on the obstacles to owning the pen, and “51” sales took off like a rocket after the war ended.

Waterman, on the other hand, appears to have seen the war coming and taken steps to forestall a materials crisis. Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen, also made of Lucite, took on a dramatically new style for the 1941 Christmas season, as before the bombing of Pearl Harbor the company had already introduced its new pens. The Hundred Year Pen wore a new body of celluloid, with a transparent barrel end. Here are a red 1940 Hundred Year pen, of Lucite, and a burgundy 1941 Hundred Year Pen, of celluloid. (The amber barrel end on the 1941 pen may look odd, but it is correct; for the first year of production, all celluloid Hundred Year Pens had amber ends except the black version, whose end was clear.)

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Celluloid is a relatively unstable material, unfortunately. Its instability appears as ambering (discoloration) and, in more severe cases, as crystallization, crazing, cracking, and eventual crumbling. The tendency to crystallize is inversely proportional to the curing time and the amount of colorant in the celluloid, and it is directly proportional to the object's thickness. The combination of these factors has led to the disintegration of virtually all of the transparent barrel ends on celluloid Hundred Year Pens. (The burgundy pen shown above has had its barrel end professionally replaced with a more stable material.)

Another material change, one that was probably seen as a technological advancement rather than merely as a way to cope with the exigencies of war, was Eversharp’s transition from celluloid to polystyrene in the manufacture of its Skyline pens. At the outset of the war, all Skylines were celluloid. I. G. Farben had pioneered polystyrene production in Germany during the early 1930s, and when the material became available in the U.S., Eversharp adopted it. There are several significant advantages to polystyrene as a pen material, principal among which is that — unlike celluloid, which must be made ahead and cured for several months — it is sold in pellet form and can be fabricated very rapidly on demand by injection molding, which eliminates most of the costly machining required to produce a pen body from celluloid rod. Polystyrene also resists the corrosive action of ink, making it a material of choice for use in pens that could handle the new faster-drying formulas then appearing on the market.

Polystyrene could not be made in the brilliantly patterned colors that were available with celluloid, and this minor deficiency led to the eventual discontinuation of the Modern Stripe Skylines. Eversharp continued to produce striated celluloid caps, however, because the sleeve that makes the body of a Skyline cap can be formed easily from sheet stock. Shown here are a green Modern Stripe Skyline in celluloid and a Dubonnet Red Skyline in polystyrene with a gold-filled cap:

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The worst disadvantage of polystyrene did not become evident until some decades after the Skyline ended its product life in 1948. The early and relatively untested resin formulation that Eversharp used has turned out to be unstable: the pens fade, and they deteriorate mechanically to the point of becoming brittle and frangible. Polystyrene inner caps, molded integrally with the cap derby, are often found in a crumbled state.

The “Real Deal” Wartime Pen

Perhaps the pen model best known specifically as a wartime pen is Morrison’s Patriot. In late 1942, the Morrison Fountain Pen Company began producing a regulations-compliant version of its Patriot, newly fitted with a 14K gold nib instead of the steel used in earlier versions, and issued in versions to honor the four U.S. fighting forces. Here are Army, Navy, Army Air Corps, and Marine Corps Patriots:

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

Each of these has the crest of its service, cast in sterling silver and gold plated, glued to the cap crown. The big feature of these pens, however, is not the external design but the internal one. They’re syringe (Post) fillers, with the entire barrel screwing off to expose the filling unit.

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The Patriot lived up to its name when it came to conserving critical war resources. Except for the filler’s two gaskets and the cap emblem, clip, cap band, and nib, the entire pen, including the section and feed, is made of celluloid.

Interestingly, in Germany the Nazi government placed gold on its list of critical war resources. The result was that instead of fitting lesser pens with gold nibs, as happened with U.S. manufacturers such as Morrison, German first-tier makers switched to steel nibs. Illustrated here is a Pelikan 100 bearing a flexible steel nib imprinted with the letters CN in a circle. These letters stood for chromium and nickel, the two principal nonferrous elements in the stainless steel of which the nib was made.

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Good Ideas Should Be Shared

The Patriot was not the only syringe-filling pen to appear during World War II. Cheap pens with syringe fillers (including the blue Conklin illustrated near the beginning of this article) appeared in relatively great numbers. These cheap pens were made along more traditional lines, with the front half of the barrel forming the ink reservoir and the back half forming a blind cap that screws off to expose the plunger in the same manner as in the Post pens of earlier decades. These pens were made extremely cheaply, with crudely fashioned filler parts and, in most cases, with celluloid sections fused onto barrels rolled up from thin celluloid sheet. Today they’re virtually impossible to repair. Here is a DU-PONT pen, which has a hard rubber section. This pen has been fitted with a Pelikan M200 nib, with plating removed from the tines to match the original DURIUM TIPPED nib’s design.

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Interestingly, although most of the cheap syringe fillers featured bright and cheery colors, there was at least one produced in Olive Drab, like the Patriot:

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Unlike many of its competitors, this pen has a military clip and could indeed have been worn by a soldier or a Marine while in uniform.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

If cars run on rubber, pens run on iridium — or, more properly, tipping material. Before World War II, metallurgical technology had not developed to a degree sufficient to support the economical manufacture of high-quality alloys suitable for tipping fountain pen nibs. Tipping material was culled from high-grade ores of platinum-group metals, principally iridium and osmium. Ore was crushed, fragments were selected based on their metal content and welded to nibs, after which the tips were ground and polished to finish them. This technology worked reasonably well, but the quality of finished nib tips could vary greatly, as one might have a cleavage line that would result in a fracture of the tip while the next might be made of a fragment whose spongy texture resembled that of sintered metal (more suitable for ballpoints; cf. the Parker T-Ball Jotter) and a third might be perfect in all respects.

Taperite Advertisement, 1946 Magnifying glass

The military’s need for highly refined alloys that were very hard led to the development of technology to meet the requirements, and that technology spilled over to consumer goods, including pens. Early in the War, Parker advertised that the nib of the “51” was tipped with osmiridium, a naturally occurring alloy of iridium and osmium; during 1943 the company changed to an alloy it called Plathenium, which is very high in ruthenium and is therefore much harder and more durable. Other manufacturers followed Parker’s lead, and soon nibs tipped with highly refined alloys were the rule rather than the exception for high-quality pens.

Third-tier pens continued to appear with untipped steel nibs, changed in no way from the nibs used before the War. The Conklin and DU-PONT pens illustrated here left their respective factories fitted with butterfly (untipped) nibs.

Afterword

The War wrought its changes on all aspects of life; and when daily life returned to normal, it turned out that even “normal” had changed. New technology enabled more rapid and more economical manufacture of better pens, and new cultural norms made the sexes more nearly equal than at any time in the past — which also played a role in pen design and marketing. (See, for example, the Waterman adver­tise­ment to the right, clearly targeted at the postwar “Modern Woman”!) Pens from the war years offer a surprisingly penetrating look at the times, and a collection containing nothing made before 1940 or after 1945 would be a richly fascinating one indeed.

Notes:
  1. The Billboard, August 7, 1943, page 52.  Return to text

  2. Morrison used the “Army Air Corps” name throughout the war despite the fact that the Army Air Corps had in June 1941 been officially renamed the Army Air Forces.  Return to text


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