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(This page revised October 10, 2015)
Learning about the pens you collect can be fascinating, and it makes you more able to find those really great pens that others might miss. It can also, if you sell pens, increase your income by providing you with the documentation you need to better market the pens of special interest that you find. At the end of the day, it’s just one more of the reasons why collecting vintage pens is so exciting.
The pen shown above belongs to a client who sent it to me for restoration. When I said that its nib was missing tipping from one tine, the client responded that I should install an appropriate replacement if I thought the pen warranted it. But the pen bears no imprint identifying its manufacturer. It’s an attractive pen, but while some part of any pen’s value lies in its design and quality, another part of that value inheres from its history. How would I know whether it merits restoration? Who made it? Is it an important piece of pen history?
How do you identify a pen when there’s no apparent way to do so? This is the kind of question that takes good detective work to answer. This article is the first in a series about how to be a pen detective.
The first thing a pen detective should do is to examine the pen to see what might be a clue. Is this pen a quality product, or is it a cheap junker? Is the body made well, of good material? This pen gets an upcheck on both accounts. It’s celluloid, with a hard rubber section and mostly gold-filled (not cheaply plated) furniture. (The lever appears to be plated.)The furniture presents a quality appearance; for example, the lever is crisply formed and finished without rough edges. It’s reminiscent of the slightly bridged lever that Wahl used during the 1920s. But this pen has a run-of-the-mill phosphor bronze J-style pressure bar. Wahl did not use a spring-loaded pressure bar, instead adding a tiny hairpin-shaped spring inside the formed sides of its lever to hold the lever closed by putting pressure on the sides of the lever slot. Wahl’s lever also has a circular thumbnail tab and tiny “ears” that slide in channels on the pressure bar, and it must be installed through a small slot cut across the back end of the lever slot. If Wahl were setting out to produce a no-name pen, it would likely have gone along with the common practice by buying off-the-shelf levers from someone like the National Pen Products Company, which was just up the road in Chicago. The mystery pen is probably not a Wahl product. (This kind of historical and design information is the stock in trade of an experienced pen detective.)
Let’s look further, at the other end of the pen. Another sign of quality is the double narrow cap bands. In the decade centered on 1930, during which this pen was made, cheap pens had single bands or, in a few cases, “double bands” that were made by painting the middle part of a wider single band. But several makers of quality pens used real double bands, so this isn’t a meaningful clue.
The clip, while it is generally ordinary in shape, is attached to the cap in a decidedly unusual manner. There is a small metal part shaped like a staple, with “legs” passing through holes in the clip and the barrel. The legs are bent over on the inside of the cap, between the cap wall and the inner cap. Here we find a potential clue. There is a patent date, April 14, 1925, imprinted on the staple! (There is also a name, Conqueror, on the clip, and a quick Google or eBay search might turn up one or more Conqueror pens, complete with the manufacturer’s name. For the purposes of this article, I shall pretend that I found no such pens when I did a plain Google search.)
There are several good resources for tracking down pen patents. Some are easy to access; others are less easy but potentially more useful or, once accessed, easier to search. For the purposes of this article, I shall limit my discussion to U.S. patents; similar resources are available for European patents.
The ultimate resource is the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). You can search physical copies at the various patent depositories around the U.S.A., or you can search the USPTO’s Web site. (Site searching is sometimes difficult because patents issued before 1975 are available only as TIFF images.) The Web site also includes a list of the depositories, and it’s worth checking to see whether there’s one near enough to you that you can use it.
Probably the easiest resource to access and use is Google Patents. Google’s site is remarkably easy to use; you fill in information (“keywords”) about the patent you want to find, and Google returns a search listing of potential candidates.
Another online resource, a little less easy to use but capable of very specific searches, is FreePatentsOnline. This site offers a Quick Search, with a minimum of criteria to be entered, or an Expert Search, in which you can narrow your search to specific information in specific fields of the site’s database. One major advantage of FreePatentsOnline is that it also includes patents from countries other than the U.S.A.
It will be interesting to try more than one search. The Patent Office’s TIFF images aren’t useful at this point because they are not searchable, so let’s look at Google Patents and FreePatentsOnline.
Google Patents: In the Google Patents search box, we enter 1925 fountain pen clip. (We could be more specific, but it turns out that being too specific can actually eliminate the patent we’re looking for. So we won’t use the advanced search, either.) Google returns 45 potential candidates. Here’s a screen shot showing part of page 2:
We’re looking at U.S. Patent No 1,533,466, issued on April 14, 1925 (the exact date we want). This patent’s information may look a little odd: The name IGNATZ SAIZ doesn’t ring any bells, but what appears on the page might a misspelling because Google derives its information by running an optical character recognition program on the patent images and does not correct the result. If you’re up on your pen history, you’ll probably realize that IGNATZ SALZ does ring a bell. Ignatz and his brothers Jacob and James Salz founded and operated the Salz Pen Company.
Following the link to the patent itself allows us to view the patent images, where we can immediately verify that the patentee was actually Ignatz Salz.
Our interest now switches to the drawings, to see what the clip looks like.
It is exactly like the one on our mystery pen. Returning to the first page of the patent, we learn that Ignatz Salz did not assign the patent to anyone. Given that we have a pen in hand that uses this design, we can probably assume that the Salz company used it to make pens. If this assumption is correct, it’s likely that we’ve found the maker of our mystery pen.
FreePatentsOnline: In the FreePatentsOnline search box, we enter 1925 fountain pen clip. This search returns 42 patents, none of which is what we’re looking for.
So instead we’ll click on Search Patents at the top of the page, and on the page where we land we’ll choose the Quick Search tab. In the Publication Dates fields, we’ll enter a date range from 4/1/1925 to 4/30/1925 and in the Description/Specification field we’ll enter fountain pen clip. The options at the bottom of the page default to the ones we want, US Patents, Word Stemming on, and Sort Order set to Relevancy. This search returns no results, so we start whittling down the information and trying different fields. Eventually, we get good results with clip in the title field and our same date range in the Publication Dates fields. This returns five patents, and the one with a relevancy score of 1000 turns out to be the one we want.
FreePatentsOnline requires you to register in order to view the patent images in PDF form. (Registration is free.) Once registered, you can view the actual patent, and — as with the Google page — you can see that it’s the clip design we want. Again, a fairly quick search has probably located our manufacturer.
With the Salz name in hand, we can compare our pen visually with other Salz pens of its time, and we will see that it is without doubt a Salz product. Now that we know that the Salz Pen Company made the pen, we can decide whether the pen is significant or valuable, or both. It turns out to be an interesting and worthwhile one, but not a terribly important one. Since my client wanted it for a writer, not a collection specimen, I went ahead and installed an appropriate nib, a 14K WARRANTED No 8.
Obviously, you can’t just find the patent date on every pen and trace the pen to its maker’s door. Not all pens bear patent dates — many third-tier pens, in fact, have no identifying information at all. But it’s usually easy to find such information if it’s there, and when you can find it you’re on your way to an ID.
The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.