(This page revised February 13, 2018)
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As noted in Chapter 1 of this series, 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. Part of knowing about pens is knowing about the materials pen makers used. In this chapter I present some pens that aren’t made of the expected materials. Pens like these can be either blessings or curses, and you need to know what you’re facing before you start working on a pen, not after.
Pen No 1 — What’s It Made Of?
While I was working on the second-year Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen shown here, I discovered a fascinating piece of Waterman history. If you’re familiar with the Hundred Year Pen, you probably know that it was introduced in 1939 with advertising like this:
Why the New Waterman’s
HUNDRED YEAR PEN
Can Be Guaranteed for a Century
Waterman’s new Hundred Year Pen is made of one of the most amazing materials ever to come out of a test tube. Time or use can never dim its jewel-like luster . . . and, because it is strong as steel, it can never break, warp, shrink or twist. Furthermore, our 55 years experience in quality pen making assures you that every writing feature of this new pen is the finest that can be made. No wonder the new Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen guarantees you a Century of writing satisfaction!
The “amazing material” was DuPont Lucite® (acrylic resin), and it really was tough. Waterman liked it, and consumers liked it, so well that the next year’s Hundred Year Pen (the version at hand), although undergoing a fairly dramatic restyling, was also made of Lucite. But much of the rest of the world was at war, and it was only a matter of time until the U.S. got drawn into the fray. When that happened, Lucite would inevitably become a critical war resource, needed for aircraft canopies. So for the third year’s production, introduced for the 1941 Christmas season, Waterman reverted the Hundred Year Pen to celluloid and restyled it again, removing the bands from the barrel and applying one to the cap.
I had always thought, based on what I read in various books and learned from various people, that there was a sharp cutoff: Second year = Lucite, third year = celluloid. But the pen shown above taught me that the demarcation wasn’t as clear as that. As expected, this pen has a Lucite cap — but its barrel is celluloid. I discovered this when I started buffing out a scratch; the unmistakable aroma of camphor wafted upward from the barrel to my surprised nose.
This pen shows that Waterman was phasing out its Lucite pens earlier than the general wisdom had said. This, to me at least, was new historical information, a commodity that serious pen collectors and historians consider priceless. It also makes the pen itself historically significant and therefore potentially more valuable than it might have been if its barrel were made of Lucite.
Knowing that this pen’s barrel is celluloid gives me a valuable guide to the amount of heat I can use to remove the section (less than for Lucite) and also what cleaners or solvents I can use in its restoration (not alcohol).
Pen No 2 — What’s It Made Of?
A pen that might fool an inexperienced collector is this one:
It’s obvious at a glance that what we have here is a black chased hard rubber pen. This is a lovely pen with perfect color, not even the slightest trace of fading, and molten chasing. It’s a Parker Duofold; this fact tells us that the pen must have made before 1928, by which time Parker had completed the process of changing the Duofold over from hard rubber to celluloid. BCHR Duofolds are uncommon, and this one should be worth a fair chunk of change.
The problem is that this pen isn’t hard rubber at all. Like the barrel of the Hundred Year Pen above, this entire pen is celluloid. If it were rubber, applying a fair amount of pressure while rubbing the barrel briskly with the ball of your thumb would produce a slight odor of burning rubber as the friction heated the material; but there is no such smell when you rub this pen. It’s a Canadian Duofold. Parker’s Canadian factory in Toronto made pens to suit its own clientèle, and not necessarily in synchrony with U.S. manufacture. The Canadians held onto chasing after hard rubber had gone the way of the dodo, long enough for it to appear on this pen. So what about the pen’s actual age? Look at the cap bands. In the United States, Parker did not introduce twin cap bands on the Duofold until 1928. Look even more closely, at the shape of the section and the cap. This is a streamlined Duofold! The U.S. introduction of the streamlined Duofold was in 1929. This pen couldn’t have been made before 1929, and it was most probably made in the 1930s, not the 1920s.
Pen No 3 — What’s It Made Of?
On the other hand, a really pristine hard rubber pen, especially an unchased one, can also fool the observer:
One of these two pens is hard rubber, the other is celluloid. Which is which? There are certain design elements that can sort these pens out; but if you’re not familiar with the esoterica of the Esterbrook Dollar Pen and its antecedents, you might not know what to look for. You can fall back on the “sniff” test; and when you do, you will find that the lower pen here is made of hard rubber.
Pen No 4 — What’s It Made Of?
Celluloid and hard rubber aren‘t the only materials that can deceive the observer. Consider the metal pen shown here:
This pen was purchased from an experienced collector who hadn’t done all his homework. The purchaser, on seeing it in the seller’s case, thought it quite charming and, if not too precious, worth having for the novelty of its looks. The seller looked it over and decided that since it was gold filled, he’d sell it for $75.00, and the deal was consummated.
Later, the purchaser discovered something: an oddly located “bug” (hallmark). This particular bug reads 14K. This is not a gold-filled novelty pen. Examination of its clip shape (see Chapter 1) identified it as having been made by W. S. Hicks & Co., a maker of high-quality solid gold pens that it sold under its own name and also jobbed to Tiffany & Co., the well-known New York jeweler. This pen does not bear the Hicks company’s own hallmark; therefore, it’s probably a Tiffany piece. Either way, it’s definitely worth rather more than the price paid.
Pen No 5 — What’s It Made Of?
Sometimes things don’t turn out to be what you hope for — but there can still be a silver lining. Here’s a pretty silver ringtop Wahl Pen:
When I took Edward Pasahow’s Pen Encyclopedia and Data Book (now, sadly, out of print) down from the shelf, I searched his tables of catalog numbers and his Eversharp glossary and found a listing for a model 321, described as a round sterling silver ringtop in Check pattern, fitted with a No 2 nib — which would make it a rather nice find for a collector who’s a Wahl completist. But the number 321 is incomplete because it doesn’t include designators for the material (C = sterling silver) or the chatelaine ring (W = with ring). It should be 321CW, a number that Pasahow does not list.
But jumping to the conclusion that this pen is a 321CW would be a little hasty. A close look at the cap imprint reveals the words SILVER FILLED instead of the expected STERLING. This isn’t a 321CW; it’s a 321DW, which Pasahow lists, somewhat confusingly, as “sterling silver filled.” And it’s actually less common today than the sterling version because silver-filled pens were subject to brassing, and when the brassing got too bad, they frequently went out with the trash.
Pen No 6 — What’s It Made Of?
The earlier discussion of celluloid versus hard rubber suggests that caution is in order when you approach a repair; use the wrong cleaning agent, for example, and you can ruin a pen. It is in these sorts of cases that the situation can go badly with surprising rapidity, and some of them are lying in wait for the unwary. One such is a pen like this Mabie Todd Swan Leverless (type 2):
This is a very late Leverless, made in the 1940s or 1950s, and you’d expect it to be made of polystyrene, Forticel, or a similar modern plastic material. The barrel and cap are indeed modern material, but the blind cap (which operates the filler) turns out to be made of a completely different material, probably casein. Casein, in the 1950s? So it would seem. The pen above is the second one purchased by its owner; he had earlier bought another one like it and had soaked the body to remove some ink staining from the blind cap. The photos below illustrate what happened; the left image shows the blind cap that was soaked, and the right image shows the blind cap of the replacement pen.
Clearly, knowing in advance that the first pen’s blind cap didn’t like water would have saved its owner the need to buy another pen. For most repairers, unfortunately, this sort of knowledge almost always comes the hard way because there exists no comprehensive index of pens and the materials of which they are made.
The Nose Knows
As illustrated by the pens shown in this article, determining what a pen is made of requires a little ingenuity and sometimes a little experience, but it is in general not difficult. As I did with Pens 1 and 2 above, you can often identify the material of which a pen is made by smelling it. Here are some of the most common pen materials, the trade names under which they were (or are) sold, and the odors they produce:
Hard rubber (Ebonite, Vulcanite) gives off a sulphurous, burning rubber smell when warmed by being rubbed briskly with a thumb.
Cellulose nitrate (Celluloid, Xylonite; called Radite, Permanite, and Stonite by pen makers) gives off a smell of camphor when sanded or filed, and sometimes smells even without being disturbed.
Casein (Erinoid, Galalith) smells like burned milk when warmed by being rubbed briskly with a thumb.
Phenolic resin (Bakelite, Catalin) smells like carbolic acid (a fishy odor) when warmed by being rubbed briskly with a thumb.
Cellulose acetate (Acetate, Bexoid; sometimes incorrectly called celluloid) smells like vinegar when warmed by being rubbed briskly briskly with a thumb.
Acrylic resin (Lucite, Plexiglas) gives off an acrid smell when new. After some time, the smell dissipates and does not return.
Polystyrene (Styrene, used for cheap pens) has no discernible smell.
The Lesson of This Chapter
Knowing what a pen is made of can provide a clue not only to when it was made, but also in some cases by whom it was made and what it might be worth. It’s just one more class of information you can bring to bear as you grow your collection and your skills. Of almost more importance is that knowledge of the pen’s materials helps you to understand what you can and cannot, should and should not, do to it in terms of repair and restoration.
Other Chapters in the Pen Detective’s Guide
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.