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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 when a given pen was made. Part of what makes a particular pen interesting, collectible, or valuable is the pen’s “tier.” First tier, second tier, third tier. Veteran vintage pen collectors throw these terms around, often without bothering to explain them, and this can leave less-experienced collectors puzzled.
What’s a tier? The first definition in my dictionary reads, “A row or level of a structure, typically one of a series of rows placed one above the other and successively receding or diminishing in size.” Applied to pens, modern collectors’ tier structure sorts manufacturers into three basic levels based on how big the companies were, the quality of their pens, and of course, their collectibility today. In this chapter, I’ll introduce you to the first tier of vintage U.S. manufacturers.
During the years leading up to the period from the end of World War I to about 1945, a period often called the Golden Age of the fountain pen, the big names were Conklin, Parker, Sheaffer and L. E. Waterman. Like the Big Three auto manufacturers, these four companies sat on the top of the heap, and they’re known as the Big Four. They made pens of superior quality, and they sold their pens by the tens and hundreds of thousands to a worldwide market. Each of them was “the firstest with the mostest” in some way, and their innovations earned them top honors.
In 1897, Roy Conklin invented the first successful self-filling fountain pen. Initially he called it simply Conklin’s Self-Filling Pen. He and a partner began producing pens when Conklin’s patent came through in 1901, and they incorporated in 1902. After their company hit the big time, they took a cue from the shape of the visible part of the filler, and the pen became Conklin’s Crescent-Filler. It was so successful that Conklin didn’t abandon it entirely until the mid-1920s, in the face of stiff competition from a better filling system.
That better filling system was jeweler Walter A. Sheaffer’s elegant and aesthetically pleasing lever filler, patented in 1908 and put into mass production when Sheaffer founded his company in 1912. Although somewhat less efficient and mechanically more complex than Conklin’s crescent, the lever filler was easier to use: with no lock ring to turn before the pen would fill, it required only the lifting of a single finger to operate. It also eliminated the risk of an inky accident should the user forget to relock the crescent’s lock ring after filling the pen. It was an epochal advance in fountain pen technology, and dozens of Sheaffer’s competitors copied it, each changing the design just enough that his version didn’t infringe on Sheaffer’s patent.
The lever filler became the de facto industry standard until cartridges began making serious inroads against self-filling pens in the 1950s. Even companies like Parker, whose top-line models used other filling systems, produced lower-line pens with lever fillers. (In the 1930s, Parker slanted its advertising to suggest that lever fillers were cheaper than, and therefore obviously inferior to, Parker’s own Vacumatic filler. Because Sheaffer’s top-line pens were lever fillers, the implication was that Sheaffer’s pens were necessarily inferior to Parker’s.)
Contrary to what many believe, Lewis E. Waterman did not invent the fountain pen. Fountain pens that worked, more or less, had been on the market for more than half a century by 1883, when he filed for a patent on a feed design that could exercise more accurate control over the passage of air into the pen to replace ink as it was used. Without this control, stoppages and blots were common.
The channeled feed solved that problem and revolutionized the pen industry: it permitted ink to continue flowing to the nib through tiny capillary fissures while an air bubble worked its way through the broader main channel above.
George S. Parker, a former telegraphy instructor, set up his company in 1889 to build pens that worked better than those of John Holland, which he had been selling to his students. Parker’s pens were good from the outset, but in 1894 he made them even better with his patented Lucky Curve feed. By providing a path for ink to drain back out of the feed into the pen’s reservoir when the pen was carried in the pocket, this ingenious invention virtually eliminated the too-frequent blot caused by ink that remained in a pen’s feed and came shooting out when the user uncapped the pen and turned it nib downward to write. Parker pens retained the Lucky Curve feed until about 1928, by which time better methods had been developed to control that fatal first blot.
Times change, and in about 1927 the makeup of the Big Four changed with the times. Conklin’s venerable Crescent-Filler was reliable and efficient; but by the beginning of the 1920s, Conklin’s competitors were profitably disparaging its bulky and outmoded design. Despite the company’s reputation as a maker of expensive and luxurious pens, Conklin’s star (and with it the company’s fortunes) began to fade. Waiting in the wings was an organization that had come late to the manufacture of fountain pens, the Wahl Adding Machine Company. In 1916, Wahl had absorbed Keeran & Company, makers of the Eversharp mechanical pencil, and in 1917 Wahl bought most of the assets of the Boston Fountain Pen Company.
Initially selling a model built using Boston technology and parts and called the Tempoint, Wahl in 1921 introduced its own Wahl Pen. Still embodying essential features developed by Boston, the Wahl Pen was of superior quality, and it soon became popular enough to give Wahl the impetus to unseat Conklin as a member of the Big Four.
Thus, by the end of the 1920s, the stage was set for the greatest years in fountain pen history, the apex of the Golden Age, led by the Big Four as they began offering what many collectors consider to have been some of the finest pens ever designed. In 1929, Sheaffer stunned the world with its radical new torpedo-shaped Balance models, Parker refined the styling of its iconic Duofold, Waterman introduced the magnificent Patrician, and Wahl brought forth its new ergonomically styled Equi-Poised. The rest, as they say, is history.
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