(This page revised October 10, 2015)
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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 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.
In the classic Abbott and Costello baseball comedy sketch “Who’s On First?” Who was the name of the first baseman, What played second, and I Don’t Know was on third. The same thing is true with pens: sometimes you really don’t know who made a given third-tier pen.
During the Golden Age, the first tier comprised the Big Four: Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, and Conklin (later Wahl). The third tier, at the other end of the spectrum, was made up of myriad companies that cranked out cheap pens. Literally hundreds of these companies existed; it would be impossible to do justice to more than a few here, so I’ve picked a representative sampling.
There was a definite place in the market for cheap pens, especially during the Great Depression, but the old axiom was never truer: you generally got what you paid for. Most third-tier pens featured crude finish work, mismatched seams, thin celluloid, untipped steel or brass nibs, and gold plating so thin you could rub it off with your finger. But some were remarkably well made for their prices.
During the first third of the twentieth century, the third tier included makers such as J. Harris & Son, Welty (later Evans), Frank Spors, Ingersoll, Arnold, and David Kahn Inc. (Wearever).
J. Harris & Son was located in New York City. The company got its start during the era of slip caps and hard rubber, and survived into the late 1940s, renaming itself somewhere along the way to become the Majestic Pen Company. Early examples of Harris’s work include the cone-cap lever filler and the screw-cap matchstick filler shown here. By the end of the 1930s, Majestic was cranking out a wide variety of very attractive pens that were decently made but still suffered from thin metal parts with thinner gold plating. Most had untipped steel nibs, but top-line Majestic pens still carried gold nibs as in the old days. Harris sold pens under the Ambassador, University and Congress brands as well as under its own name.
William A. Welty set up shop in Waterloo, Iowa, to make pens featuring his patented (1906) Wawco hump filler. Hump fillers, invented by several makers, were attempts to get around Conklin’s crescent filler patent; some, including Welty’s, made it, but others fell victim to Conklin’s lawyers. In 1915, after almost a decade of success, Welty left his company, which recreated itself as the Evans Dollar Pen Company in recognition of principal investor Patrick H. Evans. The company’s new mission was to produce a pen of acceptable quality for $1.00, less than half the usual price, and it did so by taking less care with exterior finish and by making other slight changes such as substituting less costly 10K nibs for the 14K that Welty had used earlier. Evans pens were certainly not the equal of their Welty-imprinted predecessors, but they did work well and they filled a definite market need. Welty himself invented another filling system and went into business again. He called his new filler the Servo, and his new company was, obviously, the Servo Pen Company. Still later, he sold that company, moved to Chicago, and founded the Welty Pen Company, which made ordinary lever fillers of good quality. The three generations of Welty’s production into the mid-1920s are shown below. Later, the Welty Pen Company’s quality, as did many others in the 1930s, diminished.
By the middle of the 1920s, Conklin’s crescent-filler patent had expired — but at that time, the style was out of favor and there was little interest in copying it. Enter Frank Spors, of Le Sueur Center, Minnesota. Spors was disabled and could not work in most of the jobs available in the 1920s. To earn his living, he imported inexpensive (cheap!) merchandise of all types from eastern Asia. Spors pens, made in lever-filling and crescent-filling models, are typical of the bottom-feeder end of the third tier: Japanese made, they were truly cheap, with thin celluloid and wooden inner caps. In 1926, Spors was wholesaling his pens for 67¢ each, to be sold at retail for $1.29. Given that the average hourly wage of the time was about 57¢, people were almost lining up to buy pens at those kinds of prices.
Wooden inner caps? Spors wasn’t alone in using them; they were a common third-tier feature. Have you ever searched through a box or a bucket of cheap pens at an antique mall or a flea market and found that most of them had no inner caps? Once upon a time, many of those pens probably had wooden inner caps, which over time have dried up, shrunk, and fallen out.
By 1938, Conklin’s fortunes had fallen so far that the company was sold to a Chicago syndicate whose motive was pure profit. The result was honest-to-goodness third-tier pens like the $2.75 Glider, whose only redeeming feature was that it had a very good 14K nib.
The price game became almost the personal property of Charles H. Ingersoll, brother of Robert H. Ingersoll of cheap pocket watch fame. Charles set up the Charles H. Ingersoll Dollar Pen Company in Newark, New Jersey, later moving down the road to East Orange. Ingersoll, whose dollar pens were first made of metal and featured surprisingly good 14K gold nibs despite their rock-bottom price, began making his pens of Bakelite (below, bottom) in about 1928 after flirting with celluloid (below, middle) for a year or so. Unlike the brittle transparent Bakelite in earlier pens, Ingersoll’s material included a filler that made it opaque, and it was remarkably sturdy.
Founded in 1935 in Petersburg, Virginia, by Remmie L. Arnold, the Arnold Fountain Pen Company made cheap but functional pens and pen/pencil combinations (“combos”), principally lever fillers. Fitted with steel nibs thinly plated with gold, the pens were priced from 19¢ to 89¢ and were intended for sale in dime stores and discount general-merchandise stores. Arnold made huge numbers of pens in a broad range of eye-catching colors and patterns, at one point becoming the largest producer in the world. There also appeared a certain number of “gadget” sets, such as one in my collection that contains a fountain pen, a mechanical pencil, and a single-cell keychain flashlight. Arnold made a small number of pens with gold nibs, and these pens are today very uncommon. The Arnold company survived, making ballpoint pens, until 2005.
Mention Arnold, and you have to mention Wearever. In 1896, engraver David Kahn set up his company in North Bergen, N.J. Initially, Kahn’s company manufactured ornate engraved pencil cases and mechanical pencils, and this product line naturally led to pens. In about 1918, realizing that there was already lots of competition for the high-quality market, Kahn decided to cater to the much greater numbers of those who bought cheap pens. Launching the Wearever brand of fountain pens, the company grew rapidly. It sold third-tier pens and pencils (and, during the 1930s, combos) in a bewildering variety of styles over the years. In the late 1920s, Kahn investigated the injection molding process then being developed in Germany; he brought machinery back to the U.S. and was probably the first manufacturer to produce injection-molded pens. For many years after World War II, Kahn was the world’s largest manufacturer of fountain pens. For most of its history, the Wearever brand was equated with steel nibs, but when customers expressed a desire for gold nibs, Kahn obliged them. Perhaps the best-known Wearever model was the Pennant, produced in the millions during the 1950s (in the middle of the three pens shown here).
Along with named third-tier pens, there exist many pens, often of dismal quality, with no identifying marks on them. It is frequently impossible to determine who made them, but some of these pens can prove quite interesting to the history-minded pen buff. Shown below is a nameless green pen made of injection-molded plastic, probably in the 1950s. It has no filling system and cannot be filled except by removing the nib and feed. This odd artifact might be the world’s first disposable fountain pen and thereby an ancestor to today’s Pilot Varsity.
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