Fountain Pens and Pigtails

A Reminiscence Threaded Through a Lot of Pen History

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This article by Floyd Stuart is a slightly edited version of one that first appeared as a two-part series in the Northfield News, Northfield, Vermont, and is published here through the courtesy of that newspaper.

What’s this in my hand? No, it isn’t the latest kind of ballpoint. It’s called a fountain pen, I’ve used one all my life, and this … no, fountain pens did not go out with the horse and buggy … and this one is writing about a pretty girl’s golden hair and a love affair that began on the coast of Maine.

Diane was blonde and prim and sat in front of me in grammar school. On certain afternoons the teacher announced: “Time for penmanship lessons.” I took out my bottle of ink and set it in the hole drilled for it in the wooden desktop; I pressed a steel nib into the wooden pen holder with the cork finger grip. When Diane was prepared for the lesson, she folded her hands on her desk and waited patiently while the teacher handed out the green Palmer Method booklets. I exchanged dip pen sword thrusts with the boy across the aisle. The teacher gave the command to uncap our ink; we dipped our pens and sent circles like coils of a Slinky bouncing across the paper, rows of tall circles, rows of short ones, our warm-up for shaping Mr. Palmer’s capital and small letters. If we kept those circles wobbling along, tops and bottoms grazing their proper lines, we might someday write a correct and uniform script just like the late Mr. Palmer’s.

Dip pens were for Palmer Method practice, but as a boy I also wrote with fountain pens, which hold an ink supply in a reservoir. Usually the reservoir is a rubber sac inside the barrel, although sometimes it is the barrel itself or, in later pens, a plastic cartridge. The recently introduced ballpoints were not a technical success: they skipped and their ink quickly turned into a greasy gunk that oozed around the ball, staining fingers and alarming mothers with the permanent splotches they leaked onto children’s clothes. My fascination with fountain pens continued through high school and college and my professional life, and in recent years I have studied their design and history and do basic pen restoration for fun. I’ll tell you a few things I’ve learned from this love affair that began on the coast of Maine.

Now hold your horses, we’ll get back to that pretty girl all in good time.

The first successful fountain pens, developed in the 19th Century, are today called “eyedroppers” because you unscrewed the part that held the writing point, or nib, and used an eyedropper to fill the barrel with ink:

Eyedropper pen

These slim eyedroppers, without a sac or filling mechanism to take up space in the barrel, held a lot of ink and wrote for a long time. Pens of the era had no clip on the cap to fasten them to a shirt pocket: men carried a pen flat in the pocket of coat or pants and women usually put them in a purse. When the warmth of the hand expanded the hard rubber where the nib screwed into the barrel, eyedropper pens leaked and … well, you guess the rest. Petite “lady’s pens,” only three or four inches long with the cap screwed on, were popular: a woman would hang the pen around her neck by a ribbon strung through a ring on top of the cap

Fountain pen

Without a clip on the cap to stop them from rolling, pens often fell off desks and tables and broke. Eventually you could purchase a clip to slip over the cap, and soon manufacturers, recognizing a good selling point, equipped their pens with permanent clips.

You might think that early fountain pens were the devil’s instrument because they smelled of brimstone. They were made of hard rubber, which is produced by mixing sulfur into heated latex. If you could sniff that eyedropper pen in the first photo (it’s about 110 years old), you’d still whiff the sulfur. Like Mr. Ford’s automobiles, fountain pens came in any color you liked — as long as it was black. Actually, a red hard rubber was developed, but it was even more fragile than the brittle black hard rubber. To give their pens eye appeal, manufacturers might encase them in silver, gold, or porcelain overlays. Not everyone could afford these more expensive writing instruments so companies found a cheaper way to give their lower priced lines a modicum of decoration: they “chased” them by rolling an engraved heated die over cap and barrel, melting a pattern of lines into the hard rubber.

The nibs of fountain pens were made of a gold alloy because gold resisted the corrosive effect of early inks. However, gold is soft and the nib would quickly wear out, so a blob of harder metal, called the tipping material, was electrically fused to the point of the nib. Nib making was a complicated and delicate process done mostly by hand. A saw as thin as a piece of paper cut a slit from the tip of the nib up to the breathing hole, splitting the writing point into two “tines,” as shown in this array of nibs from the 1890s to the 1950s:

Fountain pen nibs

The ink flowed by capillary action down the slit to the paper. That breathing hole, or vent, besides helping ink flow to the writing point, prevented the slit from spreading up to the base of the nib. A skilled craftsman ground and shaped the tipping material so that the point would write a particular line width, such as fine, medium, or broad. Early nibs tended to be flexible, which meant that the tines would spread apart and spring back under the varying pressure of the hand as one wrote. With the advent of carbon paper, people needed a nib that wouldn’t crack under pressure when they bore down, and pen manufacturers developed firm nibs that could make four or five carbon copies at a time. This was an important feature in business and government offices before the age of duplicating machines. Under the nib is a piece of black hard rubber called the feed, which has tiny channels inside it that extend back to the ink supply in the barrel:

Fountain pen feed

Capillary action draws ink through these channels and “feeds” it to the writing point. Fountain pens are always performing a balancing act: as ink flows out of the rubber sac, it is replaced by air that flows in through the breathing hole in the nib, up an air channel in the feed, and into the sac. This maintains air pressure in the sac so that the remaining ink can continue to flow toward the nib.

Well, life ain’t perfect, and neither were early feeds. Often as the ink was used up, air did not flow into the sac until pressure accumulated and a burst of air rushed in to fill the vacuum: then the pen burped a fat blob of ink on the paper. Later, serrations were cut into the feed, creating spaces that capillary action filled with ink; this additional reservoir improved the balanced flow of ink and air.

I promised we’d return to that pretty girl. We’re back in grammar school — just for a moment — and I’m dipping my pen in ink and rolling circles along the practice sheet. Here is Diane of the golden hair, a proper and conscientious young lady who always sits up straight and pays attention. Our desks were attached: the back of her seat was the front panel of my desk, and as our pens scritched across the page, I occasionally gazed at Diane’s diligent neck and shoulders. Now keep this fact in mind, for you’ll need it later: every morning Diane’s mother braided her hair in two pigtails.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of pen companies rose and fell. A few of them became well known for making quality instruments; many lesser firms turned out medium and lower quality pens, often assembled from parts made by other firms; and then there were makers who didn’t even bother to put their name on their cheap pens. Surprisingly, though, some of these “no name” pens write very well. Larger companies could use their financial resources to buy out smaller competitors or drive them out of business, especially with expensive lawsuits. If Diane is alive today (I haven’t seen her since eighth grade) and if she were reading this article, she might say: “Who gives a fig about old fountain pens and the companies that made them?” and I’d understand her attitude, except … except that when we look at pens and their makers we suddenly realize that we are looking at ourselves and at America as it passed through booms and busts from the 19th into the 21st century. Pen makers were a mirror of humanity: among them we find innovators and copiers, honest businessmen and cutthroats. Some pen companies grew to greatness, while others dropped by the wayside. But even those firms that seemed destined to succeed forever declined or failed, emblems of our own mortality.

Waterman, Sheaffer, Parker, Wahl-Eversharp — these were the most famous American fountain pen manufacturers in the first half of the 20th century. Lewis Edson Waterman exemplified the American success story of the man who turns a good idea into a fortune. He was a New York insurance agent who invented the channeled feed (in which air can pass upward to the sac while still allowing ink to flow downward through the channels) that made a pen much less likely to burp a blot. In the 1880s, Waterman began making fountain pens, advertising widely and improving his feed. In 1900, a year before he died, his pens won a gold medal for excellence at the Paris Exposition. L. E. Waterman pens were sold all over the world, reaching their heyday in the 1920s; the company logo was a globe. Waterman defended his patents vigorously with lawsuits, and he forced A. A. Waterman, another quality pen maker, to imprint on the barrels of his fountain pens, in letters as large as those of the A. A. Waterman name: “Not Related to the L. E. Waterman Pen Company.”

Walter A. Sheaffer, son of a Bloomfield, Iowa jeweler, patented in 1908 a device that the Waterman firm wished it had thought of — the lever filling mechanism. Raising the lever pressed a bar against the sac and compressed it; releasing the lever allowed the sac to expand and suck up ink:

Fountain pen

The lever was a simple method of filling a fountain pen with less chance of spilling ink or getting it on your hands than with an eyedropper, and it wasn’t as clunky as the filler on Conklin’s Crescent-Filler, the only other practical self-filling pen of the day. In 1913, less than a year after Sheaffer and his few employees began manufacturing pens in the back of his jewelry store, he was selling 4,000 pens a month, even though he hadn’t advertised nationally. The Waterman company, so zealous about its own patents, had to think of a way around Sheaffer’s: it enclosed the lever with a “box,” which was an unnecessary complication, but the design was different enough to get Waterman a patent for it. Design a better mouse trap, and people will steal it. Waterman’s feed and Sheaffer’s lever were so widely imitated that the companies eventually gave up expensive lawsuits to protect their patents and these inventions became standard features on fountain pens.

In 1880, telegraphers were in demand. George S. Parker was first a student and then a teacher at the Valentine School of Telegraphy in Janesville, Wisconsin. To augment his salary, he became an agent selling John Holland fountain pens to his students and repairing them when necessary. He thought he could make a better pen and in 1888 started the Parker Pen Company, producing a series of innovative designs and attractive pens and becoming a rival to Waterman and Sheaffer. The famous composer Giacomo Puccini composed his opera La Bohème with a Parker pen, and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his later Sherlock Holmes detective stories with a Parker Duofold.

In 1924, the Sheaffer company revolutionized the industry by making fountain pens of celluloid, an early type of plastic invented in 1869 to replace elephant ivory as the material for billiard balls. Sheaffer called its celluloid Radite, advertising it as “akin to enduring rock, but far lighter in weight and more lovely in color.” Celluloid was much sturdier than hard rubber and could be made in a variety of colors and given beautiful streaked and marbled and pearl effects. Like you and me, however, a company can demonstrate really bad timing. At the turn of the century, the Wahl company was a successful manufacturer of adding machines. The organization would get into any business that seemed lucrative, and bought a pencil company, then in 1914 a fountain pen company, and a short while later acquired a rubber company to provide the hard rubber rods from which pen caps and barrel were made. But soon competitive pen makers were switching from hard rubber to celluloid, and Wahl was stuck with a rubber company it didn’t need. Pen makers gave celluloid their own brand names that suggested durability (Gold Bond’s Stonite, and Parker’s Permanite) or the mysteries of high science (Wahl-Eversharp’s Pyrolin). In 1928, the famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart christened the new Parker company airplane the Duofold, named after a line of Parker pens. On promotional tours, pens were tossed out of the airplane to demonstrate the strength of Parker’s Permanite plastic. One Parker ad proclaimed: “Non-Breakable Barrels Dropped 3,000 feet!” Another Parker stunt was to chuck its pens into the Grand Canyon to show that they survived the fall. Celluloid is an interesting substance: it contains nitrate chemicals (also a component of nitroglycerin) and is highly flammable. Sometimes you need to apply heat while repairing a pen, and if you apply a little too much heat to a celluloid pen, you will suddenly find yourself holding a sizzling highway flare.

The Parker company later developed the “Vacumatic,” a pen that you filled by pushing a plunger that sucked ink into the barrel instead of into a rubber sac. The design was very successful and Parker made a lot of Vacumatics. Now Parker went for business wherever it saw the opportunity, and in 1935 that opportunity was the Catholic Church. Parker produced the “Holy Water Sprinkler Pen,” which looked exactly like a Vacumatic fountain pen, except that instead of a nib it had a nozzle for sprinkling holy water. A little gold cross on top of the cap gave an added ecclesiastical touch. Parker was one of several pen makers that had faith that Catholic priests would snap up sprinkler “pens” to use in religious ceremonies. I’ve often wondered if a priest, having both a Parker Vacumatic fountain pen and a Holy Water Sprinkler in his pocket, accidentally took out the wrong instrument and anointed his flock with ink.

Fountain pen

Which suddenly reminds me of Diane. She was sitting up straight, her arm and wrist in the correct position, just as if the late Mr. Palmer were looking over her shoulder and smiling approvingly. But I was the person behind Diane, and I was the one with a smile on his face. My hand was almost in the correct position. Now is the time to remember what I told you to remember: Diane had two pigtails, golden pigtails, very long pigtails, pigtails that reached below her waist. I laid down my dip pen in the groove cut for it on top of my desk beside my uncapped bottle of ink. I was about to perform a delicate operation requiring the steady hand of a Mr. Palmer or a brain surgeon. I reached out and barely touched the tip of Diane’s right pigtail dangling by her seat. She dipped her pen in her ink bottle and continued writing a conscientious line of letters. Two aisles over, the teacher was inspecting the latest crop of capital “A’s” and “B’s.” I lifted a golden pigtail tip toward my desktop. Diane raised her head from her work: my heart flip-flopped.

The stock market crashed in 1929. The Great Depression set in for the 1930s, and fountain pen makers did not escape the economic decline. Some went out of business quickly, while others suffered wounds that they died of years later. Many companies developed lower priced lines of “economy” or “depression” pens. Esterbrook, a noted nib manufacturer, began making fountain pens in the 1920s, and in 1935 introduced its “Dollar Pen,” named after the retail price.

Fountain pen

Esterbrook sold millions of inexpensive, attractive, and well-made pens until it went out business in 1967. A famous Esterbrook feature was the Renew-Point, a nib unit that screwed into the pen, allowing the owner of a single Esterbrook to easily switch among a wide variety of Renew-Point nib styles. However, it was not wise to unscrew the nib while the pen was full of ink.

Which suddenly reminds me of Diane. Gently, gently, I raised the tip of her pigtail, freezing when she leaned forward in concentration on her task or leaned back to assess her work. Inch by inch, I brought her braid to the level of my desk, watching out of the corner of my eye for the teacher roaming the aisles to inspect our capitals, and bowing my head as though I were thoroughly engrossed in mastering Mr. Palmer’s method while perfecting a method of my own. I raised the tip of Diane’s pigtail to my ink bottle and she never felt a thing.

Yes, I did what you think I did, I’m guilty, and to this day I am without a shred of remorse. My dip pen did not smell of brimstone, but I was full of the devil that day when I dipped a braid tip into my ink bottle and wrote my initials with the most flexible gold nib imaginable. Skillfully I lowered Diane’s pigtail back to its proper place. Today I can hear Diane’s mother, braiding her daughter’s golden hair one morning and saying with a voice rising in surprise: “Diane, what on earth have you been into?” I hear scissors snip as Diane’s mother cuts off a black quarter inch from a pigtail. And today while I pen these words, I feel ghosts looking over my shoulder — Mr. Palmer and the teacher suddenly in my aisle—frowning at initials written with a pigtail.

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