War and the Fountain Pen

By Floyd Stuart

Some Intersections of Pen History and Real Life

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


This article 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.

Letters Home and Trench Pens

On Friday the thirteenth, September 1918, the second day of the American Expeditionary Force offensive at Saint-Mihiel in northeastern France, a German shell exploded, sending a jagged metal fragment tearing deep into the thigh of First Lieutenant Edward Lukert. He would later write: “Bullets are not bad, clean and small, but chunks of iron from high explosives are dreadful.” While recovering in a hospital in Ward 13, Bed 13, and attended by a nurse with number 13 on her uniform, Ed Lukert uncapped his fountain pen. He set down the date “October 13, 1918,” and then “Dearheart,” and began a letter to his wife.

Pencil, fountain pen, and typewriter — these were the writing implements during World War I. Clerical staff and officers not right on the front lines would have access to a typewriter. Soldiers in the field found pencils convenient to carry, but pencil lead was less bright than ink and smudged easily, and a good fountain pen was highly prized, especially for diary and letter writing. A doughboy’s life was often furious action — constructing and repairing fortifications, charging across no man’s land into a wall of bullets, and fighting hand-to-hand in trenches — followed by long stretches of tedium, during which a favorite occupation was writing the folks back home. Governments wanted their service men and women to receive and write letters because mail, then as now, was a major morale booster for the armed forces. In 1918, for example, the 4,000 soldiers of Britain’s Army Postal Service were delivering twelve and a half million letters a week to their comrades on the Western Front. One could say that during the Great War the fountain pen was not an insignificant weapon.

Instruction sheet

This is a page from the instruction sheet that came with a Waterman safety pen in the 1920s. The pen user would put the cap on the knob at the end of the barrel and turn the cap to the right, which extended the nib from the barrel (where the ink was stored) and made a seal so the ink would not leak out. (Photo courtesy of Richard Binder)

When Ed Lukert wrote his “Dearheart,” he may very well have used the soldier’s favored instrument, the “safety pen,” which had been invented in the 1890s. The safety pen was an “eyedropper,” that is, you unscrewed the part holding the nib or writing point and used an eyedropper to fill the barrel with ink. Over time, the threads of a conventional eyedropper could wear or crack and then the joint leaked. The nib of a safety pen retracted into the barrel, and the design created a leak proof seal when the pen was capped and when the nib was fully screwed out for writing. Fountain pens of the era did not always write when first uncapped and you might have to shake out an ink blob to get it started. But the safety’s nib, stored in the ink-filled barrel, was primed and ready to write when extended. In 1907, the Waterman company introduced its version of the safety, which was widely imitated. During the Great War, Ed Lukert would have had to shell out $2.50 for the lowest priced Waterman or Parker safety, and if he paid twenty-five cents extra for the Parker, he could get a “Parker Patent Clip held in place like a washer” to secure the pen to his shirt pocket. Well, “safety” was sometimes too optimistic a description for this type of pen, for the seal was not infallibly leak proof. And if Ed Lukert in Ward 13, Bed 13, did not hold his pen perfectly upright while opening or closing it or filling it with an eyedropper, then his nurse with number 13 on her tunic would certainly have scowled at her patient and his bedclothes covered with ink.

As Dearheart read her husband’s letter, she learned that Ed and the more than one hundred men under his command had dug trenches in open ground for a whole afternoon under a German artillery barrage. Less than twenty-four hours later, Ed had only thirty men left. “All these things — wide-eyed dead men gazing at you with a cold stare, wounded men trying to suppress groans, the smell of sulfur and the sickening stench of blood in the shelter almost made me wish they [the Germans] would close on us and capture what few remained after the rush.” The lieutenant and his outnumbered men fought gallantly, retired to a wood, and held their position until Lukert was ordered: “Abandon dead and wounded. Withdraw to right rear and fight your way back.” Ed wrote his Dearheart: “Well, we picked out the wounded I thought might live, and we carried them back, or rather dragged them. Those I thought would die anyhow, we left where they were, and the others we piled in a shelter and closed the sand bagged door.” Dearheart read that after dawn the next day, the Americans had retaken the lost ground and recovered the men left behind: most were still alive.

Soldiers who endured days on the front lines like Ed Lukert’s preferred the safety pen because it was sturdier than the conventional eyedropper and held more ink than the lever filler, which had a rubber ink sac that could rupture and a filling mechanism that could break in the field, where there were no pen repair shops just around the next foxhole. Men at the front carried the essentials — weapons, playing cards, photos of loved ones, ammunition, water, gas masks, cigarettes — and glass eyedroppers and ink bottles were low on their list of things to pack. Also quartermasters, busy supplying the troops with food, clothes, and equipment, were not eager to lug millions of ink bottles to the battlefield. So ink makers produced powdered ink and packed it in tins; they also stamped the powder into ink pellets and tablets. In 1916, the Parker Pen Company, quick to sense a business opportunity, developed the “Trench Pen,” which a year later the U. S. War Department ordered in quantity. The Trench Pen was a conventional safety pen that had a compartment for storing ink tablets. A doughboy could pop an ink pill in the barrel of his pen, fill the barrel with water (all too easily found in trenches and shell holes), and write the folks back home. Parker sold a box of thirty-six ink tablets for ten cents. Many fountain pen companies in the United States and Europe soon came out with their own version of the “trench pen.”

Fountain pen

A Mabie Todd “Swan” trench pen. The blind cap is unscrewed to show the hole where one would drop in ink tablets to be stored until they were needed. To make ink, one dropped a tablet into the pen barrel and added water.

A wartime society presents opportunities for price gouging, but the Mabie Todd company in England advertised: “No war-time advance in prices of ‘Swan’ pens. Before buying a fountain pen ask what its price was before the war: don’t pay 20% advance for nothing.” “Swan” was the firm’s brand name for its higher quality line of pens. The lesser quality Blackbird, Swallow, and Jackdaw lines were named after birds which, deservedly or not, enjoyed less public esteem than the regal swan.

Ads and the Man

Advertisements in times of war do not portray the ugly realities of combat, but sell their product by presenting sentiments and images that promote patriotic fervor and government policy and propaganda. During the Great War, Parker directed much of its advertising to the military market, announcing that its pens were “used in armies and navies of the world.” Their ads frequently depict uncapped Parker pens stacked in a “teepee” arrangement like bayoneted rifles in a military encampment. A Christmas season Parker ad shows a firm-chinned, mustached army officer and a boyish, smiling aviator wearing a leather helmet and goggles, who emerge from what must have been a prickly situation — the leaves of a holly wreath. It’s not hard to guess what is in the gift box between them. The wreath frames a catch phrase of the day: “Keep the home fires burning.” Folks on the home front should “Give Him A Parker Safety Sealed Fountain Pen” and can be certain that “He will appreciate it.” Enlisted men do not appear in this ad, and in another Parker Christmas ad featuring a doughboy and a sailor, there are no officers. Parker’s ads proclaimed that “Every boy needs a Parker” and that Parker fountain pens are “for the boys at the front,” while the Sheaffer Pen Company assured customers that its lever filler was the pen “for Uncle Sam’s Fighting Boys” and was “The Gift of Gifts for Soldiers and Sailors.” This was still the era of “arms and the man”: service women did not figure in fountain pen adver­tise­ments, although they, too, were overseas and knew how to write.

During World War I, American women could not vote (they would have to wait until 1920 and the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution), but over 30,000 of them volunteered for military service, mostly as nurses. (The army, as opposed to the Navy, stubbornly resisted accepting women for non-nursing positions, such as clerks.) American women overseas received medals for heroic service; they were wounded; they died of illness, poison gas, artillery barrages, and bombing raids. Like Ed Lukert, service women, too, picked up their fountain pens and wrote home. In August 1917, Nurse Helen Fairchild in France wrote her mother in Pennsylvania: “I am with an operating team about 100 miles from our own Base Hospital, closer to the fighting lines. I'll sure have a lot to tell about this experience when I get home … . We all live in tents and wade through mud to and from the operating room where we stand in mud higher than our ankles.” In October she writes: “Rained some last night and is frightfully windy and cold. I put on some woolen clothing for we do not have any fires in the hut yet, but in spite of two pairs of stockings my feet are cold. Right now I stopped writing and got two hot water bottles and have my feet on one and the other in my lap.” Helen hoped to be home by the following summer, when she planned to eat luscious peaches and to buy dresses in every color except the blue serge of her military nurse’s uniform.

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This Parker adver­tise­ment appeared in The National Geographic in 1919. The Great War was over and Parker used its image of pens stacked like rifles to announce “The Transformation,” symbolized by soldiers walking away from war ravaged buildings and swapping their rifles for a fountain pen given to them by a lady symbolizing peace and liberty. The men march off to civilian life and careers in palaces of commerce armed with Parker pens.

“Please write letters often,” Helen wrote, “they mean more to me than a package, for I get a little homesick sometimes.” On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered, the armistice began, and the Great War was over. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed and a Parker ad again showed pens stacked like rifles, but introducing a theme appropriate for the times. The dominating image is a soldier who has discarded his rifle and raised his hands, like a votary, to accept a Parker fountain pen from a gowned goddess figure, maybe Peace or Lady Liberty, who is flanked by American eagles. The ad proclaims: “From the implements of war / To the implement of peace.” In case we miss the point, “The Transformation” is written under the tableau.

Gold and Steel

As the world moved inexorably toward the next global conflict, an irony appears involving fountain pens and gold. Today one rarely finds a Japanese fountain pen made in the late 1930s or the 1940s that has its original gold nib, even though during this period throughout the world most nibs were made of a gold alloy. In the 1930s, Japan was engaged in a military and economic expansion in Asia that would eventually culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and by 1937 the price of gold in Japan was rising because the government considered gold a critical war material. On September 1, 1938, the Japanese government banned firms from using gold for civilian purposes, but before the ban was declared shrewd speculators bought all the fountain pens they could find, melted the nibs, and sold the gold for more than they had paid for the pens. Japanese pen manufacturers had to turn to steel for their nibs, although the ink used at the time corroded steel, sometime in a matter of weeks. Excellent nibs can be made of steel, but the Japanese, like pen users throughout the world, associated the gold nib with quality, class, and elegance. Japanese pen makers quickly developed durable steel nibs because of a far sighted national policy that had not been designed with pen manufacturers in mind. Since the late 19th century, and especially between the two world wars, Japan had sent its ablest students to study in Western countries that were most advanced in a particular technology, and then it brought the students and the technologies home. For example, the Japanese tended to go to the Netherlands for medicine and public health, and to America and Germany for metallurgy and aeronautical engineering. (Mitsubishi’s Zero fighter is an example of how the Japanese adapted various western technologies to produce a superb aircraft.) So when Japanese pen makers were forced to use steel for nibs, they quickly modified alloys developed in England and America to make corrosion-resistant nibs. Some of the alloys the Japanese modified had been created by an American for use in aircraft construction.

Here’s the irony: in America during World War II fountain pens were much more likely to have gold rather than steel nibs. Steel was on America’s list of critical materials reserved for military production, but gold was not.

Ed Lukert survived the Great War and returned home to his Dearheart. Nurse Helen Fairchild never got to eat those sweet peaches or to buy colorful dresses. She was successfully operated on for a stomach ulcer, but died five days later on January 18, 1918 of liver failure, a complication due to the anesthesia and possibly to exposure to German mustard gas. People said she had given her own gas mask to a soldier. Helen Fairchild was buried in her blue serge nurse’s uniform in France with military honors.

Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “a war to end all wars” was naïve, and before mid-century the world was engaged in another global conflict. Ed Lukert commanded a regiment during World War II and retired after a thirty-six-year army career.

51 - Fountain Pen and Fighter Plane

Once — possibly twice — in a lifetime something happens and instantly we know: Things will never be the same again. Usually we remember vividly where we were and what we were doing at this moment when we recognized that not only individual lives, but the very nature of our world had just changed forever. For me, such a moment occurred when I entered an audio-visual equipment room and saw on a TV monitor the World Trade Center towers burn and collapse. For my mother, that moment was when she heard over the radio the bulletin that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

During the 1920s and 1930s, while the Japanese were employing modern technologies to arm their country for an economic and territorial expansion they considered their due, the Parker Pen Company in America was assembling a brilliant team of chemists, metallurgists, and designers that would create a revolutionary fountain pen. Parker eventually named it the “51” because the pen was nearly ready for production in 1939, fifty-one years after George S. Parker started his business; also a two-digit number was easily understood and remembered in any language, an asset for international sales. (Parker put the “51” in quotation marks, as it did the numbers it assigned to subsequent pen models.)

To fill Parker’s new pen you unscrewed a “blind cap” on the end of the barrel and pushed and released a plunger: suction drew ink directly into the barrel rather than into a rubber sac. The revolutionary features of the Parker “51” were largely hidden under the hood, which was a tapered “shell” covering the nib except for the writing point. The nib was not the conventional “open” variety, but a tubular one that fit around the “feed” that conveyed ink to the writing point. The most original feature of the “51” was the “collector” enclosing the nib and feed. This collector had many closely spaced fins that, through capillary action, held a large reservoir of ink that delivered a dependable flow to the writing point. The Parker “51” was carefully engineered: when one finished writing and put the cap back on the pen, the tapered hood guided the nib so it would not be damaged by catching against the interior of the cap. The rugged steel cap did not screw on, but slipped on, firmly secured by a unique “clutch” device in the cap that gripped a ring around the barrel.

Conventional ink dried rather slowly by absorption and would smear until it had soaked into the paper. Parker had formulated a metal-based Superchrome ink that dried almost instantly and produced it in bright colors such as jade green, red, and turquoise — startling for an age in which black and blue were the standard hues. Parker linked the ink with their new pen by styling a formulation of Superchrome as Parker “51” Ink. Parker adver­tise­ments crowed: “Write dry with wet ink!” That sleek “51” hood insulated the nib from air so the ink would not dry up before it hit the paper.

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In this 1944 Parker ad, a P-51B Mustang and a posted Parker “51” fountain pen share streamlined looks and high performance; both are diving into action. The fighter’s prop spinner and inline engine are juxtaposed to the pen’s nib and tapering hood. The later P-51D Mustang’s outline was interrupted by a bulging bubble canopy. The “bird cage” canopy of earlier models restricted the pilot’s rear vision and pilots were shot down because they could not see enemy aircraft attacking from behind. (Photo courtesy of Jim Mamoulides)

Actually, conventional inks work perfectly well in the “51,” and Superchrome did have a disconcerting feature: it corroded the type of plastic commonly used for pen barrels and caps. Parker found an appropriate plastic for the “51” in an acrylic called Lucite made by DuPont: this tough plastic shed Superchrome ink quickly (no ink to wipe off the hood after filling) and withstood its corrosive effect. Another brand name for Lucite was Plexiglas, the tough material that was being molded into canopies for fighter planes and into turret and nose cone panes for bombers.

It was January 1940. The British, desperately needing aircraft to combat German air power, contracted with North American Aviation to design a high performance fighter for them. During the plane’s first test flight, the engine conked out and the pilot made a deadstick landing; the plane flipped on its back. However, North American’s design was sound and the fighter was destined to become one of the famous aircraft of World War II — the P-51 Mustang. Kenneth Parker, an aviation enthusiast, would quickly associate this fighter with the Parker “51” that his company was marketing in select Caribbean and South American countries, where the heat and humidity provided a grueling “flight” test for a fountain pen’s reliability.

Odd as it seems, the fighter and the fountain pen had much in common. Both were products of technological advances, both overcame initial development problems, and both were innovative designs. The P-51 was the first fighter with a laminar flow wing, which allowed the wing to be larger than that of comparable fighters without additional drag to compromise speed. The P-51 had increased space in its wings for fuel and armaments. Parker’s “51,” with a generous ink supply in the collector and the barrel, had a respectable “range” before it needed refueling at an ink bottle. Then there was the streamlined appearance of fighter plane and fountain pen, which Parker ads exploited. In January 1941, Parker formally added the “51” to its product line. Eleven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the world changed forever.

America geared up for war. Materials such as steel, aluminum, and brass were vital to the war effort and their use in civilian products was severely restricted. Parker modified the “51” to conserve these critical materials — for example, making the filling plunger out of plastic rather than metal.

An Irish Girl, Valve Caps, and Poison Darts

Bombs rained down on London during the blitz, and later V-1 rockets plunged into the city. In Ireland, a girl left her earthen-floored, thatch-roofed home for London. England encouraged colleens like her to cross the Irish Sea and replace in civilian jobs the men now in military service. This young woman was delighted to leave poverty in Galway for bombs in London: in the city there were soldier boys, dances, and Americans to give you presents of tinned meat, chocolate and even nylon stockings. The English trained the Irish girl to rescue people from bombed buildings. She and her roommates grew weary of leaving their flat to take shelter from air raids in the tubes, the London subway tunnels, and usually they ignored the sirens.

Like the Irish girl, fountain pen companies, allied and enemy, were enlisted in the war effort of their countries. The British pen maker Mentmore, a typical example, was forced to cut pen production by 75% and converted its facilities to manufacture aircraft components, cap badges, and ammunition. The fountain pens that companies did produce went first to the armed services and government agencies. For civilians on both sides of the Atlantic, new fountain pens were in short supply and pen repairers did a brisk business keeping pens working “for the duration.” One Parker ad announces: “We must state that there will not be enough “51’s” to go around this year. Government orders have curtailed all pen production.” Nevertheless, Parker suggested that if you needed a new pen for “wartime work,” such as “writing letters of encouragement to some spunky lad in the armed services,” then you should trot right down to your dealer and reserve a “51”. However “(You may have to wait!)” Parker warns in jovial understatement. The company continued to advertise the hard-to-get “51,” shrewdly building up a consumer appetite for the pen that would pay off handsomely after the war. That the “51” wasn’t cheap added to its aura of desirability: the pen cost $12.50 compared to $5.00 for a Wahl-Eversharp Skyline, a chief Parker competitor during the war years. When production of the Parker “51” ended in 1972, the pen had raked in 400 million dollars for the company.

Fountain pen

This Wearever button filler was made in the 1940s. Doesn’t the cap to cover the button on the end of the barrel look very much like a valve cap for an automobile tire? During WW II, Wearever also made caps for the valves of Jeep tires. The cap on this pen fits on the tire valve of a modern automobile. (Photo: Floyd C. Stuart)

The Wearever firm made inexpensive pens, among them a “button filler”: you unscrewed the “blind cap” from the end of the barrel and pressed a button to fill the ink sac. That blind cap for the Wearever in the photo looks suspiciously like a cap for the valve of an automobile tire. In fact, the other day I screwed it on the valve of my car’s tire. During the war, Wearever manufactured plastic valve caps for Jeep tires, and it appears that the company made those valve caps do double duty on their button filler fountain pens.

Back in London, the Irish girl was ironing one evening when the air raid sirens wailed. She kept on ironing her uniform for the next day. Then she heard the “buzz” of a V-1 rocket’s pulse jet engine. The V-1 was a hit or miss affair: the Germans put in just enough fuel to deliver the bomb to a general target area, and when the fuel ran out, the bomb fell to the ground--somewhere. You were safe if you heard the jet pulsing directly overhead. The Irish girl had learned to count the seconds of silence after a V-1 engine stopped and gauge when and how far away the explosion would be. This evening the pulse jet cut off at the wrong distance: the Irish girl, counting seconds at her ironing board, suddenly wished she were down in the tubes.

Espionage weapon

What looks like a fountain pen is really a single shot pistol firing a .44 cal. Smith and Wesson cartridge. It was made by the Lake Erie Chemical Company, probably in the 1920s or 1930s. Lake Erie Chemical, a Smith and Wesson company, made tear gas and other weapons often used by law enforcement agencies. Similar fountain pen weapons were developed in World War II. (Photo courtesy of Ronald Watson)

She came to on the floor, her anxious roommates bending over her. The rocket had exploded close by. The Irish girl was dazed and bruised, but otherwise unhurt. On the wall behind where she had stood ironing, she saw indented in lath and plaster the perfect outline of her flying body. My uncle, an American serviceman, married that Irish girl in England during the war, and in 1946 she came to the States on the Queen Mary, which had been converted to a troopship at the start of the war and now was making “Bride and Baby Voyages.” The Irish girl would swing me, a small child, upon her shoulders, demonstrating the “fireman’s lift” with which she had carried grown men out of bombed buildings.

Long before a German rocket blasted my aunt into a wall, pens were used as instruments of war — and not just for writing morale boosting letters or propaganda. Back on July 17, 1776, during the American Revolution, the British General Howe hid a message to General Burgoyne inside a goose quill. On two thin strips of paper, Howe wrote Burgoyne that he had “since heard from the Rebel Army of your being in possession of Ticonderoga, which is a great Event carried without loss,” and he told Burgoyne about his future military plans. In those days, a goose quill would be cut and split at the end to make a dip pen, and Howe hoped that if his man were captured, the rebels would never think of looking inside his quill pen for a message. During World War II, Mentmore in England made “spy pens” that concealed maps and a tiny compass for agents operating behind enemy lines. Fountain pens were compact, innocuous implements of daily use that any person might carry. That’s why in World War II “dirty trick” agencies, such as the British MI-9 and the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services), contrived “fountain pens” that could poison a victim with gas or explode in his shirt pocket next to his heart or shoot him dead. James Bond would have loved the Mentmore pen that fired a poison dart twenty feet.

Clips, Quink, and V-Mail

Military organizations love to regulate every aspect of a serviceman’s or servicewoman’s life from the color underpants one may wear to the way one must “wear” a writing instrument. My uncle overseas could not clip just any fountain pen in his uniform pocket. Regulations required that his pen must not poke up the buttoned down flap of his shirt pocket and that the clip on the cap must not be visible below the flap. To meet these requirements, some pen makers designed caps with a “military” or “uniform” clip that set nearly flush with the top of the cap so that the pen did not turn up the flap in what the armed services considered an unsightly fashion.

Fountain pen

This Morrison “Patriot” is colored Olive Drab and has an army insignia on the end of the cap, but it doesn’t conform to uniform regulations. The clip low on the cap would poke up the flap of a uniform pocket and the clip would show below the pocket flap. During World War II, Morrison and other pen companies appealed to the customer’s patriotic sensibilities by attaching national flags or the insignia of military branches to pen caps or barrels. The Parker “51” in the Parker ad above does satisfy military regulations.

When my uncle’s folks wrote him, they could use conventional mail or send V-Mail (V for Victory), a system developed by the English. A V-Mail sheet, purchased at post office or stationary store, was a one-page letter that folded to make its own envelope. You addressed and mailed the letter, which would be microfilmed at a processing center and reduced to thumbnail size. Then the rolls of microfilmed letters were sent to their destinations, where another processing center printed the letters on paper about one third the size of the original letter. It’s said that 1700 V-Mail letters would fit on microfilm about as small as a pack of cigarettes. It took thirty-seven mail sacks weighing 2,575 pounds to hold 150,000 one-page letters, but one sack weighing only forty-five pounds could hold the same number of microfilmed V-Mail letters. Because it was light and compact, V-Mail was airlifted, reaching addressees faster and conserving ships, fuel, and men for other wartime duties. Between 1943 and 1945 over a billion pieces of V-Mail were delivered overseas and to the U.S., although the majority of letters were sent by conventional mail. One could buy Quink, a Parker Pen Company ink, in “micro-film black,” which was formulated to show up well when microfilmed. In a Parker ink ad, Uncle Sam sternly points his finger at you, telling you to “save pen repair material” by using Quink with “magic solv-x,” which “protects your pen against corrosion and rubber rot.” Parker advised the public: “Rubber … copper … steel — these war materials are consumed in making pen repairs. That’s why it’s so important to safeguard your pen against breakdown and needless waste of vital materials.”

Wartime adver­tise­ments can be expected to puff a product while delivering a patriotic message. A Martin Aircraft public service adver­tise­ment, for example, urges Americans to use V-Mail, explaining what it is and how people help the war effort by using it. The ad shows a painting of eager sailors on a Pacific island unloading V-Mail packets from a Martin Mars flying boat, the largest such aircraft in the world at the time. The ad says that if the Mars were “loaded only with V-Mail, she could carry the unbelievable total of 260,000,000 letters!” To a man overseas, the ad states, a V-Mail letter is “a five-minute furlough at home.” Martin suggests that people write servicemen frequent “newsy” V-Mail one-pagers that would be delivered relatively quickly by air rather than less frequent, long letters that went by ship.

Hanging Out the Wash

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, shaving in his bathroom, called out to William D. Hassett in the bedroom to come in and sit down. The son of an Irish railroad worker from Northfield, Vermont sat on the only seat customarily available in a bathroom and chatted with the president of the United States. Hassett was an erudite man, well read in literature, history, and a host of other subjects, although finances had forced him to drop out of college. He became a journalist in Vermont, then for five years a correspondent in London, and thereafter was a journalist in Washington. In 1935, Hassett became an assistant White House press secretary, and in 1944 FDR made the sixty-three-year-old bachelor his correspondence secretary. Roosevelt valued Hassett’s broad knowledge, sprightly wit, fluent writing style, and his utterly dependable integrity and discretion. That morning in the bathroom, Bill, knowing the frugal propensities of “the Boss,” asked how many shaves he got from a razor blade. “Eight.” Then the president told Bill how he angled the blade to make the most of it. Hassett wrote in his memoir Off the Record With F.D.R: “An enlightening slant on a man good for a financial touch from almost any bum.”

Autograph

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signature. FDR liked a pen that made a broad, wet stroke; a blotter would have smudged his signature. His secretary William Hassett would lay the signed sheets to dry on chairs, beds, and even the floor. He jokingly described his job as “laundry dryer.”

FDR liked fountain pens with a broad, wet nib that laid down so much ink on the paper that using a blotter to soak up the excess would smear the writing. On a day when the president had many documents and letters to sign, Hassett spread the signed sheets “all over the chaise longue, the chairs, the foot of the bed, and some on the floor in order not to smudge the signature.” This was what Hassett called hanging out the wash. He said: “When it comes to signing his name, FDR is the twentieth century counterpart of John Hancock in volume of ink if not in legibility.”

One day FDR said: “Here’s where I make a law.” He wrote “Approved” on the document Hassett had given him, signed his name, and added the date. “I had seen him do it a thousand times,” Hassett commented, “I little thought this would be his last. Many, many times I have thought of the importance of that final stroke of the pen which gives effect to the sovereign will of the people as expressed in an act of Congress.” In his last term in office, Franklin Roosevelt did not want anyone to know how ill he was, but the truth could not be hidden from Bill Hassett. “There was less and less talk about all manner of things — fewer local Hyde Park stories, politics, books, pictures. The old zest was going.” Hassett believed the doctors were doing all they could, “but in my opinion the Boss was beyond human resources.” He noted FDR’s “feeble signature — the old boldness of stroke and liberal use of ink gone, signatures often ending in a fade-out.” Hassett knew “the Boss is leaving us.” On April 12, 1945, the man who had written letters, statements, and even Christmas radio addresses for the president announced to the world that Franklin D. Roosevelt was dead.

President Harry S Truman asked Hassett to stay on as his correspondence secretary, the only person Truman retained from FDR’s staff. Bill Hassett served Truman for seven years, and when he retired in 1952, Truman said: “I feel as if I had lost my right arm.” William D. Hassett, who had penned about 300,000 letters for two presidents to sign, returned to his home town of Northfield, Vermont, where he gardened, read, wrote, and enjoyed a wide circle of friends until his death in 1965, one day after his eighty-fifth birthday.

The story of fountain pens in wartime is merely another reflection of the suffering and sacrifice, bravery and cruelty of the human race. In 1918, an officer picks up his Trench Pen, wondering how to tell the mother of a boy he hardly knew that her son’s death of pneumonia was an heroic blow against the Hun. A wife takes up her little Sheaffer Tuckaway and writes a V-Mail, telling her husband “somewhere in the Pacific” how much she loves him. Someone invents a fountain pen for assassination; a propagandist in a government office pens more lies. Lit up for the moment on the world’s stage, Dwight Eisenhower takes out his Parker “51” and signs the German surrender document; on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri Douglas MacArthur puts his name to the Japanese surrender document with his decades old Parker Duofold. Buried where hardly anyone ever looks is a fountain pen story that’s insignificant only if thoughtfulness and devotion are. Franklin Roosevelt gave Bill Hassett a fountain pen for his birthday. Bill quietly went to a pen shop and “had the point adjusted to admit of the broad stroke and ample flow of ink characteristic of his [FDR’s] signature.” When some time later the president asked for Bill’s pen to sign a document, he found the nib exactly to his taste. Hassett does not tell us what type of nib he himself preferred. A friend said that Bill was the enemy of pretense, cant, and hypocrisy. For his tombstone, a simple cross of Vermont granite, William Hassett chose a phrase from Cardinal Newman: “From shadows and symbols into reality.”


More war letters by Edward Lukert and other soldiers are available in Andrew Carroll, ed., War Letters, New York: Scribners, 2001. For biographical notes on Nurse Helen Fairchild and a selection of her letters go to: www.vlib.us/medical/MaMh/MyAunt.htm

Readers might be interested in these two works by William D. Hassett:

Off the Record With F.D.R.: 1942 – 1945. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1958.

While I Remember: Memoirs of Center Village, Northfield, Vermont and Environs. Edited and annotated by Julia McIntire. Norwich University Occasional Paper Number 4. Northfield, Vermont: Friends of the Norwich University Library, 1989.

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