(This page revised January 10, 2017)
[ Reference Info Index | Glossopedia ]
World War II had profound effects on the home front, in almost every aspect of civilian life. Rubber and gasoline rationing changed travel habits, creating a boom in railroad ridership — so much so that the U.S. government found it necessary to produce posters reading, “Millions of troops are on the move… Is YOUR trip necessary?” Quotas on fuel oil made knitting fashionable again as families needed sweaters to keep warm in winter, and many women also knitted socks and scarves to be sent to the troops in the field. Diets changed as meat, butter, coffee, and sugar were rationed, and people saved their extra waste fat and turned it in at the butcher shop to be sent off and made into explosives. Victory Gardens sprang up everywhere to supply more fresh vegetables. Limits on clothing and shoes turned many housewives into seamstresses and even cobblers — and skirts got shorter. As the lyrics of a song by the Hoosier Hotshots put it, “So we’ll eat less, and see a bit more, if it’s gonna help win the war.” The war even touched that most prosaic of tools, the pen.
The principal effect on U.S. pen manufacture resulted from the War Production Board’s restrictions. Rubber, steel, aluminum, brass, petroleum, and other raw materials were designated as critical war resources and strictly rationed, with most of the supply going to the manufacture and shipping of war matériel and the operation of the Allied war machine. Pen companies had to scale back their pen production, devoting their efforts instead to manufacturing war goods. (In November 1942, the WPB limited production of fountain pens to 46% of 1941 output.)
Companies that excelled in war production received the Army-Navy “E” Award for Excellence in Production, and they proudly displayed the award banner (shown to the left above) at their factories and in their advertising. The G. S. Parker Pen Company received the “E” Award on October 29, 1943, for the production of bomb and shell fuzes, and the W. A. Sheaffer Pen Company received it on May 13, 1944, for the production of bomb fuzes and aircraft radio tuners. The enameled sterling silver lapel pin shown to the right above is one of those given to Sheaffer’s employees at the company’s award ceremony. The poster shown directly to the right is one of a series that companies that had received the award would display in their factories to encourage workers to keep up their efforts. Some companies also provided additional awards to their workforces. The Parker “51” shown here, engraved to commemorate the awards ceremony, was given to a Parker employee:
Furniture Goes Down- or Up-Market…
Brass was the base metal for most pen furniture (clips, levers, and cap bands). With brass restricted, manufacturers turned to other metals. While cheap pens appeared with thinly gold-plated furniture of low-grade steel, first-tier models from the Big Four manufacturers acquired more intrinsic value in the form of gold-filled parts made with sterling silver instead of brass. (This material is not vermeil, which is plated, not sandwiched, and has much less actual gold in its makeup). Here are a cheap pen (Chicago Conklin, with a plated steel nib and painted-on cap bands) and a more expensive one (Sheaffer’s “TRIUMPH”, introduced in May 1942):
The use of sterling silver as the base material for clips, cap bands, and other trim led to an interesting phenomenon. Gold and silver are chemically similar, and over time, silver ions migrated upward through the gold and formed a new layer atop the gold. The migrated silver, which was deposited absolutely uniformly, then tarnished to a color that can best be described as “gunmetal” and might be believed to have been intentional. This phenomenon is most frequently seen on Sheaffer and Eversharp pens. Illustrated to the left is the cap from a Sheaffer Tuckaway, showing the appearance of the silver layer on the clip and band. Fortunately for modern collectors, the silver can be removed easily; to the right is the same cap after restoration.
…While Some Nibs Go Up-Market
Because steel was a critical resource in the U.S., many lesser pen makers, among them Conklin, David Kahn Inc., and Morrison, began fitting their pens with gold nibs. They were fortunate because the price of gold in America remained relatively stable, floating at about $35.00 per Troy ounce from late 1941 to the end of 1945. With an average nib weighing approximately 0.5 to 0.6 gram, the value of the gold in most third-tier nibs was 40¢ or less, a rise in cost that was relatively easy to absorb. A few manufacturers, notably Esterbrook, began producing nibs of a less costly silver-palladium alloy. Shown to the left is an Esterbrook 8668 nib.
As can be seen from some of the pens illustrated in this article, some third-tier manufacturers managed to stick with steel. It is reasonable to conjecture that these companies had determined that continuing to use stainless steel for nibs and mild steel for clips would not exceed their allotment under WPB regulations.
Material Restrictions Lead to Changes, but That’s Not Always a Bad Thing!
Because of their popularity among collectors, the Parker Vacumatic and “51” are widely recognized as having “gone under the knife” due to material restrictions. The Vacumatic’s filler pump was made almost entirely of metal, primarily aluminum. With aluminum needed for aircraft manufacture, Parker went back to the drawing board and redesigned the filler, producing a new version that used much less aluminum and was also less costly and less likely to jam or suffer corrosion. The new filler’s plunger is made of celluloid and features an external spring instead of the one enclosed by the older tubular aluminum plunger. Here are a 1939 Vacumatic Speedline Major (upper) and a 1946 Vacumatic Major (lower):
As the war went on, Parker tried further refinements of the new filler; the final version appeared in late 1943 or early 1944 and is made entirely of plastic except for the spring. This all-plastic version is sometimes cemented into the pen barrel very securely and can be very difficult to remove when diaphragm replacement is required. Parker retained the new filler design after the end of the war but reverted to metal for the two collars that secure the diaphragm and the filler itself into the pen.
Parker also responded to the restrictions on brass by switching to a silver base for its furniture, and it took an additional step by redesigning the exterior of its pens to eliminate the blind-cap tassie. This change saved material, and — like the filler redesign — reduced the manufacturing cost of the pens. Shown here are the same two Vacumatics illustrated above:
More immediately important to most pen companies’ designers, however, was the restriction on rubber. Pens that used only a little rubber, like Parker’s Vacumatic and Sheaffer’s Vacuum-Fil models, could skate through with minor functional changes; but pens that used more rubber, i.e., anything with a sac, presented a problem. Sac pens continued in production, but there were far fewer of them, proportionally speaking. Sheaffer’s Vacuum-Fil, with its tiny rubber usage, was immensely popular among those who could afford it; this was fortunate because Sheaffer, in response to the WPB’s enactment of serious restrictions on rubber in October 1942, ceased manufacturing lever-filling pens. Thus, the number of lever-filling “TRIUMPH” pens produced was minuscule in comparison with the much greater numbers of the Vacuum-Fil “TRIUMPH” version.
When the U.S. went to war in December 1941, Parker had just introduced the revolutionary “51”, whose body is made of Lucite® (acrylic). The war put the success of the “51” in jeopardy because Lucite was suddenly needed in greater quantities for aircraft canopies. Parker did continue making the “51”, but in severely restricted numbers — of which the majority went to the military. The difficulty of obtaining a “51” in the civilian market only heightened the pen’s desirability; Parker’s wartime advertising used patriotic sentiments to capitalize on the obstacles to owning the pen, and “51” sales took off like a rocket after the war ended. The 1944 advertisement shown to the left, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, explained that more than half of the already-limited “51” production was being delivered to the military “under Priority AA-1 orders.” What it carefully does not say is that the U.S. military did not procure fountain pens from Parker or any other manufacturer. Pens issued to clerical and other staff were wooden-handled dip pens with nibs made of ordinary steel, not stainless. The fountain pens that went to the military were sold in Stateside and rear-area NEXes and PXes, where officers and enlisted personnel alike could buy whatever pens their budgets could afford. Writing letters was such a popular pastime that it was the subject of songs like “Dear Mom.” The U.S. Marine in the photograph to the right is writing a letter home with an Eversharp Skyline that he probably bought at an NEX.
Changes in Body Materials
Parker was able to obtain enough Lucite that it did not have to cease “51” production entirely, and because celluloid was not on the critical materials list, Parker and other companies were able to continue making most of their pens using the same body materials as before. Waterman, on the other hand, appears to have seen the war coming and taken steps to forestall a materials crisis. Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen, introduced in 1939 and made of Lucite, was produced in black and transparent red, green, and blue. In 1940, Waterman introduced another Lucite pen, the $5.00 model 515. Here are a red 1940 Hundred Year Pen and a red 515:
The first step toward working around what promised to be serious material restrictions was an unpublicized change, as late-production 1940 Hundred Year Pens (made in early-to-mid 1941) acquired some celluloid body parts. The black Hundred Year Pen shown here has a Lucite cap and a celluloid barrel:
Things went further, however. The Hundred Year Pen took on a dramatically different (but rather more conventional) style for the 1941 Christmas season, as before the bombing of Pearl Harbor the company had already introduced its new pens. The Hundred Year Pen wore a new body of celluloid, offered with or without a transparent barrel end that was an apparent nod to the transparency of the barrels of previous models. The 515 gained a new name, becoming the Commando; it, too, was made of celluloid and offered with a choice of transparent or opaque barrel ends. In 1945, when Waterman introduced the Taperite, some trim versions of that model also had transparent barrel ends. Here are a burgundy 1941 Hundred Year Pen and a black Commando, both made of celluloid. (The amber barrel end on the Hundred Year Pen may look odd on a burgundy, but it is correct; for the first year of production, all celluloid Hundred Year Pens had amber ends except the black version, whose end was clear. Waterman did not offer celluloid pens with red barrel ends.)
Another material change, one that was probably seen as a technological advancement rather than merely as a way to cope with the exigencies of war, was Eversharp’s transition from celluloid to polystyrene in the manufacture of its Skyline pens. At the outset of the war, all Skylines were celluloid. I. G. Farben had pioneered polystyrene production in Germany before the rise of Adolf Hitler, and when the material became available in the U.S., Eversharp adopted it. There are several significant advantages to polystyrene as a pen material, principal among which is that — unlike celluloid, which must be made ahead and cured for several months — it is sold in pellet form and can be fabricated very rapidly on demand by injection molding, which eliminates most of the costly machining required to produce a pen body from celluloid rod. Polystyrene also resists the corrosive action of ink, making it a material of choice for use in pens that could handle the new faster-drying formulas then appearing on the market.
Polystyrene could not be made in the brilliantly patterned colors that were available with celluloid, and this minor deficiency led to the eventual discontinuation of the Modern Stripe Skylines. Eversharp continued to produce striated celluloid caps, however, because the sleeve that makes the body of a Skyline cap can be formed easily from sheet stock. Shown here are a green Modern Stripe Skyline in celluloid and a Jet Black Skyline in polystyrene:
Eversharp was not the only maker to adopt polystyrene. David Kahn Inc. had been experimenting with injection molding since David Kahn himself had purchased equipment for the process in Germany in the late 1920s, some years before I. G. Farben had perfected the process. Kahn’s company contributed to the war effort by producing huge quantities of injection-molded valve caps for inner tubes to go into jeep and truck tires. The company further capitalized on the cost of the valve-cap molding dies by using them to mold blind caps for the button-filling Wearever Pacemaker (pictured below, upper), a celluloid Parker Striped Duofold knockoff that Kahn introduced during the war. Kahn also produced polystyrene pens under the Wearever brand, beginning with the 1944 introduction of the Zenith (below, lower).
Waterman’s new celluloid design, while it produced aesthetically attractive pens, had a consequence that made the Hundred Year Pen’s century-long guarantee a sad joke. Celluloid is a relatively unstable material, unfortunately. Its instability appears as ambering (discoloration) and, in more severe cases, as crystallization, crazing, cracking, and eventual crumbling. The tendency to crystallize is inversely proportional to the curing time and the amount of colorant in the celluloid, and it is directly proportional to the object's thickness. The combination of these factors has led to the disintegration of the transparent barrel ends on celluloid Waterman pens that featured this design, including Hundred Year Pens, Commandos, and Taperites. (The burgundy Hundred Year Pen shown above has had its barrel end professionally replaced with a more stable material.)
The worst disadvantage of Eversharp’s polystyrene did not become evident until some decades after the Skyline ended its product life in 1948. The early and relatively untested resin formulation that the company used has turned out to be unstable: the pens fade, and they deteriorate mechanically to the point of becoming brittle and frangible. Polystyrene Skyline inner caps, molded integrally with the cap derby, are sometimes found in a crumbled state.
David Kahn Inc. had perhaps a decade’s experience with polystyrene before Eversharp got into the fray, and in that time Kahn’s people had learned a thing or two that turned out to be beneficial. Wartime molded Wearever pens do not appear to be subject to the crumbling decay that ruins some Eversharps.
The “Real Deal”
In every country that was involved in the war, patriotism sprang up everywhere. (In some countries, you were patriotic “or else”; in others, patriotism was the natural outgrowth of the fact that the home front was as much a part of the war as were the young men and women who were off fighting somewhere.) Especially in the United States, where the home front was virtually untouched by the ravages of the conflict, manufacturers played on people’s patriotic sentiments to sell their products. This type of merchandising affected pens, of course, and it also affected accessories and ephemera related to pens. One obvious example was advertising blotters. A staple of a world in which the principal writing instrument was the fountain pen, advertising blotters were given away by many businesses, and many companies’ blotters got a wartime makeover. Shown to the left are several blotters from a series titled “America’s Finest Planes,” produced to promote Bond Bread, a product of the General Baking Company of New York.
Perhaps the pen model best known specifically as a wartime pen is Morrison’s Patriot, which was also advertised by a peripheral product, in this case matchbooks like the one to the right above. In late 1942, the Morrison Fountain Pen Company began producing a regulations-compliant version of its Patriot, newly fitted with a 14K gold nib instead of the steel used in earlier versions. The Patriot had been introduced before the United States became a combatant, and it was produced in versions honoring the four U.S. military services and several other organizations such as the American Legion and Britain’s Royal Air Force. The Blue Star Mothers, an organization of American mothers who had sons or daughters in the service, was conceived by U.S. Army Captain George Humphrey Maines and founded in Flint, Michigan, in February 1942, and Morrison even made a Blue Star Mothers Patriot. Here are Army, Navy, Air Corps, and Marine Corps Patriots:
Each of the service pens has the crest of its service, cast in sterling silver and gold plated, glued to the cap crown. The cap-crown emblem to the right of the pens, cast in sterling and enamel filled, is for the Blue Star Mothers. The most significant feature of these pens, however, is not the external design but the internal one. They’re syringe (Post) fillers, with the entire barrel screwing off to expose the filling unit.
The Patriot lived up to its name when it came to conserving critical war resources. Except for the filler’s two gaskets, the nib, and the metal parts on the cap, the entire pen, including the section and feed, is made of celluloid.
Good Ideas Should Be Shared
The Patriot was not the only syringe-filling pen to appear during World War II. With virtually crippling restrictions on the amount of rubber available for pen manufacture, cheap pens with syringe fillers (including the blue Conklin illustrated near the beginning of this article) appeared in relatively great numbers. These cheap pens were made along more traditional lines, with the front half of the barrel forming the ink reservoir and the back half forming a blind cap that screws off to expose the plunger in the same manner as in the Post pens of earlier decades. These pens were made extremely cheaply, with crudely fashioned filler parts and, in most cases, with celluloid sections fused onto barrels rolled up from thin celluloid sheet. Today they’re virtually impossible to repair. Here is a DU-PONT pen, which has a hard rubber section. This pen has been fitted with a Pelikan M200 nib, with plating removed from the tines to match the original DURIUM TIPPED nib’s design.
Interestingly, although most of the cheap syringe fillers featured bright and cheery colors, there was at least one produced in Olive Drab, like the Patriot:
Unlike many of its competitors, including the Morrison and DU-PONT pens shown here, this anonymous pen has a military clip and could indeed have been worn by a soldier or a Marine while in uniform.
Service Sets: Convenience for the Serviceman and Woman
Pen makers had long offered sets of a pen and pencil together, but for those in the military, carrying writing instruments in the breast pocket was not necessarily convenient and might, depending on the design of the pen and pencil, violate uniform requirements. People in the service needed a better way to carry their pens and pencils with them. Manufacturers answered the need by adding a leather carrying case that would keep the pen and pencil together and protect them while packing more compactly than a box (which might be crushed in a duffel bag or seabag). Sets with leather cases were called “service sets,” but anyone could buy them; the tacit assumption was that such sets were being purchased for service members. Shown here are service sets from Waterman and an unknown third-tier maker:
Production limits set by the WPB were not the only way U.S. government wartime regulations affected pen manufacture. In addition to rationing scarce products, the Office of Price Administration was authorized to set ceiling prices for all items except agricultural products. The purpose of price ceilings was to prevent war profiteering, and because fountain pens were scarce, they were among the articles for which the OPA established ceilings. As shown by the slip of paper illustrated here (included with a Morrison Patriot service set), the OPA placed a $6.25 ceiling price on service sets, and there was also a 20% federal tax on them, bringing the buyer’s top price for a service set to $7.50. With this limitation in place, top-line pens like the Parker “51” and Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen were never sold in service sets.
Not Last Year’s Paper and Ink
The huge volume of mail being sent from the American home front to the men and women fighting overseas created the need for a more efficient way to use the limited space available for transport. Letters and parcels could be sent the usual way, but that mail went by ship and could take many weeks to arrive. In fact, given the Germans’ unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, mail sent by ship might not arrive at all. To provide for reliable, expedited delivery, the government created V-Mail (“V” for Victory), a system whereby people would write their letters on special V-Mail forms that folded up to make their own envelopes, like the Wessel’s Envo-Letters illustrated below. Folded, sealed, and mailed, the letters were sent to a central post office where they were unsealed, censored, and photographed onto rolls of microfilm that were then forwarded overseas by airplane. On arriving at rear-area centers in the war zones, the microfilmed letters were printed at 60% of their original size onto cheap, readily available paper, sealed, and delivered to their destinations.
The three dots and a dash between the letter V and the word Mail in the V-Mail logo are Morse code for the letter V.
Service personnel could send V-mail without charge. Others paid the usual rates, 3¢ for ground transport to the central post office for microfilming, and 6¢ for airmail. Not only did V-Mail save thousands of tons’ worth of space and weight, but it also foiled attempts at espionage because invisible ink, microprinting, and microdots would not reproduce on microfilm.
Photographic films designed for microfilm work were more sensitive to some colors than others. Betty’s beautiful purple ink and Edith’s gorgeous pale-blue ink would not register properly on microfilm. To solve this problem, pen and ink companies produced special V-Mail ink. Parker named the colors of its two V-Mail inks Micro-Film Black (shown here) and Micro-Film Blue.
On the Other Side of the Lines
Restrictions on materials did not affect only the Allied nations. Axis civilians too found the necessities of life rationed, as illustrated by the German “cereal ration card” shown to the right, which entitled the named bearer to purchase specified quantities of cereal grains, starch, ersatz coffee, and certain food additives. Living conditions in Germany and Japan became progressively worse as Allied bombing destroyed not only homes, businesses, and factories, but also domestic food production, while blockades prevented imports of both war matériel and home goods.
The Nazis had recognized that Germany lacked sufficient resources to conduct a war and sustain the country’s people. They knew that they would have to purchase imported goods and raw materials. Reasoning correctly that neutral countries would be unlikely to accept Reichsmarks in payment, they established a policy of plundering and hoarding gold. Not only did they seize the gold stocks of countries they annexed or overran, but they also placed gold on Germany’s list of critical war resources to restrict its use in the making of jewelry or other precious items. The result, as it affected the pen industry, was that instead of fitting lesser pens with gold nibs, as happened with U.S. manufacturers such as Morrison, German first-tier makers such as Pelikan and Soennecken switched to steel nibs. Illustrated here are a Pelikan 100 and a Soennecken 118, both wartime pens fitted with flexible steel nibs. The Pelikan’s nib is imprinted with the letters CN in a circle. These letters stood for chromium and nickel, the two principal nonferrous elements in the stainless steel of which the nib was made.
As in Allied countries, there were in Axis countries first-tier pens like those above, and there were lesser pens. One such is the nameless German piston filler below. Like the Pelikan above, this pen has a flexible steel nib; the imprint reads Edel / Chromstahl / 1. Qual., meaning “Noble / Chrome Steel / 1st quality.” As on the Soennecken, the clip on this pen is gold plated rather than chromed as on the Pelikan.
Japan, being an island nation with precariously limited natural resources, was even more pressed than Germany. With less gold to be acquired in China and the European colonies in Asia and Oceania than in Europe proper, the Japanese are reported to have intended to finance their war effort with gold looted from Southeast Asia. It is not clear now much gold was looted, but there are persistent stories of a huge hoard collected by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was called “The Tiger of Malaya.” Whether there was such a hoard or not, the Japanese government, as in Germany, listed gold as a critical war resource, and Japanese pen makers also found themselves compelled to use steel nibs.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
If cars run on rubber, pens run on iridium — or, more properly, tipping material. Before World War II, metallurgical technology had not developed to a degree sufficient to support the economical manufacture of high-quality alloys suitable for tipping fountain pen nibs. Tipping material was culled from high-grade ores of platinum-group metals, principally iridium and osmium. Ore was crushed, fragments were selected based on their metal content and welded to nibs, after which the tips were ground and polished to finish them. This technology worked reasonably well, but the quality of finished nib tips could vary greatly, as one might have a cleavage line that would result in a fracture of the tip while the next might be made of a fragment whose spongy texture resembled that of sintered metal (more suitable for ballpoints; cf. the Parker T-Ball Jotter) and a third might be perfect in all respects.
The military’s need for highly refined alloys that were very hard led in America to the development of technology to meet the requirements, and that technology spilled over to consumer goods, including pens. Early in the war, Parker advertised that the nib of the “51” was tipped with osmiridium, a naturally occurring alloy of iridium and osmium; during 1943 the company changed to an alloy it called Plathenium, which is very high in ruthenium and is therefore much harder and more durable. The Plathenium-tipped “51” nib shown to the left is in a pen made during the first quarter 0f 1945.
Other manufacturers quickly followed Parker’s lead, and soon nibs tipped with highly refined alloys were the rule rather than the exception for high-quality pens.
Some third-tier pens continued to appear with untipped steel nibs, changed in no way from the nibs used before the war. The Conklin and DU-PONT pens illustrated here left their respective factories fitted with butterfly (untipped) nibs. Other third-tier makers, such as David Kahn Inc., switched to tipped nibs, and the longevity of their pens increased immensely. The Wearever Zenith pictured earlier in this article was made during the war, and it has a 14K nib. After peace was concluded in 1945, the Zenith’s nib became tipped steel, allowing Kahn to keep the price down while still producing a pen that was better than its prewar ancestors.
The war wrought its changes on all aspects of life; and when daily life returned to normal, it turned out that even “normal” had changed. New technology enabled more rapid and more economical manufacture of better pens, and new cultural norms made the sexes more nearly equal than at any time in the past — which also played a role in pen design and marketing. (See, for example, the Waterman advertisement to the right, clearly targeted at the postwar “Modern Woman”!) Pens from the war years offer a surprisingly penetrating look at the times, and a collection containing nothing made before 1940 or after 1945 would be a richly fascinating one indeed.
The Billboard, August 7, 1943, page 52.
Apparently, everyone working at Parker’s Janesville plant got one of these pens; Henry Ahrbecker, who got this one, was a 64-year-old part-time custodian.
Priority AA-1 was the highest procurement priority, used by the U.S. government to purchase parts and supplies for critical projects such as the Manhattan Project. Parker copyrighted the phrase “Priority AA-1” on June 20, 1945, possibly after someone questioned the company’s use of the term, so that its advertising could continue to say “under Priority AA-1 orders” even though those orders did not come from the government.
This information came from Colonel John A. Hauck, U.S. Army (Retired), who as a staff sergeant was a divisional clerk in the Army’s 7th Infantry Division while the division was deployed to retake and hold the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska.
Morrison used the “Air Corps” name throughout the war despite the fact that the U.S. Army Air Corps had in June 1941 been officially renamed the U.S. Army Air Forces.
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.