Waterman’s Standard Numbering System

(This page revised June 22, 2012)

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Manufacturer logoWaterman imprintUnlike many of its contemporaries during the era of hard rubber pens, the L. E. Waterman Company tried to bring some order to its model designations. In the company’s earliest days, all pens were straight-cap eyedropper fillers and had a single-digit identifier designating the nib size. Soon, however, as new styles appeared, a “meaningful” Standard Numbering System developed, using two-digit codes in which the first digit describes the pen’s shape and the second the nib size. So that each pen would carry with it its model number information, the company imprinted the code on the end of the pen’s barrel as shown to the right. From 1900 onward, the company introduced very few new straight-cap pens, concentrating primarily on cone-cap models (and, later, screw caps). As new filling systems proliferated, the system began to rely on an extensive range of suffixes tacked onto a very limited range of the “old” numbers. As more new technology added further features and variations to the line, the system as it was then implemented grew cumbersome. In 1917, Waterman regularized it, discarding the inconsistent suffixes and adding some new designators to create a version more in keeping with the system as it had been before 1900. The result was well codified and — within reason — sufficient to cover anything Waterman might be expected to produce for several decades.

The following two photos illustrate the variety of pens that the system covered. The first photo shows a No 24:

Fountain pen

The next pen is a No 055212V LEC w.r.:

Fountain pen

The following table presents information extracted primarily from documentation Waterman published in 1925 for its dealers. The system is quite comprehensive. Note, however, that not all possible combinations yield pens that Waterman actually produced; the value of this table is to provide positive identification of a pen you own or one you might be considering for purchase. Also, the system does not distinguish between colors or types of body materials; thus, at various times the same model number could designate an unchased black hard rubber (BHR) pen, a chased black hard rubber (BCHR) pen, a red hard rubber (RHR, “Cardinal”) pen, a red mottled hard rubber (RMHR, woodgrain) pen, a red rippled hard rubber (RRHR, “Ripple”) pen, a celluloid pen, or even (rarely) a Bakelite pen. And there are a few true oddities, such as the two double-digit codes (18 and 28) in the hundreds place. (Some authorities consider these two codes to be single-digit codes (an 8) modified by a 1 or a 2 in the otherwise unused thousands place, but this supposition fails because it interprets a single 8 in the hundreds place as meaning one 14K band, not either one or two.)

Note
Note
Waterman did not always stamp pens with the complete codes that might appear in a catalog. The imprints on the two pens illustrated above read 24 and 055212V, respectively. Also, it is important to recognize that a given pen’s numbering might not reflect every detail of the pen itself. The No 055212V LEC w.r. above has its barrel end covered by the overlay; but Waterman did not consistently describe or catalog it with the LEC designation. Similarly, the No 24 should technically be a No 0624; but it was made before barrel bands were added to the hundreds digit of the code. Depending on exactly when this example was made, it might have been catalogued as a No 24GMM. Waterman catalogs themselves, of course, are the final authority.

Table entries in light brown and light blue type show numbers that changed in the 1917 regularization. The bold red numbers in the table represent the No 055212V LEC w.r. above.

Digit
Positions
Prefixes
(to 1917)
(1917 on)
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(to 1917)
(1917 on)
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Suffixes

(to 1917)

Values &
Meanings
0 = Gold Filled
(instead of
solid 14K
gold)
twist barrel
(1890s)
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2 = Sterling
overlay,
barrel only
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3 = 14K gold
overlay,
barrel only
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4 = Sterling
overlay,
barrel
and cap
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5 = 14K gold
overlay,
barrel
and cap
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6 = Mother-of-
pearl over-
lay, barrel
only
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6 = Two 14K
barrel
bands
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7 = One 14K
barrel band
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8 = Broad 14K
gold cap
lip band
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18 = Narrow
14K gold
cap lip
band
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28 = Two 14K
bands,
one at
each end
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9 = 14K cap-
top band
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0 = Straight-cap
eyedropper
(ED)
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1 = Cone-cap ED
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2 = Taper-cap ED
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4 = Desk pen
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4 = Safety
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5 = Lever filler (LF)
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6 = Cone-cap LF
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7 = Pocket ED
(screw cap)
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8 = Pump filler
Nib size:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
6, 7,8, 10
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12 = Slender model
Reference Info Index | Glossary  ]
J = Slip-cap safety
Reference Info Index | Glossary  ]
V = Vest pocket
(short) model
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BABY = “Nickname”
applied
to x1212VS
models
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X = Larger holder
(52x is the only
known instance,
with No 2 nib &
55-size holder)
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LEC = Lower End
of barrel
Covered
by overlay
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w.r. = With ring

System? What System?

As mentioned earlier, the time between about 1900 and 1917 was a time of technological growth that pointed up some weaknesses in the Standard Numbering System. Because when Waterman set up the system the only practical filling method was eyedropper filling, no provision was made to distinguish different types of filling systems by assigning different digits in the tens column. Instead, as new systems appeared, the company used suffixes for this purpose. As filling systems were developed, tried, and replaced with newer ones, the same suffix (and hence the same model number) could apply to more than one type of pen. For example, a No 12PSF could be a coin filler or a lever filler. Since these two versions were in production simultaneously, reusing a number in this fashion had the potential, even at the time, to cause confusion. And in retrospect, as collectors have tried to categorize and codify pen identification, model number duplication has prevented unequivocal description.

The following table, which highlights the complexities that grew during this period, is organized by types of pens instead of by digit values. The hundreds digit has the same meanings as in the Standard Numbering System, and the standard suffixes also apply. For example, this slender short safety with a sterling overlay is a No 41212VS BABY:

Fountain pen

Digit Positions Reference Info Index | Glossary  ]
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U
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U
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Suffixes

(to 1917)

Primary Secondary
Pen Type
(in order of
appearance)
Eyedropper (ED),
cone cap
Reference Info Index | Glossary  ] 1 Nib size:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
6, 7, 8, 10
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GM = Two 14K barrel
bands (“Gold
Mounted”)
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GMM = One 14K barrel
band (“Gold
Mounted, Middle”)
Self-filler (pump) Reference Info Index | Glossary  ] 1 Reference Info Index | Glossary  ]
1 1
Safety Reference Info Index | Glossary  ] 1 Reference Info Index | Glossary  ]
Self Filler (sleeve) Reference Info Index | Glossary  ] 1 SF
Pocket Self Filler
(screw-cap coin filler)
Reference Info Index | Glossary  ] 1 PSF
Pocket ED (screw cap) Reference Info Index | Glossary  ] 1 POC
Pocket Self Filler
(screw-cap lever filler)
Reference Info Index | Glossary  ] 1 PSF

The Exception That Proves the Rule?

The only significant “failure” of the Standard Numbering System, that of the No 20, might not actually be a failure at all. We might simply lack a correct understanding of how the system works. Because the No 20 is a cone-cap eyedropper, we think it “should” have a 1 as the tens digit in its number instead of a 2. Suppose, however, that model numbers are created not by juxtaposing digits but rather by adding them arithmetically. Add the values for a cone-cap eyedropper (10) and a No 10 nib (10), and the sum is 20. This method yields correct numbers for all pens to which the system was applied.

The Death of the Standard Numbering System

With the introduction in 1927 of the RRHR No 5 and No 7 (“Ripple” models), Waterman began to abandon its well ordered numbering; thereafter, model designations became progressively more haphazard, with some pens (e.g., the celluloid No 92 and No 94) retaining standardized numbers into the 1930s while others (e.g., the No 403) had numbers that were no longer standardized and still others (e.g., the Patrician and Lady Patricia) never had numbers at all.

Notes:
  1. At least one catalog exists, published in France in 1912, that disputes the charted use of 7, 8, and 9 in the hundreds position. According to that catalog, 7 indicates an 18K gold overlay, 8 indicates a sterling silver overlay, and 9 indicates a gold-filled (doublé or) overlay. (Thanks to David Nishimura.)  Return to text

  2. Two-digit numbers that would start with a 0 in the tens place drop the 0 (e.g., 2, not 02). The 0 appears in the tens place only when it is needed to make the overlay designation fall into the hundreds place (e.g., 204, not 24).  Return to text

  3. Because the system became relatively unsystematic from about 1900 to the 1917 regularization, a 1 in the tens column does not accurately identify a cone-cap pen or, for that matter, an ED. Refer to the table under “System? What System?” for information on pens from that period.  Return to text

  4. Waterman used the No 10 nib on only three pen models, the No 20 (cone-cap ED), the No 20POC (screw-cap ED), and the No 20S (safety). Also, at least one example of a No 9 nib is known; this nib is the same size as a No 10.  Return to text

  5. The use of the hundreds digit here is accepted by some authorities and questioned by others. I include it here because, as of this writing, I lean toward the former choice.  Return to text


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. Most especially, it is not 100% comprehensive in that it does not cover certain obscure or questionable models. As of this writing, at least one authority is writing an exhaustive monograph on this subject. My thanks to David Isaacson and Daniel Kirchheimer for their gracious collaboration in the creation of this numbering key.

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