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(This page revised January 13, 2014)
“I’ll trade you my steelie for three clearies and one cat-eye shooter.” Three-quarters of a century ago, playground marble trading was big business among the younger set. Another form of trading, one that worked rather differently, was more appropriate for adults of the time. I’m referring to the selection and swapping of interchangeable nibs for fountain pens.Today, many users think nothing of buying extra nibs for their pens, in different grades perhaps, and changing a fine for a stub when it’s time to write party invitations. This sort of easy nib swapping may not be what pen makers had in mind;
|“I’ll trade you my steelie for three clearies and one cat-eye shooter.”|
It turns out that marking the before/after division by the advent of the Great Depression is particularly apropos; interchangeable nibs and the Depression arrived in the same year. In 1929, Pelikan in Europe and Wahl in the U.S.A. both began shipping pens with nibs built into interchangeable units that could be screwed into the two companies’ respective special gripping sections.
Interchangeable nibs offer some distinct advantages over nibs that are stuck into pens and, for all practical purposes, must remain there. First, the ability to change nibs is a great marketing tool: as the advertising for Wahl’s Personal-Point system put it, “A pen for any hand … Fitted instantly to any holder.” Using the shop’s display samples, the purchaser could decide on a nib type, and in a matter of seconds the dealer would install a nib of that type into a brand-new pen in the purchaser’s desired style and color. It was quick, easy, and very personal.
|This two-page Wahl ad appeared in the September 7, 1927, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It shows the Personal-Point system with all 14 of the available nibs.|
More than a mere sales gimmick, though, was the significant reduction of dealers’ inventory requirements. No longer did a dealer need to stock 14 pens of each model and color, one with each of Wahl’s nib styles (23 styles for Pelikan!); instead, fewer than half that many pens, with separate nib units, would serve just as well.
The two companies took slightly different approaches to the use of interchangeable nibs. Wahl applied the feature only to top-line pens, making it an extra bit of luxury, and never spread it across the entire product line. Pelikan, on the other hand, was creating its very first fountain pen in 1929 and fitted that pen with an interchangeable nib, subsequently extending the feature to every Pelikan model produced until after World War II.
Another difference between Pelikan’s and Wahl’s nib systems was their longevity. By the latter 1930s, Wahl had discontinued the Personal-Point system; but Pelikan has never stopped producing pens with interchangeable nibs. Today, the company’s Souverän and Tradition pen series still have interchangeable nibs, although modern nib units cannot be switched for vintage ones or vice versa.
Common to Wahl and Pelikan, however, was that neither company intended the pen owner to remove or install nibs, and nib units weren’t sold over the counter. Nib installation was a task to be performed by the dealer at the time of sale, and if the owner (for example, the recipient of a pen as a gift) wanted a different nib — with Wahl at least — the transaction was an exchange, not a purchase.
Not until about 1932, when Esterbrook marched onto the scene with its Re-New-Point system, was the owner invited to swap his or her own nib. Initially offered in 12 styles for 25¢ each, Esterbrook’s untipped Duracrome 1000- and 2000-series steel nibs proliferated in variety, and at least part of the reason for their easy availability was that, being untipped, they would wear rapidly; and Esterbrook, unlike its third-tier competitors, chose not to manufacture a disposable pen.
In 1938 Esterbrook introduced four tipped, sunburst-decorated Osmiridium nibs, numbered in the 3000 series, that went for the princely sum of 50¢ each. In 1940, the 65-cent Master Series (9000 numbers, also tipped) began to supplant the 3000 series. The point selection continued to expand until, at one point, Esterbrook was offering 33 different point styles.
The ascent of the ballpoint pen triggered a general decline in fountain pen use, but Esterbrook continued with great success to produce pens with the Renew-Point system (so renamed in 1948). Priced near the lower end of the market, Esterbrook pens became virtually ubiquitous, and during the 1960s the company’s seven worldwide plants were producing as many as 600,000 pens a day. After Esterbrook’s patents ran out, other manufacturers such as Osmiroid, Tuckersharpe and Venus produced pens with nib units that interchanged with Esterbrook’s, and Venus even marked its nib boxes to indicate that Venus nibs fitted the “standard” system. Esterbrook finally succumbed, and with it the Renew-Point system, in the early 1970s.
Never slow to see a good opportunity, Sheaffer got into the act in about 1934. But the two obvious systems, one with threads at the back of the nib collar (Wahl) and the other with threads at the front (Esterbrook), were both patented. So for its low-priced WASP Addipoint, Sheaffer took a different — but more costly — approach: package a complete gripping section assembly with its own sac. The section was threaded to screw into the pen’s barrel. Untipped like Esterbrook’s Duracrome series, Sheaffer’s six steel Rite-O-Way nib units were likewise priced at 25¢ each; but there were also three 75¢ gold nib units available for Addipoint pens.
Sheaffer sold Addipoint pens until the company discontinued the WASP sub-brand in about 1940. Then, after a six-year hiatus, the 1947 catalog introduced the new Fineline series, whose tipped steel nibs used the Esterbrook system but were not interchangeable with Esterbrooks’s. Early Fineline nibs had a flange on the collar to provide a finished end to the section; that flange disappeared later, but the nibs still would not fit into Esterbrook pens. Sheaffer discontinued the Fineline series in about 1953.
Early on, Parker had stayed out of the interchangeable-nib fray; but 1960 saw the debut of the remarkable and long-lived Parker 45, built on technology acquired when Parker bought out Eversharp in 1957. Not only was the $5.00 model Parker’s first cartridge/converter pen, but it was also fitted with a user-interchangeable screw-out 14K gold nib unit that sold for $2.35. Parker had chosen to keep the Eversharp name alive as a lower-line brand, and the Eversharp Big E, priced at $2.98, came with a steel nib in the same interchangeable unit.
Two years after introducing the 45, Parker brought out the VP (“Very Personal”), a top-line model whose interchangeable nib unit screwed into a rotating inner collar in the pen’s triangular ergonomic gripping section so that it could be adjusted to the user’s angle of rotation.
A year later, Parker simplified the nib unit, recreating it as a push-in assembly that no longer required a rotating collar in the pen, and applying it to the dramatic new Parker 75. In 1991, the 75’s section became round instead of triangular, and the ink collector migrated from the inside of the section to become part of the nib unit. The nib unit could still be pulled out of the section, but Parker no longer sold the nib unit separately from the pen; owners had to purchase complete gripping section assemblies.
In the past 30 years or so, many small pen companies have arisen, with a need for nibs but not the desire to invest in the expensive tooling required to produce them. Industry’s response to this need has been to provide commodity nib units comprising a nib, a plastic feed, and a plastic collar or sleeve that screws into a gripping section bored and threaded to fit it, much like the original Wahl Personal-Point nib units. Some companies, such as Bock, produce complete units; others, such as JoWo, provide nibs to secondary companies such as Writing Instruments Network, who in turn fit the nibs to feeds and collars. Some pen companies glue these units into their pens, while others leave them free to be interchanged.
Vintage or modern, collector or writer, thanks to the ingenuity of almost a century ago, your pen can change its nib to suit your current needs, your mood, or even the day of the week — if you have the right pen!
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. My thanks to Wojciech J. Osetkowsky, who provided the 1927 Personal-Point advertisement.