Profile: The Dunn-Pen

(This page revised November 24, 2016)

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Dunn-Pen advertisement, November 4, 1922 Magnifying glass
This Dunn-Pen adver­tise­ment ap­peared in the November 4, 1922, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The Dunn-Pen guar­an­tee was unlimited, cov­er­ing the entire pen; others cov­ered only the nib.

Manufacturer logoIn the first quarter of 1921, a group of investors founded the Dunn-Pen Company, Inc., in New York City. The founders were members of the Dudley Sales Organization, a New York venture capital group, and did not include Charles Dunn, whose 1920 patent for an elegantly simple high-capacity pump filler (U.S. Patent No 1,359,880) formed the basis of the new company’s product. The “Little Red Pump-Handle” Dunn-Pen’s engineers made sure that the filler would be their pens’ most distinctive feature by using red material for the pump’s operating knob. Company advertising featured the “Little Red Pump-Handle” and used phrases like “A regular camel for ink — goes a month without a drink.”

AdvertisementDemonstration of its great ink capacity was sufficient to sell the Dunn-Pen. The com­pany’s advance salesmen in New York carried with them the newspaper advertisement cut shown to the left, which compared the capa­city of an ordi­nary sac-filling pen with that of the New Dunn-Pen. One Fifth Avenue retailer, for whom pens were only a sideline, insisted on testing its claim, and when he did so he was so enthu­si­as­tic that he set up a display with real pens and graduates in his store window. Within a week he was selling eight to twelve Dunn-Pens a day.

One of the best ways to suggest to the potential purchaser that he or she really wants your product is to list the names of famous people using it. Dunn-Pen did this; most of the names are now forgotten, but among them were Rex Beach and Fannie Hurst (novelists), George Eastman (founder of Kodak), Thomas Edison, and Kermit Roosevelt (well-known explorer, son of Teddy Roosevelt).

Dunn-Pen advertising also pointed out the Dunn-Pen’s other advantages in comparison to the shortcomings of other self-fillers of the day. The company’s house organ, The Little Red Pump-Handle, said it this way:

THE DUNN-PEN is the perfect self-filler. There are no springs to bend and break, no valves to get out of adjustment, no vents to clog, no joints to drip. There is no rubber sac to rot, harden, or leak. There are no side levers, no compression rods.

There are four sturdy, major parts to a Dunn-Pen, and so the Dunn-Pen doesn’t get out of order. Repairs to the Dunn-Pen are notable for their absence. There’s no need of them.

The Dunn-Pen Company seems to have been embroiled in frequent internal squabbles; for example, on October 6, 1921, the New York Times reported that the board of directors had been rebuffed in its attempt to induce company president Richard Wightman to relinquish his $40,000 annual salary for the period from August 1921 to January 1922. In the end, a prolonged employees’ strike drove the company into receivership, with listed assets of about $50,000, by mid-1924. (Liabilities were not stated by the receiver, Percival Wilds.) It is possible that someone might have purchased the company whole and attempted to revive it; Marketing/Communications, by the Decker Communications Corporation, recorded that the Dunn-Pen Company let advertising contracts for 1926. Yet while the troubles simmered or boiled, business as usual went on; while the Times was reporting on the Wightman scandal, Dunn-Pen was opening branch offices in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.

In its brief lifetime, the company produced innovative pens of excellent quality. Initially using hard rubber, Dunn-Pen tried both clear and ruby Bakelite for barrels on a model called the Tattler, and eventually changed its production over to the much less fragile celluloid. Like LeBoeuf, Dunn-Pen was selling celluloid pens before Sheaffer made its splash with Radite. Unlike LeBoeuf, however, Dunn-Pen did not use brightly colored celluloids, preferring to stick with the tried and true black for both chased and unchased models, of which some of the latter emerged from the factory with metal cap crowns or even cutwork (“filigree”) overlays. Pens also exist with barrels of clear celluloid; these are frequently shrunken and are almost always lightly ambered.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
This Dunn-Pen Tattler has a ruby Bakelite barrel.

At some point, Dunn-Pen changed the material of its “Little Red Pump-Handle” from hard rubber to casein. This change was not good for the pens’ longevity, as over the years the casein knobs have shown themselves prone to crystallize and crack. The pens below illustrate the older (upper) and newer (lower) knobs.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

A Model for Everyone

Like its competitors, Dunn-Pen made models in several sizes. Dunn-Pen advertisements list the tiny Hummingbird, the Camel and Baby Camel, the Senior and Senior Jr., the Society and Society Jr., the Majority and Majority Jr., and the Dreadnaught. The Tattler and Tattler Jr. featured transparent barrels (initially Bakelite, later changed to celluloid). Shown here are two Baby Camels and two Dreadnaughts, one in Senior size and one in Camel size.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The Famous Dreadnaught

Perhaps the most recognizable Dunn-Pen model was the Dreadnaught. Many modern collectors, inferring a connection between the roughly contemporaneous term for a battleship and Dunn-Pen’s use of the name, have the impression that the Dreadnaught was a huge pen, and there are defintely some oversize Dreadnaughts, especially among early production — but, like many Golden Age pens, the Dreadnaught eventually appeared in several sizes (at least three). The third of the four pens above, a Senior-sized Dreadnaught, is quite ordinary in size; at 5" capped and 52932" posted, it’s about the same size as a modern Pelikan M400.

The Dreadnaught’s cap is unique, a two-part design that allow you to fill the pen without getting a drop on the section. This feature anticipated the “no muss, no fuss” movement of the 1950s by about two and a half decades. Shown below are four views of the Senior Dreadnaught above. The fourth view shows the inner framework within the cap that permits filling without getting ink on the section. Note: The purpose of this design was to prevent the tip of the nib from being banged against the bottom of the bottle during filling. (The nib on the pen illustrated here protrudes far enough past the inner framework that the framework cannot offer such protection, an indication that this nib is not set as far into the section as it was originally.)

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

What? No Little Red Pump-Handle?

This oversize Dunn-Pen seems rather ordinary but is in fact quite uncommon. While emphasizing its pump-filling pens, the company also appears to have served a clientèle whose desires were more traditional. These people wanted a regular fountain pen, and in the early 1920s the word “regular” still indicated an eyedropper-filling pen like this one.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

When All Is Said and Dunn

Dunn-Pen was one of the better second-tier companies, and by rights it should have survived longer than it did. Today its pens — especially those with Bakelite barrels — are relatively rare and highly collectible. They’re sturdy, attractive, and possessed of a remarkably large ink capacity. (The smaller of the two Dreadnaughts illustrated in this article holds 2.2 ml.) Except for those with Bakelite or clear celluloid barrels, they’re excellent users.

Notes:
  1. An item in the April 21, 1921, issue of the advertisers’ journal Printers’ Ink (p. 180) touted the Dudley Sales Organization’s belief that the Dunn-Pen Company had set a record by being substantially financed and having its product on the market within 120 days after Dunn’s patent was issued on November 23, 1920.

  2. Dunn, a victim of tuberculosis, said he had worked 10 years to perfect his filler design. Ironically, according to another article in the same periodical (pp. 17-19), he died of his disease in the same week that the company introduced the pen.

  3. From The Little Red Pump-Handle, Issue No 1, c. 1921.


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