(This page revised February 3, 2016)
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|This 1941 advertisement from The Saturday Evening Post features a romantic couple as it promotes the Vacumatic as “the Jewel of Pendom” with which Romance Starts and Romance Ripens.|
What’s in a name? In August 1932, Parker began test marketing the next generation in fountain pens, the Golden Arrow. This radical new pen featured a compact plunger-operated pump filler (described in Anatomy of a Fountain Pen II: The Parker Vacumatic) that nestled at the back end of the barrel, eliminating the space-hungry pressure bar and sac. Parker had bought the rights to this design (U.S. Patent No 1,904,358, applied for on September 14, 1928 and issued on April 18, 1933) from Professor Arthur O. Dahlberg, an instructor in machine design at the University of Wisconsin, and had then spent some time perfecting it. Although the pump mechanism was novel, Dahlberg’s design was not entirely original; it was an extension of Huston Taylor’s 1905 bulb-filler patent (U.S. Patent No 802,668), and it also used portions of Charles Dunn’s 1920 pump-filler patent (U.S. Patent No 1,359,880).
The pen’s dramatically new Art Deco design was highlighted by a stylish new arrow-shaped clip created by Joseph Platt; the body was made of alternating rings of celluloid. Caps and blind caps alternated colored rings with black; initally, the pen was offered with barrel either colored and black or colored and clear (so that the user could see how much ink remained). (The completely opaque version disappeared from the catalog after 1934.) The company’s advertising (see example to the left) made much of the fact that the “revolutionary” new pen offered a far greater ink capacity than was available in competing models.
The name Golden Arrow may have encountered legal difficulties, as there was already on the market a British pen with that name, or it may be that Parker wanted to emphasize the advantages of the new filling system; in any case, the name was soon changed to Vacuum Filler. The pen was received very well, and Parker announced it to the world in a full-page Saturday Evening Post advertisement on March 18, 1933. Shown here is a Vacuum-Filler in Burgundy Pearl; this pen has an opaque barrel.
But the new name wasn’t exactly the most exciting; and in July 1933, according to the February 1934 ParkerGram, Parker changed it to the more mellifluous (and marketable) Vacumatic. Advertising with the Vacumatic name began appearing in late September, and with that name change and some minor aesthetic tweaks, the stage was set for the birth of a legend.
These pens illustrate barrel transparency. The burgundy Vacumatic Standard, made in 1934, has the remarkable barrel transparency that resulted from the use of colored rings that were made with transparent celluloid. The black Major, made in 1945, has solid opaque colored rings, which point up the dramatic “optic” effect produced by the contrast between colored and transparent areas.
Many collectors like to know when their pens were made. Beginning in the Vacumatic era, Parker pens bore date codes on their barrels. For instructions on reading this code, refer to Parker’s Date Coding System.
Different, Yet Still the Same
Although there were several design changes, some minor and some quite significant, the Vacumatic line remained in Parker U.S.A.’s stable until about 1948 and perhaps as late as 1953 elsewhere. On a pen with its date code missing or otherwise illegible, differences in features can help you to narrow the possible years of its manufacture.
The Vacumatic filler mechanism consists of a spring-loaded plunger whose end is attached to the end of a sac-like rubber diaphragm. Depressing the plunger distends the diaphragm to expel air from the pen, and releasing the plunger sucks ink directly into the pen’s barrel. This design gives the pen a very large ink capacity. A technical explanation and cutaway illustrations of the filler are in Anatomy of a Fountain Pen II: The Parker Vacumatic.
The Lockdown Filler: The earliest filler design uses a plunger made of a metal tube with a gold-plated brass end piece. (Most pens have aluminum tubes, but some of the earlier ones have chrome-plated steel.) Two lengthwise slots are cut into the tube; each slot has a notch at the outward end. Pegs inside the filler ride in the slots to keep the plunger from twisting. This filler model is referred to as a “Lockdown” filler. When the plunger is depressed and turned slightly, the pegs lock into the notches to hold the plunger down. A short blind cap screws onto the end of the barrel to conceal and protect the plunger.
The Speedline Filler: In 1937, Parker redesigned the filling mechanism so that the plunger does not lock in the depressed position. This change made the filler quicker and easier to use. This change accompanied a change in overall styling; Parker called the new version the Vacumatic Speedline, and the revised filler has become known to collectors as the Speedline filler. Because it does not stay retracted, the Speedline foller requires a longer blind cap; in order to keep the pen’s overall length approximately the same, Parker reduced the pen's ink capacity by shortening the barrel to compensate for the increased length of the blind cap. Not all Vacumatic models were immediately switched to the Speedline filler; Parker continued making Lockdown-filler pens for an unknown period after the Speedline’s introduction. I have a Canadian Lockdown Junior from 1938, and Lockdown pens are known to exist with date codes indicating 1939 manufacture. Parker also applied the Vacumatic filler mechanism to other models in its product line; the Speedline filler shown below is on a Green and Gold striped Duofold made in 1940.
The Wartime/Postwar Filler: In 1942, the United States was at war, and aluminum was declared a critical resource. Parker redesigned the Vacumatic filler to use a plastic plunger. This plunger, made of celluloid, is smaller in diameter than its metal predecessors, with a button end like the cap of a mushroom. Parker used this new filler design unchanged until the Vacumatic model was discontinued.
Wartime restrictions on resources, however, caused Parker to change the material of which it made the filler; in 1943 or 1944, the threaded collar that secures the filler into the pen became plastic. Later, the tapered collar that presses the diaphragm into the seat also became plastic, with an aluminum tube liner for strength. At war’s end, Parker reverted to metal for both collars.
There exist several date-linked Clip Designs that can be useful in dating a Vacumatic.
The Art Deco Arrow clip: Golden Arrow, Vacuum-Filler, and early Vacumatic models bore the feathered arrow clip shown here, designed by Joseph Platt. This stylish arrow design, also mimicked on the nib, soon became synonymous with the Parker name.
The Split Arrow clip: In about 1937, Parker introduced a new clip design, with the name PARKER written vertically between the two halves of what looks like an arrow that has been split (giving this clip the name by which collectors identify it).
The Star clip: In late 1938, possibly in a belated response to Sheaffer’s White Dot that denoted a lifetime warranty, Parker added a star to the Split arrow clip to identify pens bearing its own lifetime warranty. This design lasted only a few months.
The Blue Diamond clip: In 1939, Parker settled on the Blue Diamond to denote its lifetime guarantee. The Blue Diamond clip looks like the Star clip except that the star has been replaced by a blue-enameled diamond.
The Blue Diamond clip was was applied to pens priced at $8.75 and higher, and it continued in use until 1948, when the Vacumatic was retired from Parker’s product line.
The Plain Diamond clip: In about 1947, in response to a ruling by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Parker began shipping pens bearing clips that still bore the diamond design but without the blue enameling.
The jeweled blind cap was also discontinued in 1942; this very visible change resulted from the wartime need to conserve critical war resources. (The metal tassie into which the jewel was set was made of brass.) Thereafter, only streamlined blind caps were produced for the Vacumatic and Duofold product lines. As it happened, the new look was more streamlined — and the buying public, conditioned to expect cutbacks due to the exigencies of all-out war (and ready to sweep Art Deco under the rug anyway), seems not to have objected to the loss of that small bit of trim.
This uncommon 1942 Shadow Wave illustrates the single-jewel design.
Cross-Pollination at Parker
During its lifetime, the Vacumatic provided design features for the Striped Duofold and the “51”; these models used the same mechanical clip design (and on the “51”, the identical aesthetics as well) and the proven Vacumatic filler. In 1948, with the introduction of its new Aero-metric filler, Parker ceased using the lifetime warranty symbol it had introduced in 1939, the Blue Diamond, and discontinued American production of Vacumatic-filling pens as well.
As were most pens of its era, the Vacumatic was produced in a variety of sizes, from the Oversize and Senior Maxima to the mid-size Major and Standard and the slightly shorter Junior, to the very small Deb and Sub-Deb. Slender models and an astonishing variety of miscellaneous sizes, such as desk pens, ring-tops, and fat vest-pocket models, were also available.
These two desk pens, from 1939 (above) and 1941 (below), both have Speedline fillers;
but they show a remarkable variation in their exterior designs. The upper pen bears on
its band the star that Parker used briefly before introducing the Blue Diamond.
How Big Is a Vac?
The total range of sizes produced over the Vacumatic’s lifetime is broad enough that assembling a comprehensive list would be nearly impossible. For comparative reference, here are several of the most common models, together with their principal dimensions. These are most of the Vacs you’re likely to find at antique shops, flea markets, and other sources “in the wild.” Years shown are approximate, as transitions from model to model did not happen at the beginning of any particular calendar year.
|The Sizes of the Vacumatic (Typical Examples; Other Examples Will Vary)|
|Model (Filler types, approx. years)||Posted Length||Capped Length||Barrel Diameter|
|Junior, standard girth (Lockdown, 1933-1938)||513∕16"||427∕32"||15∕32" (0.47")|
|Debutante (Speedline or plastic, 1937-1948)||515∕32"||411∕16"||27∕64" (0.42")|
|Standard (Lockdown, 1933-1937)||6"||51∕8"||15∕32" (0.47")|
|Major (Speedline, 1937-1941)||65∕16"||55∕16"||15∕32" (0.48")|
|Major (plastic, 1942-1948)||527∕32"||53∕32"||15∕32" (0.48")|
|Oversize (Lockdown, 1933-1937)||613∕32"||513∕32"||17∕32" (0.53")|
|Maxima (Speedline, 1937-1941)||63∕32"||511∕32"||17∕32" (0.52")|
In addition to a striking clip design and a jewel-like striated body, higher-line models of the Vacumatic featured a palladium-plated nib. The Junior, dressed in celluloid designs of marbled colors, Shadow Wave, Crystal, and the famous “Golden Web” (called simply Brown by Parker), bore a plain gold nib, and gradually the gold nib appeared on striated pens such as the Major. Most Vacumatics today have plain nibs. Their attractive appearance and the fact that they are less common make plated nibs more desirable; and because the plating wears as the nib is rubbed to clean it, plated nibs in good condition are highly prized. The plated nib shown here is on a 1938 Silver Pearl Standard. Similarly, the better pens had striated cap and blind-cap jewels to match their barrel color, while Juniors had black jewels. (Some Speedline models had “bullseye” blind-cap jewels rather than striated.) Colored jewels were phased out with the advent of the single-jewel models.
As noted earlier, during the 1940s Parker used the basic architecture of the Vacumatic to create the Striped Duofold. In a case of reverse fertilization, pens appeared that looked exactly like striped Duofolds except that they had Arrow nibs, Split Arrow clips, and stacked-coin cap bands. They bear a VACUMATIC barrel imprint. Collectors today refer to this variant, shown here, as the “Vacufold,” and for those who realize what it is, it is a highly desirable model.
Colors, Colors, and More Colors
Over the lifetime of the Vacumatic, Parker offered the pen in a broad array of colors; but not all of the colors were offered at the same time. When the Vacumatic went on the market in March 1933, the Standard line was offered in black, Burgundy Pearl, and Silver Pearl, while the Junior line, introduced in June, was offered in black, marbled Grey or Burgundy, and Crystal. At the end, Vacumatics were available in Emerald Green Pearl, Azure Blue Pearl, Golden Pearl, and Silver Pearl.
Silver Pearl, as illustrated by this 1938 Standard, is the only color that remained
unchanged throughout the entire lifetime of the Vacumatic. Parker plated the trim
of Silver Pearl pens with nickel or chrome; other Vacumatics had gold-filled trim.
This article shows the striped “Pearl” colors, then the Junior colors (“Golden Web,” marbled, and Shadow Wave), and finally the black versions.
|Burgundy Pearl (1933-1941)|
|Golden Pearl (1936-1948)|
|Emerald Pearl (1935-1948)|
|Azure Blue Pearl (1940-1948)|
|Silver Pearl (1933-1948)|
|Brown (“Golden Web”)* (1936-1938)|
|Shadow Wave Black* (1938-1942)|
|Shadow Wave Burgundy* (1938-1942)|
|Shadow Wave Brown* (1938-1942)|
|Shadow Wave Green* (1938-1942)|
|Shadow Wave Grey* (1938-1942)|
|Opaque Black (1933-1938)|
|Crystal (completely transparent barrel)* (1933-1934)|
|Black Visometer (early longitudinal striped)* (1935)|
|Laminated Black* (1935-1948)|
|Black Visometer (later reticulated version)* (1936-1938?)|
The FTC’s original 1945 ruling forbade “unconditional” warranties altogether if there was a fee. L. E. Waterman and Parker challenged the ruling, but Waterman withdrew its petition in 1946. Parker fought on, and the resulting 1948 court judgment softened the ruling as described here.
The wartime pen illustrated in this article proves that the Shadow Wave colors, thought to have lasted only 1938-1939, did in fact continue into World War II. The latest date code I have seen is 3Q1942, but it is possible that the pattern was still used after that date.
I am very grateful to Michael Richter, who compiled the color information and much of the dating information, and has graciously given permission for me to use his work here. Some of the patterned color illustrations in the table are from photographs of actual pens, and others (marked with asterisks) were painted by Michael. Solid colors are computer generated and carefully matched to actual pens. (3D highlighting was added with a computer.) Some of the information in this article was provided by David Isaacson.
The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.