Profile: The Parker Vacumatic

(This page revised June 22, 2012)

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Vacumatic Advertisement, 1941 Magnifying glass
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.

Manufacturer logoWhat’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.

Advertisement 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.

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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.

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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.

There exist several date-linked Clip Designs that can be useful in dating a Vacumatic.

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.

Long blind cap Streamlined blind cap
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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.

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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.

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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.

Nib

The “Vacufold”

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.

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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.

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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.


Striated Colors
Color Name (Years)

Burgundy Pearl Burgundy Pearl (1933-1941)
Golden Pearl Golden Pearl (1936-1948)
Emerald Pearl Emerald Pearl (1935-1948)
Azure Blue Pearl Azure Blue Pearl (1940-1948)
Silver Pearl Silver Pearl (1933-1948)

Junior Colors
Color Name (Years)

Burgundy Burgundy* (1933-1938)
Green Green* (1935-1938)
Grey Grey* (1933-1938)
Golden Web Brown (“Golden Web”)* (1936-1938)
Shadow Wave Black Shadow Wave Black* (1938-1942)
Shadow Wave Burgundy Shadow Wave Burgundy* (1938-1942)
Shadow Wave Brown Shadow Wave Brown* (1938-1942)
Shadow Wave Green Shadow Wave Green* (1938-1942)
Shadow Wave Grey Shadow Wave Grey* (1938-1942)

Blacks
Color Name (Years)

Opaque Black Opaque Black (1933-1938)
Crystal Crystal (completely transparent barrel)* (1933-1934)
Black Visometer (early longitudinal striped) Black Visometer (early longitudinal striped)* (1935)
Laminated Black Laminated Black* (1935-1948)
Black Visometer (later reticulated version) Black Visometer (later reticulated version)* (1936-1938?)

Notes:
  1. 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.  Return to text

  2. The wartime pen illustrated in this article proves that the Shadow Wave colors, thought to have lasted only 1938-1939, did in fact continue at least to 1942. The latest date code I have seen is 3Q1942, but it is possible that the pattern was still used after that date.  Return to text


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 asterisk) 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.

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