BY DON FLUCKINGER • It struck me, as I inspected a Conklin my dad mailed me last week — purchased by my Uncle Fred at a distant cousin's estate auction — that the company’s home base of Toledo, Ohio, seems an unlikely epicenter of pendom.
But the more I think about it, it makes sense.
|It struck me, as I inspected a Conklin pen last week, that the company’s home base of Toledo, Ohio, seems an unlikely epicenter of pendom. But it makes sense.|
The Toledo I knew when growing up 50 miles west didn’t really distinguish itself from the hundred other small American cities I’ve visited: Abandoned factories and warehouses, a dumpy downtown that can get scary after the sun goes down, malls on the perimeter where a million rural teenagers like I safely misbehaved. Jamie Farr — Klinger from the M*A*S*H television show — put the city on the pop-culture map with his incessant Toledo references and occasionally donning a Mud Hens jersey.
While I consider myself a New Englander now (although there is a select group of fuddy-duddies out here who don’t consider someone a Nuh-Inglanduh unless both sets of grandparents were born here), having grown up in Ohio I take a lot of abuse for it. I’ve heard it all about my home state: Where the men are men, women are women, and sheep are nervous. The armpit of America. While Ohioans consider the state “The Mother of Presidents,” more objective history buffs look at it more as the cradle of the do-nothing Presidents (they have a point: both Harrisons, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Taft, Buchanan, and Harding all hailed from Ohio — but no Ohioan I’ve met can recite them without Googling them first…while no one ever has to Google Abe Lincoln’s home state).
Toledo does have a symphony, and of course Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper grace Toledo’s sports arena with their presence every New Year’s Eve for the long-standing annual rock throwdown they call the “Whiplash Bash.” Mitch Ryder and the Dee-troit Wheels always play a ferocious free concert or two on the waterfront during the summer, or at least they used to.
There’s also a good art museum, inside which we can find clues to Toledo’s design pedigree: There’s glass. Lots of it Libbey (Toledo), Fostoria (named for the city nearby it came from), and many other famous names of pottery and glass from the 19th and 20th century born in northern Ohio and the rest of the state. Art glass, studio glass, cut glass, commercial designs. Toledo, it could be argued, was the epicenter of Ohio’s glass manufacturing and design, and took on the “Glass City” nickname at the dawn of the Golden Age of fountain pens.
And in this hotbed of art and industrial design — the glass factories supplied Detroit automakers for decades — the Conklin pen company rose to prominence with its trademark Crescent-Filler and beautiful overlay pens of the early 20th century. It didn’t hurt that lightning struck its marketing department with the genius move of signing Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens to an endorsement deal.
Through the teens, twenties and thirties, the company made a vast array of Crescent-Filler pen models that could be fitted with many different sizes and nib and point styles. It seems, because of the range of choices a person had in ordering a Conklin, no two Crescent-Fillers found today are configured exactly alike. After the Crescent-Filler came the Endura and Nozac, two collector favorites (especially the Nozacs with the Word Gauge feature).
Sadly, Conklin Pen met its demise like a lot of other Toledo industries — while the Jeep plant still’s going strong, Ford recently announced plans to close its local plant and lay off a big chunk of the workforce — and the company sold to a Chicago company that lived off Roy Conklin’s original vision for about 10 years. Maybe it was the lack of forward motion in pen design that torpedoed Conklin’s fortunes, or perhaps a couple quality problems did them in late in the 1930s.
Or maybe it was the heat of competition. Parker and Sheaffer were the top two undisputed heavyweights of the pen market, and the Wahl-Eversharp merger created a pen juggernaut that soon bumped Conklin down into the realm of the also-rans.
Writers of the time — and collectors of today — know the Chicago Conklins to be junkers, even lower on the quality scale than my beloved Wearever Pacemakers and Deluxe 100s. While I apparently am blinded to the top-shelf Wearevers’ lack of collectibility, when it comes to Chicago Conklins, even I can’t abide them.
That’s why, when my dad emailed me with his auction “find,” I told him he’d have to send it to me to inspect, because he either had a late Toledo or early Chicago Conklin. When it arrived, much to my delight, it had the gold-fill clip and lever, the 14K nib, and the Toledo imprint. It took a bit of heat and Binder moxie to make the banana-shaped cap right, but the thing’s back up in action — more than you can say about James Garfield, or for that matter, Jamie Farr.
So go ahead, rip on me for being a Wearever-collecting hayseed. The suave and urbane east- and left-coasters might control the money and politics in this country, but cheese-eating, corn-growing midwesterners like me gave this country its best fountain pens. You can’t take Conklin away from the heart of Ohio, just like you can’t take Sheaffer and Parker from their respective midwestern homes in Iowa and Wisconsin.
We wouldn’t mind, however, if New York or California would adopt James Buchanan and take him off our hands. Not one bit.
For those wondering, modern Conklins are a totally different beast, and I don’t know enough about them to comment. This article refers to vintage Conklins only.
Further Reading: The Collector's Encyclopedia of American Art Glass (American Art Glass: Identification & Values), by Phil Lee and Helen Lovekin
Want to see the bird’s-eye view of American art glass, a good share of which originated in Ohio? Check out this expertly written guide, which also covers other great companies like Steuben and Fenton.
|Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.|