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Holy Water Sprinklers — Fountain Pen Style

(This page published February 1, 2022)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


In some religious traditions, certain rituals involve the use of holy water. Although most of these ceremonies are performed in a church setting, there are occasions, such as the blessing of a congregant’s new home, on which the officiant, a priest or a minister, must carry small quantities of holy water away from the church. Holy water is customarily sprinkled over the persons or thing being blessed. In a church, the officiant typically uses a sprinkler, called an aspergillum, (or aspergill) in the form of a whisk-like brush or of a rod with a perforated container on one end, that is dipped in a small bucketlike pot of holy water. Using an apparatus like this, however, is often impractical elsewhere. Shown here is a typical aspergillum:

Aspergillum

Holy water is merely ordinary water that has been blessed and, depending on the religious tradition and the intended use, mixed with a small quantity of salt, oil, or ashes; but it bears a special significance to the faithful, and it is not treated casually. For off-site use when candles, oils, and other accoutrements aren’t required, a compact, easily carried aspergillum is needed, and what better form factor than that of a pocket pen?

The first pen-shaped aspergillum probably appeared in the late 19th or early 20th century. Flow buffering in fountain pens had not then been developed to a fine science, and the concept that led to a pen-shaped aspergillum would have been a quick step from the unpleasant observation that one’s fountain pen might easily throw a blot when shaken to start it. The earliest such implement I have found was made in sterling silver by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, probably around the turn of the 20th century, and the design was still in production decades later. The knob at the right end is a two-piece plug that unscrews from the barrel at the larger beaded ring for filling. For use, it has a secondary cap with several holes in its top, much like a salt shaker. The secondary cap also has a plug in the center of its inside to prevent leakage, like that in the cap of a retractable safety pen. When the secondary cap is unscrewed, water can flow from the reservoir, and droplets can escape when the aspergillum is shaken:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass

The aspergillum above is functional, but it is something of a brute-force solution to the problem of a pocket implement. The inventor’s creed is that there must be a better way, and on June 19, 1923, Victor G. Matre of Chicago, Illinois, received U.S. Patent No 1,459,230 for his invention of a “Pocket Holy Water Fountain.” In the text of the patent, Matre points out the deficiencies of existing aspergilla:

Hitherto, in the carrying of holy water, dificulties have been encountered by reason of the objectionable dimensions of the receptacle which bulges out the pockets and sometimes becomes leaky resulting in a partial or entire loss of the fluid.

Ignoring the fact that aspergilla like the one shown above almost certainly existed at the time of his patent application, Matre then enumerates his invention’s virtues:

My invention contemplates a construction best adapted for purposes of portability, so dimensioned as not to bulge out the pockets and of such character as would more readily prevent its being lost.

My structure is especialy adapted to prevent leakage, is neat in appearance, resembling a fountain pen, and is simple to manufacture.
Patent drawing

Matre assigned the patent to his own business, Matre & Company, a major Chicago-based religious publisher and seller of Roman Catholic religious goods.

The phrase “resembling a fountain pen” names the particular feature that made Matre’s idea worthy of a patent. In his design the adaptation of the eyedropper-filling fountain pen form factor is almost fully realized. The cap (callout 18 in the drawing, called the “thimble” in the patent) is threaded in the usual location. The barrel (callout 10, the “reservoir”), which runs the full depth into the thimble, is closed by a small threaded cap (callout 13) with holes (callout 15) drilled through it to allow droplets of water to pass. A disk of rubber or cork (callout 16) fixed inside the thimble crown seals the holes in the cap when the thimble is screwed onto the reservoir. Matre did not include a clip in his drawings, but the text of the patent covers the concept: “This structure has all the conveniences of ordinary fountain pen structures, and a clip, such as is used in carrying a fountain pen, might be employed with the device to facilitate carrying and prevent loss.”

The L. E. Waterman aspergillum shown here, the same size as an Ideal No 52 or 54 fountain pen, might be the archetypical execution of the Matre design, complete with clip:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass

The undientified oversize Matre-type aspergillum shown below is elegantly set out in a plain sterling silver overlay; it could not have been cheap in its day:

Aspergillum, capped
Aspergillum, posted Magnifying glass

Aspergilla, unlike pens, do not appear to be a fertile field for new invention; the next (and last) patent I have found for a pocket pen-styled aspergillum is U.S. Patent No 1,880,373, for a “Fluid Sprinkling Device,” issued on October 4, 1932, to Vincent J. Christie. This patent describes a device that could be made using most of the parts of an ordinary self-filling fountain pen, replacing the section, feed, and nib with a revised section (callout 4 in the drawing) and an accompanying plug (callout 12) with holes (callout 14) to allow water droplets to pass. The patent illustrates a knurled plug that screws into the section. No explanation is given for the knurling, but it might have been so that the plug be removed for cleaning:

Patent drawing

Christie’s patent shows just such an implement, complete with a lever filling system (callouts 2, 22, 23, 24, and 25 in the drawing below) and a pocket clip (callout 20). No rubber or cork seal is present in the cap, however; Christie either deemed the reduced air space within the inner cap sufficiently small to minimize wastage or simply did not think to include a seal disk.

Patent drawing

Christie does not appear to have been associated with any manufacturer, either of religious items or of pens. He does appear to have opened the floodgates, however, and his design did make it into production, probably through licensing. After his patent was published, several pen manufacturers got into the act. Shown here is a Christie aspergillum produced by the Pick Pen Company of Cincinnati, Ohio:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass

A standard feature of aspergilla, at least in the Christian tradition, is the inclusion of a religious symbol on the body of the implement. The symbols appeared in various places at the discretion of manufacturers’ designers: some are on the barrel and cap; others are on only the cap. The cap crown was a typical location. The Waterman aspergillum shown earlier in this article has a small cross very discreetly engraved above the clip on the cap:

52_aspergillum_cross

Some other manufacturers chose designs that were less subdued. One of the most striking examples of this tyoe of ornamentation came from the Chilton Pen Company of Long Island City, New York. In the latter half of the 1930s, the ease with which Chilton’s patented inlay designs could be created and applied led the company to produce a dramatic, but still simple and dignified, treatment for its pneumatic-filling Wing-flow aspergillum. The design featured large sterling silver crosses, inlaid one into the cap on the side opposite the clip and one into the barrel. The aspergillum might well have been offered in sets with the Wing-flow fountain pen and penci. It is shown here (upper) with a Wing-flow fountain pen in the BB inlay pattern (also in sterling silver):

Aspergillum Magnifying glass  
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Some time in the latter part of the 1930s, the LeBoeuf Fountain Pen Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, introduced a sliding-barrel sleeve-filling fountain pen, and it is likely that right along with that pen’s introduction came a matching aspergillum that cleverly integrated the cross with the pocket clip as Schnell had done with an airplane to honor Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Shown here are a LeBoeuf aspergillum and a Schnell Penselpen with a clip that might have inspired LeBoeuf’s designers:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass
Fountain pen/pencil combo Magnifying glass

L.E. Waterman was making aspergilla probably before Matre’s patent was issued. The Parker Pen Company joined the fray with an aspergillum version of its Lockdown Vacumatic Junior, elevated with the Vacumatic Standard’s triple cap bands. The cross on this pen is in the most usual location during the Golden age, in the form of a gold-filled metal emblem applied to the cap crown:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass

The market was not limited to first- and second-tier pen companies. Shown here is a third-tier aspergillum from a now-unknown manufacturer, made probably in the latter 1940s or early 1950s:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass

The production of fountain pen-styled aspergilla continued at least into the 1960s. In 1962, Parker rolled out its revolutionary ergonomic VP (“Very Personal”), a pen with a muss-free filler, an ergonomic section, and a nib that could be rotated in the section to suit the user’s grip. The VP was the predecessor of the iconic Parker 75, and with a modernized cross on its barrel and its nozzle shaped like a very modern Communion chalice, the VP provided the chassis for one of the most dramatically elegant aspergilla of all:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass
Aspergillum Magnifying glass

The VP was not the last of the fountain pen-styled aspergilla. Parker also made a 75 aspergillum, using the same chalice-shaped nozzle on what appears to be a standard 1970–1991 ergonomic section, with a broad gold band adjacent to the joint with the nozzle.

Aspergillum Magnifying glass

With the rise of ballpoint pens that began in the late 1940s, and especially after the 1951 appearance of the disposable BiC Stic, fountain pens sufffered a decline, and virtually all of the major pen makers gradually switched most of their production to retractable ballpoints, which do not require a cap. I know of no fountain pen-styled aspergillum in production today; instead, as illustrated by the gold-plated brass example below, there has been a reversion to the basic style of the Gorham silver piece — even to the century-old clip design — shown at the top of this article:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass

Thus, it seems that the history of pocket aspergilla in the 20th century was one of “What goes around comes around.” They are not fountain pens, but the aspergilla shown here are obviously intimately connected with fountain pens, and they (potentially with more like them) would make an interesting — and challenging — collection, espcially if paired with similar pens from the companies that made them.

The present absence of companies making fountain pen-styled aspergilla notwithstanding, the concept is not dead. In 2020, as a gift for the rector of my church, I modified an Edison pen, a “factory second” of the Huron Grande, to make it into a Matre-type aspergillum by solvent-welding a piece of black polystyrene plastic sheet stock over the end of the section, finishing it to size, and then drilling the necessary holes:

Aspergillum Magnifying glass

Perhaps some enterprising small pen maker will take up the challenge and begin marketing a professionally made aspergillum.


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.

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