(This page revised April 13, 2019)
Early fountain pens were made of black hard rubber (BHR). Each manufacturer had its own ideas about design, and there were inevitable differences in appearance among the early pens — length, diameter, tapered ends, and so on — but there are relatively few ways to “jazz up” something in Basic Black, and after you’ve seen one slender cylinder of BHR, you’ve pretty well seen them all. Gold repoussé bands and gold or silver overlays were common beautification treatments. Shown here are a Moore’s No. 2 “Tourist” Non-Leakable Safety Pen and a Waterman‘s Ideal No. 452:
But even the least of these precious-metal adornments cost money, and the iceman or store clerk who needed a pen was rarely able to afford such nicety. How, then, to make a boring object more attractive? One answer was to use colored hard rubber, as illustrated on this A. O. Waterman eyedropper-filler:
Another answer was chasing. Chasing, the application of a surface pattern to an object such as a pen, is relatively inexpensive, and it adds no cost in materials. Here is a typical early 20th-century pen, a Conklin’s Crescent-Filler No. 30, made of black chased hard rubber (BCHR), with no metal ornamentation:
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, chasing was applied by pressing an industrial black diamond into the surface of the pen or pen cap and dragging it along that surface to create a pattern made of a series of lines drawn one at a time. (Parts were ganged in the chasing machine so that six or eight could be chased at the same time.) This method created V-shaped grooves with slightly raised edges where the displaced material flowed outward. Some modern makers of BCHR pens use a laser to machine the grooves, and the result is square grooves with a rough-surfaced flat bottom, while others use a cutting tool that makes a V-shaped groove but does not raise material above the surface. Here are magnified cross-section illustrations of the three types of chasing:
As chasing became the usual, almost the “expected,” surface treatment for pens, makers such as Morrison (shown here) and Wahl applied it to metal overlays:
Chasing did not disappear when hard rubber was superseded by plastics in the 1920s. At least one maker, Morrison (which also made the overlay pen shown above), produced chased celluloid pens, here are a Black Beauty and the earliest version of the Patriot:
The black pen above looks so much like BCHR that it is sometimes mistaken for the older material. The easiest way to identify it is to observe that it has a gold-plated steel nib and a narrow cap band in the style of the 1930s. And, as implied by the reference to modern makers above, a few actual BCHR pens have been made recently. This pen is a Bexley Fifth Anniversary model produced in 1998:
Although black was the color of most hard rubber pens, black can be boring. To add interest and thereby capture market share, some makers produced hard rubber pens in other colors. The most widely used color was red, and it appeared mixed with black in several forms. It also appeared alone, as on this Wahl No 826RRC, finished with chasing in Wahl’s Grecian Border pattern:
Chasing, being an artistic treatment, is subject to artistic decisions such as how much of the pen to cover and what pattern to use. The following images illustrate several vintage chasing patterns and identify companies that I know to have used them. This is not a comprehensive collection of patterns, and the companies listed are by no means the only ones to have used the patterns illustrated. If you can add to this list by lending me a pen or documenting other companies that used any of the patterns shown here, please send mail. I will update this page as I gather more information.
Many patterns that are made up of short grooves appear to conform almost to an “industry standard” for groove spacing and length. In the illustrations below, these patterns are indicated by an asterisk ( * ). But pen makers adapted the sizes of their designs to the sizes of their pens; thus, these computer-created patterns are suggestive, not exact representations. A given pattern may have more grooves for a larger pen or fewer for a smaller one, and the exact groove patterns in the illustrations may not match any specific real example. The patterns are illustrated as if they were applied to a pen viewed horizontally, like those above.
Conklin, Keene, Latremore, Parker, Sheaffer
Boston, Conklin, Moore, Morrison, Wahl, A. A. Waterman
Autofiller, Mabie Todd, Parker
Beaumel, Esterbrook, General, Moore, Phoenix, Waterman, Wirt
Gem, MacKinnon, Parker, Sanford & Bennett, Sheaffer, Waterman
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. My thanks to Daniel Kirchheimer for the concise description of how vintage chasing was accomplished.
This article is also available as a chapter in The RichardsPens Guide to Fountain Pens, Volume 4, an ebook for your computer or mobile device.