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(This page published February 1, 2019)
The primitive fountain pens of the early years of the 19th century were unreliable: likely to refuse to write or to throw messy and destructive blots. They were the province of bleeding-edge early adopters. In the world of business and in the homes of most people who were fortunate enough to be literate, the standard writing implement was a dip pen. Beginning in 1822, the quill pen began to fade into oblivion in the face of more durable steel pens (untipped mild steel nibs) as John Mitchell began mass-producing the new pens in Birmingham, England. Mitchell was quickly followed by others, as pen makers flooded the market with steel pens of all sorts, along with penholders to hold them for writing. Penholders came in many shapes and at many price levels, from the simple sticklike model shown here (upper, made by the Eagle Pencil Company) to somewhat fancier styles like the lower penholder here (made by the American Lead Pencil Company), with its gold-plated thimble.
These penholders used replaceable steel pens, which wore rapidly on the paper of the time. For those able to afford the very best, there were gold pens tipped with polished bits of ruby or of osmiridium or iridosmine soldered or, later, welded into place. The Aikin Lambert & Company No 7 pen and penholder shown here (upper) are typical of these higher-tier pens, although many were embellished to enhance their appearance, as shown by the enlarged view of an engraved Mabie, Todd & Company gold pen and thimble (lower):
All of these pens, no matter their price or their qualities as writing instruments, shared a common deficiency: their length made them somewhat less than convenient for carrying about, especially in one’s pocket or reticule. Various jewelers and pen makers came up with clever solutions to this problem, such as retractable pens (below, upper, a pen/pencil combo by an unidentified maker) and penholders that could be disassembled and put together with the pen or pencil exposed, or collapsed with the writing tips concealed (below, lower, a pen/pencil combo by Alexander Morton of New York City).
With more than 80% of the U.S. adult population able to read and write in 1870, it was not only the well heeled who needed pens. For the common people, these pens, essentially jewelry that wrote, were astronomically out of reach. Pen makers addressed this need with less costly collapsible pens, such as the cable-twist black hard rubber Aikin Lambert & Company pen shown below. Pens like this one and the Morton combo above, which are long enough for comfortable use when posted yet short enough to fit easily into a pocket or purse when capped, have become known as long/short pens. The design of this clipless pen set the pattern for the next few generation of American long/short pens:
By the 1920s, with dip pens largely obsolete, the architecture pioneered by the Aikin Lambert pen above had been applied to fountain pens. Shown here is a Pick long/short fountain pen in celluloid. The back end of the barrel is slightly bulged to provide a friction fit for the cap when posted:
With its barrel threads immediately adjacent to the section as with an ordinary fountain pen, this design ran the risk of being unstable in use: held only by friction when posted, with no barrel inside to keep it aligned, the overlong cap could easily be knocked loose and fall off. This problem was solved, rather cleverly, by Morris Kolber, whose U.S. Patent No 1,780,527, issued on November 4, 1930, moved the threads to the back of the barrel. With threads on either side of a flange at that location, the cap screwed onto the barrel when posting as well as when capping the pen, and it was no longer subject to being knocked loose. Here are a drawing from the patent and a New Diamond Point pen embodying Kolber’s design:
In 1934, Kaweco of Germany introduced a clipless long/short fountain pen called the Sport (Model 9). It was a follow-on to earlier models going back to 1911’s Model 616 retractable safety pen, and it is still in production today, virtually unchanged from that 1934 model. The Sport broke away from the idea of an extreme difference between capped and posted lengths as illustrated by the Pick and New Diamond Point pens above; and in so doing, it set the pattern for future generations of long/short pens. A family of accessories, including cases, accommodation clips, and models in different writing modes, has grown up around the fountain pen. Shown here is a burgundy Sport fountain pen made in 2018:
In 1940, the first tier of American manufacturers entered the long/short fray, as Sheaffer introduced its own long/short pen, which it dubbed the Tuckaway. Elegantly set out in a solid gold or gold-filled body, the Tuckaway was marketed to men and women as the ideal pen to toss into one’s pocket or purse, where — unlike clip-type pens, which were visible and potentially in the way in a shirt pocket — it would be hidden and safe until it was taken out to be used. Like the New Diamond Point of a decade earlier, the Tuckaway was threaded for the cap at both ends.
Initially, the Tuckaway was a lever-filler only. In 1941 a plunger-filling version (shown here), otherwise identical to the lever-filler, was released. A more dramatic change occurred in 1942, when Sheaffer introduced its radical new “TRIUMPH” point in a completely restyled line of pens. The pen shown here was made in 1942 or 1943. No longer threaded at the back end, it relied on friction between the celluloid barrel and the metal threads in the inner cap.
Another redesign at the end of World War II produced a somewhat less unusual-looking profile, now including a tiny clip called a clasp. This look lasted until the Tuckaway was discontinued in 1950, and it included both Triumph-point and open-nib models.
The postwar Tuckaway overlapped the first half-decade of the ballpoint era. Initially a company on its own, the Kimberly Corporation had developed its very successful Pockette ballpoint by infringing on patents held by Eversharp, and in the end the latter took full control of Kimberly. The Kimberly Pockette, later abbreviated to Kim, remained in production until some time after Parker acquired Eversharp in 1957. Shown here is a Pockette in Purple Chiffon, a “Feminine High-Style” color used only in 1947:
In the United States, the ballpoint pen’s meteoric rise, especially given the proliferation of cheap “ink stick” throwaway pens, came close to eclipsing the fountain pen. The type was kept from extinction largely by a market for cheap school pens, by inexpensive pens such those from Esterbrook and Wearever, and by a few innovative models such as the Parker 45 and 75 and the Sheaffer Targa — but except for the Kaweco Sport, the long/short style was almost a thing of the past. Almost, because in 2004, the Bexley Pen Company of Columbus, Ohio, produced a pen model that it called the Tuck-Away. In a classic example of convergent evolution, this pen was designed by Howard Levy, who — until I asked him in 2018 — was totally unaware of Morris Kolber’s patent or the New Diamond Point pen that was built to that patent.
The focus shifts now across the Pacific to Japan. In the early 1960s, a new type of fountain pen burst onto the market. Called “pocket pens,” these long/short pens featured an extraordinarily long gripping section mated with a very stubby barrel. They were too short to be comfortable unposted — but the extended cap required by the long section produced a comfortable posted length. These pens were all designed with a friction-fitting cap using a clutch bearing on the gripping section like that in the Parker 61. The clutch also bears on the short barrel, making a firm and reliable assembly for use. Shown here are pocket pens from the “Big Three” of Japanese makers: Pilot, Platinum, and Sailor:
|Pilot Elite S Pen, second generation, 1975|
|Platinum PK-1000 Pen|
|Sailor Mini with Ingersoll-Style Clip|
Most Japanese pocket pens are very light in weight for extended writing. To throw the balance forward, a consideration that was vital given the virtual necessity of posting, the vast majority of styles featured caps made of aluminum (mostly anodized but in some cases enameled), with a few models fitted with plastic caps.
Unusual geometries aside, long/short pens are mostly ordinary fountain pens. But their unusual geometries are what make them interesting, and I think a collection of these pens, especially the ones made in countries other than Japan, would make a fascinating and unusual focus.
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