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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, the space race and Hideo Shima’s radical new bullet train, perhaps leavened by the futuristic American automotive stylings of Harley Earl, spawned great changes in the Japanese aesthetic, and a new type of fountain pen burst onto the market. Called “pocket pens” (ポケットペン, pokettopen), these long/short pens appeared in myriad trim variations under dozens of manufacturers’ names. Their unifying characteristic was an extraordinarily long gripping section mated with a very stubby barrel. They were between 4" and 5" (10.8 cm to 12.7 cm) long when capped, too short to be comfortable unposted — but the extended cap required by the long section produced a comfortable posted length reaching toward 6" (15.2 cm). 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.
Most 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. Unfortunately, anodized aluminum caps are sometimes subject to pitting, which appears as small “fleabite” marks. Another potential problem is that the spring tension of the clutch could split a plastic cap over time. Splits can also occur in plastic sections and barrels, especially at the open ends. Accordingly, it behooves the collector to examine these pens with great care to detect pitting or cracks.
Less expensive pens were made with clips similar to the typical Western clips of the day: stamped from relatively thin sheet steel, formed usually into a U-shaped channel, polished, plated, and secured to the cap by tabs fitted into slots on the cap body and bent over inside. In most cases, better pens were fitted with clips stamped cookie-cutter fashion out of thick sheet steel and then sanded or tumbled to remove burrs before polishing and plating. These more solid clips are too stiff to lift from the cap surface and are invariably spring loaded.
In almost a separate class are pocket pens with bodies made of premium materials such as stainless steel or sterling silver. These pens are inevitably heavier than their aluminum or plastic cousins.
Little hard information about the history of Japanese pocket pens is available. The identity of the earliest company to produce pocket pens is unknown. Some sources confer the laurels on Sailor, but the evidence I have seen suggests that Platinum was probably the first to market in 1963, with Sailor nipping at its heels. Supporting this hypothesis is the pen shown here, a transparent demonstrator. This pen is fitted with a steel nib imprinted with Platinum 10 years, the S☆N globe, and the JIS symbol. Platinum used these 10 years nibs from 1953 into the early 1960s.
Pilot produced two fully transparent demonstrators, one with a matte black cap and one with a brushed stainless steel cap, both fitted with clips like that on the MYU (discussed later in this article), and also a series of transparent pocket pens in various colors for sale to the public. As of this writing I know of no full-demonstrator pocket pens other than Pilot’s two and the Platinum model illustrated here.
In the discussion that follows, I shall look first at the “Big Three,” Platinum, Sailor, and Pilot, in that order, and follow them with the “rest of the pack,” ordered alphabetically.
NoteIn the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Japanese people showed a preference for British and American products, and in response many Japanese companies adopted English names. Because of linguistic differences, these names rarely map exactly between English and Japanese. In most cases, the Japanese versions are written in katakana, a syllabic system used primarily for rendering foreign words into Japanese.
In Japanese, every syllable is an “open” syllable, ending in a vowel sound; the only exception is the sound of the letter N, which by itself is considered an open syllable.Also, the sound of the letter L does not appear in Japanese.
The Platinum Pen Company’s corporate history names the Platinum “Poket” series, launched in late 1963, as the company’s entry into the pocket pen market. Shown below are pens resembling pictures on Platinum’s website of the Poket PK-2000 (upper, 18K gold nib) and PK-1000 (lower, 14K gold nib), which were priced at ¥2000 and ¥1000, respectively. These pens illustrate the most common nib style found on pocket pens, with the nib inserted under the edge of the shell and secured to the feed with tabs inherited from the Chilton Wing-flow of the 1930s.
The lower of the two pens shown above was made in January 1968. Engraving on the underside of the gripping section identifies it as a souvenir of an annual conference promoting the National Mutual Insurance Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives:
A distinguishing feature of Platinum’s design was the squared-off back end of the barrel, resembling the end of the contemporaneous Sheaffer PFM and Imperial models. On pens with metal barrels, as illustrated below, the end is indented in the form of a shallow pyramid. On plastic barrels, the end is flat.
The squared-off end, as typical as it was on Platinum pocket pens, is unfortunately not diagnostic. A few models were made with rounded barrels as shown by the metallized ¥4000 pen here, which is fitted with a 14K white gold nib, and the more modest black pen, whose nib trim ring shows quite dramatically the corrosive effects of ink on plated metal parts:
Another round-ended Platinum design was this rhodium-plated pen with grouped parallel engraved lines, fitted with an 18K nib. Instead of the traditional flat barrel end and Platinum’s usual sloped cap crown, however, this pen had a gold-plated domed tassie on the barrel and a matching tassie at the cap crown. The barrel tassie on this example has lost its plating:
A knowledgeable collector of Japanese pens has speculated that Platinum’s success with pocket pens and with the decorative treatments it applied to writing instruments during the 1960s and 1970s (of which I shall have more to say later), along with its early adoption of cartridges, fueled the company’s ascent from a relatively insignificant position in the second tier to its “Big Three” status today.
Manufacturers can also broaden their offerings by producing a range of nib grades, from fine to broad or with shapes such as a stub or a music nib. Japanese pocket pens with broad or shaped nibs are uncommon. One such example is this Platinum pen with a three-tined 18K music nib that is properly flexible with good flow. Note also the zogan inlaid trim just above the nib.
One of Platinum’s most beautiful pocket pens was decorated with nothing more than a little gold plating and the company name. The brilliant metallic red color of these pens puts one in mind of rubies, and the perceived value of rubies might have been the factor that set the price of this pen at ¥5000.
From time to time, one manufacturer’s distinctive functional features appear in copy form on another manufacturer’s pens. Perhaps the best known pen with a nib that is essentially symmetrical top to bottom and is designed to write either either normally or “flipped” (rotated so that its top surface becomes the underside) is the Parker 180. But both Pilot and Platinum had produced their own two-sided pens some years before Parker’s version hit the scene. These pens may actually have been the inspiration for Parker’s entry into the two-sided market. Shown here is a Platinum pocket pen from the mid-1970s:
As did many other manufacturers, Platinum made pens under house brands. Perhaps the best known of Platinum’s house-branded pocket pens were those branded “Athena,” of which more later.
If you are manufacturing a product, you need to sell it. The pen shown below, with a small plaque displaying the Platinum logo attached to the clip, is quite uncommon. It was made probably as a salesman’s sample that could be left with a dealer for examination and testing. The bifurcated clip on this pen is relatively uncommon:
The pocket pens of the Sailor Pen Company are generally typical of the style. Either everyone’s designer was thinking along the same lines or all the other companies simply copied the first pocket pens to go on sale. An interesting departure from the usual style, however, can be seen in the clip of the lower-line Sailor pen shown below (lower); the capped photo shows the clip from the side, and it can be seen to be a strip of spring metal folded back upon itself rather than the usual solid clip (most of which were spring mounted). This design is a variation on a 1920s invention (U.S. Patent No 1,629,835) used by the Chas. H. Ingersoll Dollar Pen Company in the United States, and it appeared at all levels of Sailor’s line for a time.
Visible in the two pens shown here is a feature that was common to many makers: a larger nib, with more of it exposed, was fitted to the higher-priced models.
The next pen, dressed all in black, was made by Sailor — but its siblings could be found in the lineups of Platinum, Sailor, and an unknown number of other manufacturers. This example is fitted with an 18K nib.
Pilot, the third member of the “Big Three,” joined the pocket-pen revolution in 1964 with the Elite S. There was also a full-sized Elite; the S identified the “short” version. Pilot offered pocket pens in a wide variety of different finishes, of which the first was probably a model with a black plastic barrel and a black enameled aluminum cap. The pen shown here is the second-generation model, introduced in 1975:
The nib in the above pen is installed somewhat more elegantly than on the Platinum and Sailor pens shown earlier: the feed is entirely concealed within the end of the shell, and the nib is held in place by pressure between the feed and the top of the shell. This design is referred to as a fingernail nib. All Pilot nibs showing a crescent-shaped hole near the base are fitted in this aesthetically pleasing manner.
Among the Pilot pocket pen models that are less common today was the Laureate, identified by the single script letter L on the cap. Pilot has since offered other pens named Laureate (meaning “Worthy of the greatest honor”), notably a slender brushed stainless steel full-length model that was offered in multiple writing modes; but the fountain pen, in both full-length and pocket-pen versions appears to have been the first use of the name. Shown here are white, burgundy, green, and blue Laureates.
To attract women, Pilot created a range of pens called Lady, in feminine colors and fitted with the same trimly streamlined clip used for the Laureate. The two Lady pens shown here provide a good example of how the “feminizing” was done. The upper pen has a rose-red plastic barrel and a satin-anodized aluminum cap that is tinted ever so slightly pink, with a subtle botanical decoration in the form of a bright polished design against the satin surface of the cap, while the lower pen is tinted blue, with the same decoration on its cap, chrome-plated furniture instead of the usual gold plating, and a metal barrel to complete a unified color theme. As illustrated later in this article, other Lady models wore painted decoration to compete with similarly treated models from Platinum and Sailor.
Pilot offered a range of long/short pen models in a more traditional configuration named Short, with a somewhat shorter cap and a barrel made partially of metal that matched the cap to give the illusion of a very long cap without the latter’s actually subsuming the entire length of the barrel. Shown here is one of these pens. It sold for ¥1000, and it is today somewhat uncommon.
The pen shown above was at the bottom of the Short range. Other Short models turned out not to have been so strictly traditional after all. The pen shown below, a higher-priced Short model, is an innovative pen recalling telescoping pens of the early 20th century. Uncapping the pen also pulls the shell out from the barrel, extending the pen 19⁄32" (15 mm) to make it longer than it would otherwise be (middle view, shown not extended), for better balance when writing.
Like Platinum, Pilot made house-brand pens. Shown here are two pens branded gakken/pilot. Gakken is a well-known Tokyo-based publishing house. Like many other house-brand pens, these pens are fitted with steel nibs.
The art of merchandising popular products and creations took hold in Japan just as it had done elsewhere in the world. Pilot teamed up with other companies to produce pocket-pen sets with such subjects as Tom Wilson’s absurdly philosophical cartoon character Ziggy and the late 1970s smash-hit pop singing duo Pink Lady (ピンクレディー, Pinkuredī). Shown here are a 1976 Gakken Ziggy pen set containing a vinyl “passbook” case and bookmark, a pad with Ziggy art and pages for memos, a calendar, and a pocket pen with one cartridge; and a 1978 Pink Lady pen with two cartridges:
Both of these pens have steel nibs. The Ziggy pen is identical to the lower pen above, including the gakken/pilot imprint at the cap lip. The Pink Lady pen is identical to the upper pen above except that the distinctive Pink Lady logo, which includes “Mie and Kei,” the nicknames of singers Mitsuyo Nemoto and Keiko Masuda, is silkscreened on the cap instead of the gakken/pilot imprint:
(A lower-priced version of the Pink Lady pen came in a similarly-decorated, but smaller, box and lacked the Pink Lady logo on the cap.)
The merchandising game extended to pens specifically targeted at the school-age crowd. Here is a pen based on the theme of Mach 5, the unique and unbeatable race car used by the popular manga/anime character Speed Racer (Mach GoGoGo in Japan). The steel-reinforced plastic clip marks the pen as a lower-priced model, but the clip is plenty sturdy and would stand up well to school use. Pilot produced the Mach 5 pen with red, aqua, and black barrels, clips, and cap decoration.
In 1963, the Parker Pen Company introduced a new pen with its cap and barrel made of finely crosshatched sterling silver. The Parker 75 Ciselé was an immediate hit and soon supplanted the earlier Parker “51” as “the world’s most wanted pen.” As shown by the sterling silver Pilot pocket pen below, the elegant silver Parker pen did not go unnoticed by the competition. This pen featured an 18K white gold nib:
Perhaps the most sought-after of Pilot’s long/short pens is the elegant MYU (shown below), introduced in 1972 as the MYU 701 at a price of ¥3500. Pilot might have taken the design cue for the MYU’s integral nib from the Parker T-1 of 1970, but with adaptations that made it — unlike the unreliable and incredibly costly, and consequently short-lived, T-1 — realistic to manufacture and sell in quantity. Like Parker’s Flighter models and various of Pilot’s own Elite models, the MYU was stainless steel rather than titanium, and it lacked the gimmicky flow adjustment of the T-1. MYU pens were initially equipped with urushi-covered feeds, but these were soon replaced with plastic feeds that have proven to be more reliable. The MYU 701 wore the plain stainless steel finish shown below (first and eecond images); the MYU 500-BS, with black stripes (third image), appeared later.
The MYU sold relatively poorly in Japan, and today it is not impossible to find stickered examples still in the original cellophane. The model lasted only until 1977, when it was replaced by the full-length Murex. It was rebooted in 2008, however, in a “limited edition” named the M90.
The M90 was made slightly fatter than the MYU so that it could accept a CON-50 piston converter, and it was fitted with an improved (albeit somewhat less elegant) cap clutch. Its stylistic changes included a longer, more streamlined clip, a subtle script M90 on the right side of the clip shoulder, and replacement of the flat black cap-crown decoration with a blue cabochon:
The MYU’s lack of success did not dissuade Pilot from offering stainless steel pens. In addition to the Murex, there followed several stainless pocket pens, including a series of smooth models and one of crosshatched models identical except for being fitted with different nibs:
With an open steel nib set off by a metal trim ring (not shown)
With a large rhodium-plated 18K gold nib in the common semi-hooded style found on many pocket pens:
With an inset rhodium-plated 14K gold nib like that on the sterling pen above:
CAUTIONThe gold nibs on the second and third pens described above are white (silvery) in color. Because they are marked with a karat value, it might be assumed that they are white gold like that on the sterling pen shown earlier. That is not the case, however; as noted, they are rhodium-plated yellow gold and should not be heavily polished lest the plating be removed. White gold nibs on Japanese pens are marked with the letters WG.
There was also a version of at least the second of these crosshatched pens that was fitted with a plastic barrel instead of the stainless steel barrel shown here.
Neither Platinum nor Sailor followed Pilot’s lead with the MYU and its integral nib, for which — given its less-than-spectacular success — they were probably grateful. Both did, however, produce brushed all-stainless pens. As shown here, Sailor’s (upper) was the more unusual of the two, with a stainless steel section whose profile matches that of the pen’s barrel. Both Sailor’s and Platinum’s pens had white metal nibs (18K white gold for Sailor, platinum alloy for Platinum), which were stylistically more in keeping with the gray/white color of the stainless:
Sailor also came out with a range of more conventional pens (below), still with stainless steel caps but bearing ordinary plastic sections like that on the Platinum pen (above). The upper pen here was clearly designed to go head to head against that Platinum model, even to the zogan inlays on both pens’ sections. The lower pens, with plastic barrels, 14K yellow gold nibs, and no zogan, were priced lower, at ¥2000. These two pens form an interesting contrast: the blue one’s furniture, except for the clip, is chrome plated (“reverse trim”) instead of the traditional gold.
While many lower-line pocket pens were fitted with steel nibs, the preference among the more well-heeled buying public was for gold, and the more of it the better. The first Japanese pen with a nib richer than 14K was Platinum’s PK-2000, introduced in 1963. It took a while before anyone contested the “karat crown,” but it finally happened in 1969 when Sailor brought out pens with 21K nibs. From then until 1974, the “Big Three” engaged in a “karat war” to offer nibs with more gold than the competition. 21K nibs, now a common feature of Sailor’s upper ranges, were only the first salvo in the war. Raising the ante, Pilot and Platinum soon offered 22K nibs. Shown here are (upper) a Pilot Elite S model marked Elite 22 on the cap and 22K on the nib and the barrel, and (lower) a ¥3000 Platinum model with a 22K nib and a bifurcated clip like that on the salesman’s sample shown earlier:
Pilot dropped out of the war at 22K, leaving Platinum and Sailor to produce 23K nibs. Shown here is a Sailor 23K model. This pen has an unusually wide girth, and at 0.63 oz (17.8 g) it is significantly heavier than most other pocket pens, which weigh from 0.35 to 0.53 oz (10 to 15 g):
After 1974, the war seemed to come to an end as everyone but Sailor backed off from anything richer than 18K while Sailor lodged itself at 21K. Then, in 1996, long after the popularity of pocket pens had faded, Sailor fired one last shot in the karat war by offering a slender full-length pen (an existing model called the Gracile) with a 24K nib. This nib was not actually pure gold; it was about 23.99K (999). While it was thick enough to be usably stiff, it was so soft that a fingernail could scratch it. The pen did not sell well, and it was soon withdrawn. Today, examples of the Gracile with a 24K nib are quite rare, and they command very high prices. Among pocket pens, Platinum’s 23K models are more difficult to find than Sailor’s.
Before World War II, there were hundreds of small pen manufacturers in Japan, many housed in frame-built factories not much larger than a modern three-car garage. Many of them went out of business when their facilities were destroyed during the war, and more failed in the postwar economic collapse. Those that remained produced pens at all quality levels, from the infamous cheap throwaway level to fine writing instruments of very high quality. It would be impossible for me to list and illustrate them all, but I believe that the variety of pens and makers that follows will well serve to introduce you to the fascination of these largely ignored pens.
Athena was (and still is) a house brand of the famous Maruzen bookstore in Tokyo, known for its wide-ranging collection of English-language books, newspapers, magazines, calendars, textbooks, and much more. Athena pocket pens made by Platinum for Maruzen had steel nibs. As shown here, they featured Platinum’s characteristic square-ended barrel mated with champagne-anodized caps having a plastic cap crown that matched the pen’s body color.
Center pocket pens came from the Center Fountain Pen Co., Ltd, located in Osaka. Apparently founded in 1946, the company is still in business today, selling pens and other pocket accessories. Known mostly for the lower tier pens it produced in the 1950s, Center nevertheless put out some very respectable pocket pens. The upper pen here is a typical example of Center’s lower line; this pen was priced at ¥1000. It featured a 14K nib and a zogan inlay above the nib. The lower pen here here is a relatively high-end model; the cap design trumpets the fact that it has an 18K nib. Like many other brands, Center pens were built to use Platinum cartridges and converters, but there was a major difference between this higher-line Center pen and most or all of its kin: this pen, as stubby as it is, can accept a full-length Platinum converter.
Because no pen manufacturer named Gem is known, I think that Gem might have been a house brand. I can find no information on Gem fountain pens in Japan. This pen does have a clip like no other I have seen, and the small zogan above the gem-imprinted 14K nib is an indication that it was not a cheap throwaway. As a relatively uncommon design touch, the back half of the barrel is faceted, or “sided,” with six sides, and the end of the barrel is a flat hexagon.
IMS is another brand whose manufacturer is unknown. The IMS name on this pen could imply a house brand; in Fukuoka, Japan, there is a large cultural, social, and shopping complex called Tenjin IMS (天神 IMS, Heavenly Gods Inter Media Station). It is in a single high-rise building housing dozens upon dozens of shops along with cafés and galleries, and it is often thought of as a single huge department store. The gold-plated steel nibs, like that on the Platinum pen shown earlier, are designed to write on either side, in the same manner as the Parker 180. (The nibs appear dark in the photos here because there is a molded plastic feed-like protective “cover” lying along the top surface of the nib.) It is likely that the flippable nib was the feature that set IMS pens apart from their competition.
Kaimei Company, Ltd, was founded in 1898 to produce an India ink that would be acceptable to Japanese writers. (Japanese caked inks dry with a flat matte surface, and the people objected to the somewhat shiny surface of dried India ink.) With the success of its ink, the company soon began making fude (brush) pens. When pocket pens became popular, they appeared under the Kaimei brand. (The word kaimei means “enlightenment” in Japanese.) Kaimei is now a producer of pastels, paints, brushes, and other artists’ materials. The pen illustrated here, built and styled like pocket pens of the 1970s, is in current production as of this writing.
Beginning in the 1930s, Kumiai pens were produced by Yamagata K.H.R., which started with larger urushi-clad ebonite eyedropper-fillers, probably employing local rice farmers to produce parts under contract. (The word kumiai means “union” in Japanese.) Later offering primarily steel-nibbed celluloid models, Kumiai also produced some pens in cast acrylic and sold a range fitted with excellent gold nibs. The company’s pocket pens are among the most beautifully styled of all, and they featured very good nibs. The pen shown here is a woman’s pen and is personalized with the name Youko Amashiro (天代洋子).
The Kumiai pen shown above has an unusually styled 21K nib. Instead of being rounded laterally to match the shape of the barrel, or flattened with its two side edges bent downward as many semi-hooded Japanese nibs are, this elegant nib is sided, with five facets:
Makoto pens were apparently made by a stationery company that is still in business offering pads with an accompanying pen, journals, and similar paper goods. The pens today are all ballpoints. During the 1970s, Makoto was also offering anime-themed pencils in packages with decoration designed by popular anime artists of the time. The pen shown here is not stained; the darker appearance of parts of the section is due to the material’s translucency, through which can be seen a shadow of the internal parts.
Tokyo’s Master Pen Company, Ltd, was a major second-tier manufacturer during the 1950s, with models ranging from mediocre to good (but not exceptional) in quality. At least one authority states that Master was acquired by Pilot in the early 1960s. The Master pen shown below has a semi-hooded 14K nib, but otherwise it is of mediocre quality. It is interesting, nonetheless, because it is one of the very few Japanese pocket pens I have encountered that bear patent numbers: in this case, Japanese Patent No 472,850, issued in 1965. (I also own nearly a dozen other Master pens, all full size, none of which bears a patent number.)
I have found no information on the maker of Mitukan writing instruments other than that it was apparently a stationery company and was in business during the Shōwa period (1926-1989), and that it made fountain pens and repeater pencils. The Mitukan pens shown below, priced at ¥300 (upper three) and ¥200 (bottom), have steel nibs and were made from cast acrylic — note the color streaks in the gray and green pens’ resin parts — rather than molded plastic. This fact suggests that they were made at a time when the company did not have, and perhaps could not afford, injection molding equipment. Note that the lower-priced pen does not post all the way down to the joint between section and barrel; while this is a less aesthetically pleasing design, it does provide a longer posted length for this very short pen.
Many Mitukan pens with gold-colored caps, like the upper three shown above, have the legend lain super fine gold imprinted at the cap lip. In this context, the word “lain” is a solecism intended to mean plated.
Often considered a second-tier manufacturer, the Morison Factory Co., Ltd, was founded in 1918 as the Kikaku Fountain Pen Manufacturing Co., Ltd. In 1933 the company changed its name to Morison to capitalize on the Japanese people’s preference for pens with Western names. The company was during World War II an industry leader, producing pens at several quality levels and outselling Pilot, Platinum, Push, and Sailor. By the 1960s, it was somewhat reduced, and it ceased manufacture in the late 1970s or early 1980s; but when pocket pens became popular in the 1960s, Morison was there in spades. Producing long/shorts called Future early in the 1960s and later merely called Pocket, the company marketed a range of excellent pens, from unusual and beautiful pens like those shown below, able to compete head-to-head with the “big boys,” to simpler, more economical models like the two (with aqua barrels) further down.
Fitted with a very small 14K nib that is mostly hooded, the next pen strikes the eye as a lesser model, yet its sculptured barrel trim ring suggests otherwise. This charming pen, such a slight departure from the usual Morison pattern, speaks to surprising little touches of artistry at Morison and, indeed, at other pocket pen manufacturers as well.
Like the Big Three, Morison made house-brand pens — or did they? Shown below are two Morison pens with 14K nibs, identical in every respect (including the Morison nib imprint) except that the lower one is imprinted ThreeStar on the cap where the upper one’s imprint, in the same typeface, reads Morison.
There are three possibilities here:
Which of these possibilities is correct is one of the many pieces of unknown information about Japanese pocket pens. With luck, this information will come to light in the future.
Morison, like Pilot (and possibly others), produced a more traditionally configured pen of pocket-pen dimensions. Morison‘s version, with an overall look somewhat reminiscent of Sheaffer’s broad-banded World War II-era “TRIUMPH” models, was decidedly its own pen. It did not extend like most of the Pilot Short models, it did not post all the way down to the section/barrel joint, its barrel featured a step that allowed for more perfect streamlining when capped, and its cap featured a body-colored area above the usual satin aluminum area. This pen was also somewhat unusual for a pocket pen in having bright gold-plated tassies at both ends:
President was a sub-brand produced by Platinum, which has since subsumed the name into its model range. On the example shown below, the name Platinum does not appear; but the shape of the barrel end and the presence of the S☆N globe above the President name on the cap provide self-documenting origin information for these pens:
During the 1980s, the Shihodo Co., Ltd, a Tokyo-based manufacturer of printing inks and chemicals, and a distributor of stationery and office supplies, offered pocket fude pens, like the one shown here, under the Takara brand name. (The word takara means “treasure” in Japanese.) It is not clear whether Shihodo manufactured its pens or jobbed them. The company is still in business today, still selling several types of high-end fude pens. All of the current models, however, are full-length pens.
Teikin pens were produced by Teikoku Kin Pen Kaisha (Empire Gold Pen, Ltd), a small stationery company located in Tokyo. Founded in 1916, the company is still in business but no longer offers pens. Its fountain pens were designed initially for the promotional market as a result of orders from Tokyo’s Obunsha Publishing House for pens to offer as premiums to magazine subscribers. During the heyday of the pocket pen, Teikoku appears to have jobbed pens from Pilot, Platinum, and Sailor, each supplier providing pens that used its own proprietary cartridges and converters. Shown here are four Teikin pens: a typical model made by Platinum (upper; note the squared-off barrel end), with a 14K nib; a polished pen with lightly “chased” lines on the cap and barrel that resemble the serrations on a bread knife’s blade; and two models marked with the Obunsha name. The lower three pens were made by Sailor, and although they are “fancier” than the one made by Platinum, they have steel nibs. Further increasing the variety for collectors, the Obunsha pens have different trim bands, and the shell of the lower one is noticeably longer than the other; but both have the same overall capped length.
Several of the pens in this article show how the pen business in Japan was, as elsewhere, rather incestuous. The chased pen above is an extreme example of this incestuousness; it is externally identical to the chased IMS pen shown earlier, with only the nib areas of the two pens being specific to their brands.
Given that only a small subset of all possible colors will please the buying public, the number of variations that can be applied to any design without resorting to patterned materials — not easy to do with injection molding — is necessarily limited. Japanese pen manufacturers broadened their ranges of offerings by applying artful silkscreened surface decoration, often botanical designs, to otherwise ordinary pens. Shown below are just a few of the many attractive designs to be found on pocket pens, with their manufacturers’ names. (Platinum seems to have been a leader in this style of decoration; and as noted earlier, that leadership might have contributed to the company’s rise out of the second tier.) Pens bearing designs like these sold for prices higher than similar plain pens. Today, these pens are more difficult to find than plain ones, especially in good condition, and they frequently command significantly higher prices. The Pilot Carnations and Sailor Hearts pens shown here are tinted pink, with the Sailor’s color being the more pronounced.
|Passion Flowers, Platinum|
|Ginkgo Leaves, Platinum|
At least one manufacturer, Sailor, managed to take advantage of a “patterned” molding; the shell of the pen shown below is a difficult-to-photograph pearlescent white, very slightly marbled. The dark spots on this pen’s cap (better seen in the zoomed views) also illustrate the pitting that can occur in anodized aluminum caps and barrels.
In many cases, finding out when a given pen was made is difficult if not impossible. For some Japanese pens, however, it can be easy. Pilot Platinum, and Sailor have all applied date codes to their pens for many years. Note that some of the systems described here are applied to nibs, not to pen bodies; thus, if the nib has been replaced and there is no code on the body, then the nib — but not the pen itself — can be dated. If the nib has not been changed, it might have been made in the same month as the pen or in the previous month.
On some Pilot pens, the date code will appear on the section or on the barrel. If it is in neither of these locations, it will be on the part of the nib that is concealed within the section or, occasionally, on the underside of the nib, and you will have to remove the nib to read it. The earliest datation system that applies to Pilot pocket pens came into use in 1960, and two relevant systems were used during the 20th century:
Year is a single letter, A = 1960 to Z = 1985.
Month is a single letter, A = January to L = December if made in Hiratsuka; or M = January to X = December if made in Tokyo.
Day is a one- or two-digit number indicating the day of the month.
For example, a date code of QV23 indicates a pen made in Tokyo, on October 23, 1977. This system expired at the end of 1985.
Month is a one- or two-digit number, 1 = January to, 12 = December.
Year is a two-digit number, the last two digits of the calendar year in the Common Era.
For example, a date code of H977 indicates a pen made in Hiratsuka, in September 1977. This system appears to have remained in use through 2009.
A new system, in which the manufacturing location is no longer included in the date code, appeared in 2010:
Month is a one- or two-digit number, 1 = January to, 12 = December.
Year is a two-digit number, the last two digits of the calendar year in the Common Era.
For example, a date code of 1114 indicates that the pen was made in November 2014. (This is the date code on the blue Elite 95S that is illustrated in this article.).
Date codes on Platinum pens appear only on the undersides of nibs, requiring you to remove the nib to read the code. The system itself is very simple:
Month is a one- or two-digit number, 1 = January to 12 = December.
Year is a two-digit number, the last two digits of the year.
Where things become a little less simple is that the system, as initially devised, was based on the year within the current emperor's reign. Thus, a year of 10 could mean 1922 (Taishō era, Emperor Yoshihito, year 10), 1936 (Shōwa era, Emperor Hirohito, year 10) or 1999 (Heisei era, Emperor Akihito, year 10). Either at the beginning of the Heisei period (when Akihito ascended the throne) or at the change of the millennium, Platinum switched to the modern calendar, which uses the Common Era.
Fortunately for the dating of pocket pens, the era of pocket pens had passed for Platinum before Hirohito’s death in January 1989, so that all Platinum pocket pens’ date codes reflect the Shōwa period. For example, a date code of 349 indicates a nib that was made in March 1975. There are some slight ambiguities, however, because the Shōwa era began on December 25, 1926. Thus, a pen made in December 1970 could have a Shōwa year of 44 or, if it was made in the last seven days of the month, 45. This situation can yield a dating ambiguity of as much as a year for pens bearing December date codes.
Two systems have been used by Sailor. One, a two-letter system, was used for pen bodies only. The other, a three-digit system, has been used on nibs since Silor began dating its products, and it was also used briefly on pen bodies:
Year is a single-digit number, the last digit of the calendar year in the Common Era.
Month is a two two-digit number, 01 = January to, 12 = December.
This system has been in use for several decades and is still active. Because only a single digit is used for the year, there are some ambiguities; for example, a date code of 306 could indicate a nib made in June of 1953, 1963, 1973, 1983, and so on. Accurate dating of a given pen therefore relies on your knowledge of the approximate period during which pen models that have used this nib were active.
During the pocket-pen era, Sailor used two datation systems on pen bodies. Beginning in 1958, there was a two-letter code. Either upper- or lowercase letters were used, with the case having no significance; thus, A and a meant the same thing. There might or might not be a dot between the letters; this dot also has no significance. In 1970 or 1971, the company phased this system out in favor of the same three-digit numerical system used on nibs.
Year is a single letter, A/a = 1958 to M/m = 1970 (and possibly N/n = 1971).
Month is a single letter, A/a = January to L/l = December.
For example, a date code of GK or G.K or gk or g.k indicates a pen made in November 1964. This system was phased out at the end of 1970 or during 1971.
Year is a single-digit number, the last digit of the calendar year in the Common Era.
Month is a two two-digit number, 01 = January to, 12 = December.
This system, the same three-digit system that is used for nibs, was in use for pen bodies only from about 1971 to 1974; thus, For example, a date code of 306 indicates a pen made in June of 1973.
After 1974, Sailor appears to have ceased date-coding pen bodies.
The pocket pen form factor was not the exclusive province of the fountain pen. Several companies made pocket pens in ballpoint and sign (nylon tip) versions. Ballpoint pocket pens are known to have been made by Auto, Center, Lion, Newton, Pilot, Platinum, Sailor, Tombow, and Zebra; and there were almost certainly other makers. Shown here are a 1973 Newton promotional ballpoint bearing a five-line painted imprint reading WESTBROOK’S/Our “25th” Year/“Pretty Clothes for Ladies”/In the Heart of Uptown/Tupelo, Mississippi; and a Tombow ballpoint.
|Above pen lent by David Rzeszotarski|
Tombow Pencil Company, Ltd, is still in business, offering ballpoints, rollerballs, fude pens, and more. Whether there are fountain pens in the lineup is not clear; as of this writing, Tombow’s home website lists none, but some are still available from retailers.
Unsurprisingly, the appearance of pocket pens in Japan spawned a certain amount of imitation in other countries. In China, the Tianjin Fountain Pen Factory produced pens like the Rainbow 239 (shown here), with the oft-seen Parker “51”-style hooded nib (of gold-plated steel) and a bulb filler. Capped, the 239 looks like a typical Japanese pocket pen; but when uncapped, it reveals the same short gripping section/shell that was used on full-length pens. (This was a cost-saving measure, designed to take advantage of the economies of scale.) To compensate for the short shell, the cap does not post all the way down to the section ring; but the pen nevertheless posts about 1⁄2" (12.7 mm) shorter than the typical Japanese pocket pen.
Mangyongdae (만경대) is a ward in the city of Pyongyang, North Korea. The Mangyongdae Disabled Soldiers’ Fountain Pen Factory, established in 1952, produced true Japanese-style pocket pens, of which the one shown here is an example:
The Mangyongdae pen shown above, although plain, has a better finish than contemporaneous Chinese pens like the Rainbow 239 above, and its build quality appears good. It is fitted with a 12K gold nib that resembles nibs used in China and might have been imported by the Korean factory. The pen’s styling takes from the best of Japanese design, imitating Pilot’s nib design, Platinum’s squared-off barrel end, and a zogan on the shell. Like many inexpensive Chinese pens, it is a self-filler — in this case, a well-made bulb-filler.
Although not nearly so popular as they once were, pocket pens are still being manufactured as of this writing. The longevity star is the Pilot Elite S family, currently featured in Pilot’s range in the form of the Elite 95S, a reboot version based on the design of the 1975 model shown above, but with an inset nib like that on the crosshatched stainless steel Elite pen above. The new version, commonly known as the E95S but catalogued officially by Pilot as the Elite 95S, was released in 2013 as part of Pilot’s celebration of the company’s 95th year in business. Here are the two Elite 95S pen models in Pilot’s catalog as of this writing:
|Photos of burgundy/champagne pen © Mike Kennedy|
Catalogs, however, do not always tell the whole story. The blue Elite 95S shown below is an uncatalogued model, made exclusively for the Pilot board of directors and a small number of top shareholders, and packaged in a special box with a 15-ml bottle of Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo ink.
Most of the companies listed in this article are now gone. In addition to those from Kaimei and Pilot, I have seen pocket pens for sale in the U.S.A. from such makers as Muji and Ohto (fountain pens), and Zebra (ballpoint pens). These pens, unlike the pens from Kaimei and Pilot, are sold at very low prices, and the fountain pens are fitted with commodity steel nib units and are designed to use short International cartridges. They are, nevertheless, quite serviceable, and when the fountain pens’ nibs are tuned they will write very well, similarly to the more expensive Pilot pens. These low-priced pens are very compact, and they will fit into the smallest of pockets. The blue Ohto Tasche fountain pen shown here is only 329⁄32" (9.9 cm) in length when capped, and the tiny red Zebra Minna ballpoint is only 39⁄32" (8.3 cm) capped.
As noted earlier, Kaimei, Takara (Shihodo Co.), and Tombow are still in business, although only Kaimei now offers pocket pens; and whether Tombow offers fountain pens is unclear. Makoto is also in business, offering pads and other stationery items as well as ballpoint pens, but not fountain pens.
Stepping outside Japan again, we find the Moonman 80 Mini. This very short Chinese fountain pen (below, upper two images), jobbed by Shanghai Jingdian from an unidentified manufacturer, looks like a “squished” version of the classic Parker 45. Uncapping it reinforces that impression, as the 80 Mini’s nib assembly (nib, feed, and threaded collar) is fully interchangeable with its Parker equivalent. Like the Rainbow 239, the 80 Mini has a relatively short gripping section; and, as with the Rainbow, the cap does not post all the way down to the section trim ring.
Clearly, there is much to be learned of the history of vintage Japanese pocket pens, and of copies made elsewhere. The late Frank Dubiel was fond of remarking, “It’s just a pen.” The question, then, arises: are pocket pens “just” pens? In the sense that every pen is just a pen, yes, but there is little doubt that they offer variety and history enough to make an interesting — and visually appealing — focused collection. The botanicals alone would make a fascinating collection. For those who write with their pens, most of these pens can be used with cartridges, and some can be used with converters. Pilot pocket pens can accept either a CON-20 or a CON-40 converter, and to broaden the selection of other pocket pens usable with converters, I have written an article showing how to modify a standard Platinum converter to fit pocket pens of several brands. (It is possible that Platinum made a short converter, but I have never seen or heard of one.) At this time, I do not know of any way to adapt a modern converter to pocket pens that use Sailor cartridges; the only known converter that will fit those pens is the virtually unobtainable short converter that Sailor made for its pocket pens.
The purpose of flexibility in a music nib is to allow the tines to spread for drawing note bodies when writing music manuscripts. Modern Japanese “music” nibs are not true music nibs because they are not flexible.
The Japanese word ゾーガン (zōgan) means “inlay” and was originally applied to metal-on-metal inlay. Use of the word has expanded to include wood or shell on wood, clay on clay (pottery), and many other forms of inlay.
Much of the information on datation systems came originally from a series of entries in Bruno Taut’s blog, Crónicas Estilográficas. I have reorganized and rewritten it for this article.
In 1985–1986, in advance of the 13th Pyongyang International Youth Students Festival, all disabled people in Pyongyang were forcibly relocated so that foreigners would not encounter them, and the factory became the Mangyongdae Honored Veterans Fountain Pen Factory. The date of manufacture of the Mangyongdae pen shown in this article is uncertain.
It is widely believed that the Elite 95S was released in 2014 to celebrate Pilot’s 95th anniversary, but a Pilot press release titled 万年筆 『エリート９５Ｓ』 新発売 (Fountain pen "Elite 95S" new release) and issued on June 19, 2013, states that the release date was Tuesday, June 25, 2013.
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 David Rzeszotarski for providing some of the information, for his assistance in gathering many of the pens shown here, and for the time he spent in performing technical and copy edits on this article.