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(This page revised October 10, 2015)
As noted in Chapter 1 of this series, learning about the pens you collect can be fascinating, and it makes you more able to find those really great pens that others might miss. Part of knowing about pens is knowing when a given pen was made. Part of what makes a particular pen interesting, collectible, or valuable is the pen’s “tier.” First tier, second tier, third tier. Veteran vintage pen collectors throw these terms around, often without bothering to explain them, and this can leave less-experienced collectors puzzled.
Obviously, with first and third tiers, there must have been something in the middle, and this article looks at “What” and — with apologies to Abbott & Costello — “Who” were on second. The stories of second-tier companies can make fascinating reading — but, as with the third tier, there are simply too many to address in this space. Here, I touch on a few of what I think are among the more interesting companies in the second rank.
Collectors prize pens from first-tier companies for their quality; and, as noted earlier, the companies that made up the first tier (i.e., the Big Four) attained their status at least in part by being able to invest capital in advertising and in worldwide expansion. But the Big Four weren’t the only companies that made pens of superior quality.
John Holland, Crocker, Chilton, Moore and LeBoeuf didn't have massive marketing machines behind them. Neither did Aikin Lambert, Carter, National, Hicks, Diamond Point, Pick, Mabie Todd or Salz. These are just a few of the companies that pen collectors consider second-tier brands, makers of excellent pens that just didn’t hit the big time. Some throve as regional makers, known and respected in their areas of the country, but weren’t rich enough to advertise nationwide, let alone around the world. Others did much or even most of their work under multiple brands or for other companies.
At least one second-tier company made it into the first tier by the back door. James C. Aikin and Henry A. Lambert founded J. C. Aikin & Co. in 1864. The New York–based establishment quickly became a preeminent maker of superior gold nibs, first for dip pens and later for fountain pens. In about 1890, the young L. E. Waterman Company began buying nibs of high quality from the freshly incorporated Aikin Lambert & Co. By 1915, Waterman had grown big enough to buy Aikin Lambert itself, thereby securing the entire supply of those excellent nibs for its own consumption. Waterman kept the Aikin Lambert name in use as a sub-brand until about 1931, the last Aikin Lambert–branded pen being the Skywriter.
Boston was home to several companies, among them the Boston Fountain Pen Company, Crocker, Chilton and Moore. Founded in 1904, Boston Fountain Pen built up a collection of patents that made it a technological powerhouse, including a screw-threaded cap with a fixed inner cap to render the pen leakproof and a comb feed that provided superior buffering against blots and dryout. In 1917, the up-and-coming Wahl company bought Boston Fountain Pen; that purchase cut loose some of Boston’s people, who apparently moved across the street to join the American Fountain Pen Company.
American renamed itself the Moore Pen Company — this change made excellent sense, given that the company’s bread-and-butter product since before the turn of the century had been Moore’s Non-Leakable Safety Pen. This pen’s design was elegantly simple; to retract the nib before capping the pen, the user pulls back on a sleeve that slides along the outside of the barrel. (Other safety pens used a design that retracts the nib when a knob at the back of the barrel is turned, a much more complex and costly system.) The rechristened Moore company quickly took advantage of its new assets, including an improved comb feed, and began producing ordinary lever-filling pens of excellent quality, while not abandoning Moore’s Non-Leakable until after the middle of the 1920s. In 1946, Moore introduced the Finger tip, an odd-looking streamlined pen designed to compete with the Parker 51. A poor seller, the Finger tip lasted only five years. The company limped along until 1956.
Blood is said to be thicker than water, and it certainly proved so for Boston’s Crocker family. Seth Sears Crocker founded the Crocker Pen Company in 1902. His pens, of good quality, were known for two distinctive filling systems that Crocker patented: the blow filler and the end-locking lever filler, sometimes incorrectly called a hatchet filler. Filling a blow filler required the user to blow into a hole at the back end of the barrel, collapsing the sac by air pressure. Pen still in mouth, the user would immerse the nib and part of the section into a bottle of ink and release the pressure, allowing the pen to fill itself. In Crocker’s lever filler, a completely different design, the lever itself extends past the end of the barrel to terminate in a knob that is unscrewed to free it from a boss on the barrel end. With the knob unscrewed, the lever can be raised just as any other lever. It’s a very secure system.
Crocker’s company prospered into the 1920s, providing encouragement — and cross-pollination — for Crocker’s son Seth Chilton Crocker to found his own enterprises, first the S. C. Crocker Pen Company and later the Chilton Pen Company. Chilton’s claim to fame was a pneumatic filling system patented by David J. LaFrance, who had earlier done some work for the Boston Fountain Pen Company. LaFrance’s original design (shown immediately below) required two hands to fill the pen, but an improved version appeared shortly that permitted one-hand filling. If you’ve ever used a Sheaffer Touchdown, Snorkel or PFM, or filled a Legacy I or a Legacy II from a bottle, you’ve used a direct descendant of that later Chilton system.
In 1935, six years after relocating to Long Island, Chilton introduced a strikingly attractive Art Deco pen with gold-filled or sterling silver inlaid designs, called the Wing-flow. This pen’s patented nib was remarkable for having winglike tabs that folded under the feed to clasp nib and feed together in perfect alignment. The system was so effective that decades later it appeared on the Parker VP, 75 and 65, and it’s still in use today: among modern pens that use it are the Pilot Vanishing Point and, in a modified form, the Parker Sonnet.
Chilton, sadly, didn’t last as long as its innovative designs. A regional player until 1935, it then began advertising nationally but too soon fell on hard times and retrenched. The Golden Quill, an ultramodern pen introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, was Chilton’s last high-quality model — still, be it noted, using the second-generation pneumatic filler — and the company was gone by the time America went to war in 1941.
Massachusetts gave rise to another maker of excellent pens, the LeBoeuf Fountain Pen Company of Springfield. Incorporated in 1921 by Frank LeBoeuf, Edward E. LeBoeuf, Leroy J. Learned, John H. Williams and Eugene E. LeBoeuf, the company appears to have been in business by 1920, possibly as early as 1918. Using Frank LeBoeuf’s patented technique for making celluloid tubing, LeBoeuf was probably the first successful U.S. maker of celluloid pens, and its pens were noted for their attractive colors. But for all its having laid the groundwork for the celluloid revolution of the 1920s, it too was dead and gone before World War II.
Cincinnati produced a few second-tier makers, among them John Holland. Holland got his start in the 1850s, and by 1862 he owned his own company, making fine gold nibs for dip pens. Like Aikin Lambert, Holland branched out into the manufacture of fountain pens and became one of the nineteenth century’s premier makers. (It was Holland pens that George S. Parker had been selling to his telegraphy students when he decided in 1889 to make better pens of his own.) In the twentieth century, Holland’s self-filling pen designs included the saddle filler and the hatchet filler. Like most other makers, Holland eventually settled on the lever filler, and the company continued making good pens until the 1950s.
One more company that bears mentioning is the National Pen Products Company of Chicago. National was a huge company, making pens under its own Gold Bond, Gold Crown, Gold Medal, Good Service, and Lincoln brands, as well as others; and it also jobbed pens to innumerable private-label companies and retailers, including both Sears and Montgomery Ward. National’s Sears brands included Tower and Webster, and for Wards, National made Lakeside pens.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but at least you’ve now had a quick look at the first, second, and third tiers of American fountain pen makers during the early twentieth century. Collectors who learn how to spot these fine pens will quickly find that there's more out there than the Big Four — and there are some great deals still to be had: While eBay-savvy noncollectors might be able to spot and price the Parkers and Sheaffers of the world, they often overlook these second-tier gems.
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.
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.