(This page revised January 1, 2017)
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This article is a revised and expanded version of one that first appeared in the October 2013 issue of PEN WORLD magazine.
Imagine a world in which Conklin’s Crescent-Filler was the Apple iOS of pendom. That’s what it was like in the opening years of the twentieth century. All the other self-filling pens were the Androids, BlackBerrys and Symbians.
In those years, self-filling pen designs proliferated as fountain pen manufacturers scrambled to capture some of the market that Roy Conklin had opened up. Several inventors worked out ways to copy Conklin’s concept while circumventing his patent. Others deemed the mechanisms of these “hump fillers” (as they are called by collectors today) clunky and visually unappealing, and took a different approach.
That different approach took the form of mechanisms that were essentially concealed within the barrel. There were levers, plungers, syringes, and more. In this article, we turn to a system that would appeal to the average gentleman in a time when gentlemen carried cigars in emulation of Teddy Roosevelt.
In May 1904, Otto E. Weidlich of Cincinnati, Ohio, applied for a patent on a remarkably simple filling system he had invented, which would become known as the matchstick filler. Three months later, he was rewarded by the issuance of U.S. Patent No 766,560 (illustrated here by part of his patent drawing).
The unusual aspect of Weidlich’s design is that there’s really no mechanism: no lever, no crescent, no device of any kind to press the pressure bar into the sac. There is only a small hole in the side of the barrel. If you look at the cap (shown in Weidlich’s Figure 1), you will see an odd projection at its end. This projection, or peg, is just the right size to fit into the hole in the barrel and push the pressure bar into the sac. Weidlich indicated in his patent that although this projection was the preferred means of filling the pen, other objects would work as well; one of his drawings illustrates the use of a pencil.
Illustrated below is a matchstick filler branded Wright Simplofiller, made c. 1908 and sold by the Wright Pen Company of St. Louis, Missouri:
The Wright Pen Company was owned and operated by William Weidlich & Bro., a wholesale jewelry company. (Otto Weidlich was William Weidlich’s uncle.) The Wright Pen Company is said to have sold rebranded pens made by O. E. Weidlich, but it is listed in contemporaneous trade publications as a manufacturer of fountain pens; it is therefore not clear whose company actually produced this pen.
Whoever produced it, it has a necessary feature that is not mentioned in Weidlich’s patent: because hard rubber is relatively fragile, the peg at the top of the cap would not have been sufficiently strong by itself to resist being broken. The peg is actually the exposed portion of a longer hard rubber part that screws into a hole in the cap crown, and this part is reinforced internally along its entire length by a piece of 18-gauge steel wire.
Next in line was M. Z. L. Fuller of Akron, Ohio. In U.S. Patent No 848,023 (issued in 1907), Fuller describes his version of a matchstick filler; its hole is located in the back end of the barrel, and there is no pressure bar. Instead, as illustrated in Fuller’s patent drawing, the sac is a “flexible spirally corrugated tube.” At its end, but not necessarily attached to it, is a hard rubber disk with a conical recess facing the end of the barrel. Pushing the disk with a matchstick inserted through the hole compresses the sac lengthwise in the barrel.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that Fuller worked for the Betzler & Wilson Pen Company, also of Akron. A little searching turned up the fact that Fuller’s design is actually an adaptation of U.S. Patent No 799,297, issued two years earlier to Joseph F. Betzler, one of the principals of Betzler & Wilson. Betzler’s patent illustrates a sliding collar that connects to the hard rubber disk through two longitudinal slots in the barrel. But the production version, illustrated in the New York Central Railroad’s magazine The Four Track News (July 1906), had a plunger projecting through the end of the barrel and covered by a blind cap, much like that in a syringe filler, except that the pen had a corrugated sac instead of using the barrel itself for its reservoir. Fuller removed the plunger shaft, replacing it with a match and thereby eliminating the blind cap. It’s not clear whether Fuller’s version ever reached production.
The hole in a matchstick filler’s barrel is quite small, but some other inventors apparently decided that it would be a vulnerable spot: what if one of Palmer Cox’s Brownies came along and stuck a match in the hole while you weren’t looking? The answer to that question, implemented probably after the subject scenario had played out once, came in the form of protection for the hole.
I cannot find a patent for the design used by Charles A. Keene of New York City. As shown by the photos with this article, Keene covered the hole in the barrel with a rotating collar similar in appearance to the lock ring on a Crescent-Filler. To keep the collar from rotating too far, he installed a hard rubber pin in the side of the barrel, cutting a slot in the collar to accommodate it. The collar could rotate only as far as the pin and the slot permitted, about a quarter turn. At one end of the collar’s motion, the hole was fully exposed, and at the other end it was fully covered. The instruction sheet that Keene packed with his pens showed how to slide the pen’s accommodation clip downward on the cap and use it as a “matchstick”; the hole in the barrel was large enough to accommodate the clip ball.
A similar design by J.Harris & Company, also of New York City, differs only in the location of the collar’s pin; in the Harris version, the pin is in the collar and the slot is in the barrel. This design, too, appears not to have been patented.
Despite the concern about protecting the hole in the barrel, there were the Johnny-come-lately types who were more interested in selling pens than in collecting patents. One of these was the Hub Fountain Pen Company of Everett, Massachusetts. After having produced several pen models, including a middle-joint eyedropper filler based on A. A. Waterman’s patent, Hub jumped on the self-filler bandwagon with its own matchstick filler. Like Weidlich’s pen, the matchstick-filling Hub Fountain Pen left the barrel hole right out where everybody could see it. But like the manufacturers who covered the hole, Hub omitted the peg on the cap. That much, at least, remained exclusive to Weidlich — at least until 1914, when his company emitted a death rattle. Its assets were sold to Betzler & Wilson and moved to Akron.
The common failing of most matchstick fillers was that the user must have matches or some other implement available for depressing the pressure bar. Using the clip, as described in Keene’s instruction sheet, was one solution. Another solution came onto the scene in the form of a pen protected by U.S. Patent No 1,198,994, issued to the resourceful Claes W. Boman in September 1916. Boman, who patented dozens of pen and pencil designs for the Eagle Pencil Company, created a design that included a ridiculously complicated pivot mechanism for the pressure bar, ostensibly to keep the bar from shifting sidewise. The pen’s salient feature, insofar as we’re concerned here, was a plug that screwed into the back end of the barrel and included a Weidlich-type peg. When the plug was in place, the peg was enclosed within the barrel. Except for the hole in the side of the barrel, the pen looked no different from many ordinary models of the time. The mechanism may have been too costly; I have no evidence suggesting that pens made to this design were ever produced and sold.
Boman’s great success in the matchstick-filling arena came only two months after he received the patent described in the preceding paragraph. In November 1916, he received U.S. Patent No 1,205,847. Outwardly, the pen described in this patent looks like a lever filler with its lever reversed as in John Lynagh’s 1925 design for the Eisenstadt Manufacturing Company. As shown by the patent drawing and photos below, however, when the user raises the lever, things suddenly appear very different. The lever does not depress the pressure bar, and an odd slot runs about half the lever’s length. Grasping the raised lever and pressing it into the barrel, as one would press a match in, activates the pressure bar. The pen is really a matchstick filler, and Boman has kindly provided it with a self-contained match.
The Boman pen shown here is imprinted THE REXALL PEN; it was jobbed by Eagle for sale through stores operated by members of the United Drug Stores cooperative.
Eagle’s own-branded version of the design was styled slightly differently and was called the Eagle “Lightning.” Shown below the Eagle pen, for comparison, is an Eisenstadt “backward-lever” pen:
The ascendancy of the lever filler drove matchstick fillers from the market — but only for a while. Recalling the Biblical adage that there is nothing new under the sun, the modern Italian pen maker Marlen in about 2005 began producing a series of elegant matchstick fillers, each provided with a key for convenience in filling.
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