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The Great War and the Trench Pen

(This page published June 1, 2023)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


This article is an expanded version of a two-part series that appeared in the October and December 2022 issues of Pen World Magazine.



World War I, the first and last trench war, led to technical innovations that changed our way of life — including life in the trenches themselves.
Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon

(From Fragments from France, a 1917 book of cartoons by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather
of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, drawn from his life at the front)

In the early months of the war, the most popular type of fountain pen on both sides of the lines was a safety pen. The majority of safety pens were retractable models like the one shown here, from Gold Starry of France.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Note
Note
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Because these pens were common in the trenches, they were sometimes called “trench pens,” and at least one manufacturer, the Willard Pen Company of Bayonne, New Jersey, actually used that terminology in its advertising, as shown here from a January 1917 advertisement in Office Appliances: The Magazine of Office Equipment.

Office Appliances; The Magazine of Office Equipment

The pens were eyedropper-fillers with simple mechanisms. They were reliable, unlikely to go awry or be damaged by a little rough handling, and they would not leak when carried in any position. For an infantryman in the trenches of France and Flanders or on the beach at Gallipoli, however, obtaining bottled ink was frequently difficult: quartermasters had far more important matériel to distribute than bottles of ink; and some officers, citing the danger of flying glass if an ink bottle should be struck by a bullet, exacerbated the problem by prohibiting the carrying of bottled ink in a soldier's kit. Something better was needed, and inventive minds set to work on solving the problem. The answer was a variety of “military” pens.

The question is bound to arise: given the difficulty and inconvenience of using a fountain pen under the conditions of trench life, why not just use a pencil? Some soldiers did use pencils, but it turns out that pencil marks were easily smudged or otherwise worn. Letters that were written in pencil from the trenches frequently became defaced to the point of illegibility. The trench art pencil below is from the World War I period.

Trench art pencil
Trench art pencil

Getting it Done: the Trench Pen — Sort Of

All of the military pens relied on compressed dry ink (solid ink). In its simplest (and cheapest) form, the ink was made into a stick that could be fitted securely in place beneath the nib of an ordinary dip-type pen such as the American Inkless War Pen shown here (U.S. Patent No 1,248,989, issued December 4, 1917). The inventor, Frank M. Ashley, had trained as a mechanical engineer but instead became a patent attorney, and this patent was witnessed by his law partner. Ashley also famously designed, patented, and built violins using nontraditional manufacturing processes to yield a superior tone when the instrument was new instead of requiring decades or centuries of age and playing to develop such a tone. The patent for this pen illustrates ways of securing the ink stick within a hollow in a feed-like part fitted below the nib or using a metal clip, and the latter was the design that made it into production. The pen retailed for 50¢.

Underside of the American Inkless War Pen's nib
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
American Inkless War Pen
American Inkless War Pen

Dipping the pen into water would cause a little of the solid ink to dissolve, and the pen would then, if you believed the advertising, produce 800 words before requiring another dip. The instructions accompanying the American Inkless suggested milk, lemonade, or other liquids — but never ink — if water was not available. (If you made the mistake of dipping the pen in ink, you were instructed to dip it in water several times to wash the ink away lest it dry as an impermeable film that would keep fresh ink from adhering to the nib.) The decorative back end of the pen was the friction-fitted plug for an ink compartment in the barrel, providing a ready supply of replacement ink sticks.

The American Inkless War Pen was produced by the Chester Novelty Company of Chester, New York. When it entered the market is not exactly clear, but the newspaper advertisement to the left appeared in Canada (with the word “American” patriotically omitted) about six weeks before Christmas 1917. It was also talked about in the trade press; one story describing it appeared on Page 30 of the May 16, 1918, issue of Geyer’s Stationer, and it was illustrated along with several other pens on page 662 of the August 1, 1918, issue of India Rubber World (the second horizontal pen in the illustration to the right above).

Getting it Done Better: the Real Thing

There is no denying that using a pen like the American Inkless, although definitely one solution to the problem — and an inexpensive one at that — was not the most efficient way of doing things. Why not just dissolve dry ink inside the barrel of a fountain pen filled with water? The idea of having the user mix the ink was not new; ink pellets or tablets had been used by travelers (and others) since well before the turn of the 20th century, and powdered inks put up in paper packets with enough ink to make a quart or more had been around for centuries. Unfortunately, however, retractable safety pens were not appropriate for either of these methods, given that there was no way to insert a pellet into a retractable pen and screw the cap on tightly and that soldiers in the trenches would have no way to store the large quantity of liquid ink produced by a packet of powdered ink even with a supply of clean water that they could use for that purpose — which was seldom, if ever, the case.

US1109033-1The idea of applying solid-ink technology to pens specifically for the trenches does seem to have been new, and several companies did just that. These pens were known variously as ink-pellet or ink-tablet pens, from the way they made ink. They were all eyedropper fillers with some sort of compartment, usually at the back end of the barrel, to hold pellets (or tablets) of dried ink, and one or two of these pellets plus a barrel full of water equaled a barrel full of ink. Soldiers typically called them trench pens, and that is the name by which they are known today.

Among the first across the line and into the war was the Bicks Ink Company (formerly the Bicks Chemical Company, and incorporated in December 1917 as the Bicks Pen Company) of Chicago, Illinois, whose product was already in production before August 1914, although it had not been considered as a war pen until the need arose for such a thing. Shown here is a Bicks tablet pen (U.S. Patent No 1,109,033, issued to company founder Edward K. Bixby on September 12, 1914). It was an ordinary eyedropper-filling pen with the addition of a hollow blind cap (callout g in the drawing to the right) that stored tablets (callout g' ) called “Bicks Fountain Pen Disks.” With a screw cap that sealed against the section, it was also a safety pen. Interestingly, it is possible that Bixby drafted his patent with the intention of licensing or possibly even selling it to Parker: the drawings include a Lucky Curve feed (callout c), but that feature was of course omitted from Bicks production.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Bicks advertisement

So far, manufacturer’s advertising for the Bicks Fountain Pen has not come to light. The advertisement to the left, featuring the Bicks pen and a radium-dial “military” wrist watch, appeared on page 8 of The Agitator, in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, on July 10, 1918. Offering to bundle the two was good merchandising, saving the purchaser 50¢ and making a nice profit for Charles E. Fullwood, a dealer of clocks and watches.

The Bicks ink disks themselves first appeared in 1912, as described in the “Chicago and the West” section of the December 26, 1912, issue of Geyer’s Stationer:

There is now being man­u­fac­tured in this city an ar­ti­cle called Bick’s [sic] Foun­tain Pen Disks. The disk is a chem­i­cal prep­a­ra­tion which takes the place of ink. It is made by Bicks Chem­i­cal Comp­a­ny, 10 So. Wa­bash Avenue, this city, and is said to have many ad­van­tag­es over or­di­nary ink. The mo­dus op­er­an­di is like this: drop the disks in the bar­rel of the pen, add wa­ter, and be­fore you know it you have a thor­ough­ly sat­is­fac­tory foun­tain pen ink. It is guar­an­teed not to cor­rode the pen: will not fade; will not clog the feed­er; will copy; can­not be erad­i­cat­ed and is not in­jured by freeez­ing. [sic] It is put up in alum­i­num tubes con­tain­ing fif­ty discs.

And that’s it. From retracting safety pens that were useless without prepared ink to a pen that was designed (albeit inadvertently) to be ideal for the soldier in the front lines of World War I, we have followed the complete evolution of the practical trench pen that carried its own ink.

匀挀爀攀攀渀猀栀漀琀

(Official Photograph Taken on the British Western Front. An officer writing home.
John Warwick Brooke, photographer. National Library of Scotland, Lic: CC BY 4.0)

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

The story doesn’t end there, however. Improving upon existing designs is pervasive, as is attested by thousands upon thousands of patents that begin with a statement along the general lines of, “Be it known that I, so-and-so, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in something.” As things shook out, the Bicks Pen Company was just one of many that produced trench pens, some better than others but all usable. Let’s take a look at some of the others.

A somewhat more sophisticated trench pen came from Mabie Todd & Company, of New York City (U.S. Patent No 1,290,545, issued January 7, 1919, to Walter Greaves). The “Swan” Military Fountain Pen had a screw-out knob (callout 11 in the drawing below) attached to a hollow cylinder (callout 9) that disappeared into the barrel, with a hole in the side (callout 21) for dispensing pellets (callout 20). The cylinder was secured in the barrel by a tapered collar (callout 12) that snapped into a matching tapered groove (callout 15).

Patent drawing

It was a little more work to fill the pellet compartment than with the Bicks pen; but once filled, the compartment was much less likely to disgorge all of the pellets at once if the user slipped while dispensing one. Extra ink tablets were supplied in a wooden tube that would float if dropped into the muddy water usually found at the bottom of a trench.

Mabie Todd Sean ad
Fountain pen pellet case
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Mabie Todd’s advertising extended the mil­i­tary theme a step fur­ther. The 1917 Mabie Todd ad to the right refers to the pen’s ink sup­ply as Swan Ink Tab­let Ammu­ni­tion. Some of Mabie Todd’s other ads read, “25 rounds of Ink Tablet Ammu­ni­tion in its magazine at the end of the barrel.” In 1918, the company trademarked the words “Military” and “Trench” for use with pens, the former having been in use since 1917. As will be seen later, this might have had consequences for other manufacturers.

Recruitment poster

Alfred Andrew Abelson was a blue-eyed blond, born in Bodø, Norway, on June 3, 1888. Arriving in the United States on May 19, 1910, he made his way to Duluth, Minnesota, where he took up residence with his brother and sister-in-law. He soon found work as a carpenter.

When America raised the call in June 1917 for all men between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for conscription, Alfred, who had not yet taken citizenship, went down on the first day and registered as an alien. He was called up in 1918, and I believe the Swan pen illustrated above was a going-away gift from someone, possibly a starry-eyed young woman or possibly his brother and sister-in-law. Its broad cap band bears a neat hand-engraved inscription reading Alfred Abelson 6–4–18. On June 11, 1918, one week to the day after the date of the inscription on his pen, he was inducted into the U.S. Army.

Alfred was assigned Service Number 3451024. The poster to the left, or one like it, might have inspired him to volunteer for the Air Service. Did he carry his Swan off to the war Over There? After he went through basic training, he was assigned to the 864th Aero Squadron and sent to the Air Service Mechanics School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was training to work on airplanes when the war ended. He was mustered out on January 25, 1919, so no, he did not carry his pen off to war — but he probably did use it to write letters home during his time in the Army.

Fame and Fortune

safety_sealed_dec_1917_nat_geo
pkr_trench
pkr_trench
pkr_trench

Except for the extra-long blind cap that contained the ink tablets, Parker’s trench pen looked like a standard Safety-Sealed pen and could be fitted with the same nickel-silver clip for the same 25¢ price, but the text in Parker advertisements stressed that this pen was not self-filling.

The PARKER TRENCH PEN (New), a NON-self-filler. Com­partment carries tablets so its owner can make ink by merely dissolving a tablet or two. Price $2.75 and upward. Parker Ink Tablets, 36 for 10¢.

The phrasing “a tablet or two” could be a little confusing: “Should I be economical and use only one tablet? Or would it be better if I used two?" The more comprehensive instructions that came with the pen clarified the dilemma: two tablets should be used for the first filling; from then on, there would be residue in the barrel from previous fillings, and one tablet would be sufficient.

There have been some misconceptions around Parker’s trench pen. Parker advertising said, and George S. Parker later recalled, that the pens were made with red blind caps, but very few such pens are known to exist. Most have black blind caps regardless of their color: plain or chased black, or mottled red and black. At least one red Parker No 23 trench pen is known to exist; in the Parker company archive, it has a black blind cap, and its inner cap is also black, with the visible portion matching the blind cap. This could have been the combination that led Lewis M. Tebbel, a Parker district manager, to propose the design that became the Duofold. It has also been widely stated that Parker secured a contract from the U.S. War Department to supply trench pens for the troops, but this is not quite accurate. Parker sold the pens directly to individual soldiers, with the War Department acting in the manner of a transfer agent to ensure delivery.

Unlike several other manufacturers, Parker discontinued its trench pens soon after the end of the war. It is not known whether Parker failed to recognize that there would be a civilian market for the pen, simply chose to ignore any such market, or stopped producing the model for some other reason. It is possible that the decision was made as a result of Mabie Todd’s acquisition of a trademark for the word “Trench,” the linchpin of Parker’s advertising for the pen.

A Quick Two-Step

After the United States went to war on April 6, 1917, Salz Brothers, Inc., of New York City jumped into the game. The initial Salz offering especially for the troops “over there” was an ordinary “disappearing” (retractable) safety pen that was already part of the company’s line. That pen was first advertised to the trade as being especially useful for soldiers in the June 9, 1917, issue of The American Stationer and Office Outfitter. Salz quickly took the first step to raise its game, however. The Salz “Army and Navy Pen” was an eyedropper-filler made in the shape of a .30-06 rifle cartridge (the U.S. military’s standard rifle caliber during World War I). It appeared only a week later, in the American Stationer’s “What the Trade Is Offering” column for June 16, and it was soon being advertised both to military personnel and to civilians, who would naturally want to display their patriotism in such a practical way. The -page advertisement to the right appeared on the inside back cover of the August 18, 1917, issue of The American Stationer and Office Outfitter. Priced at $2.00, the pen was offered with a free package of ink tablets and an accommodation clip.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
salz_ever_ready

The “Army and Navy Pen” had no pellet storage and thus was not actually a trench pen, but Salz wasn’t finished. The second step in upping the game was the bigger, better “Army and Navy Ever-Ready Pen,” a true trench pen. With an ordinary cap and a distinctly keg-shaped barrel, it had a tablet compartment at the back of the barrel. Unfortunately, it did not appear on the market until December 1918 — after the Armistice had put an end to the fighting — but Walden’s Stationer and Printer was kind enough to say in its December 26, 1918, issue, “The advantage and convenience of this new feature are self evident, and it will be readily recognized also as a very handy pen for many others than those engaged in the Army and Navy.” Over the next couple of years, Salz marketed it for “travelers, salesmen, tourists, reporters, students, and busy folks generally.” The -page advertisement to the left appeared in the December 23, 1920, issue of Geyer’s Stationer.

Back End, Front End, What’s the Difference?

All of the trench pens thus far discussed held their supply of ink tablets at the back end of the barrel. As logical — and successful — as that may have been, several inventors chose to place their tablet reservoirs at the other end of the pen, in the cap.

Moore advertisement
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Like Bicks, Mabie Todd, Parker, and many other companies, Moore offered its own brand of solid ink. Only a month earlier, in December 1917, Moore had advertised its Non-Leakable Safety pen together with “Inklets” tablets, produced by the General Eclipse Company of Danielson, Connecticut. Now, in the new year, it offered its own Inktabs at 36 for 15¢. It is possible that Moore’s Inktabs were simply a repackaging of Inklets, which General Eclipse continued to offer into the 1920s on its own hook.

Alfred W. Bush received U.S. Patent No 1,271,430 for his design in which the tablet reservoir was the top half of the cap. It unscrewed for replenishing the tablet supply. A ring located right at the joint rotated to expose an opening for dispensing. The clip, mounted on the ring with two rivets, could slide up and down just enough to lock the ring with the opening closed or allow it to rotate. I have no information on whether this elegant (but not inexpensive) design made it into production.

Charles R. Keeran, inventor of the Eversharp mechanical pencil, was working for the Wahl Company when he received U.S. Patent No 1,351,575 for a clever design that featured a tube within a tube, fitting into the space normally occupied by the inner cap. (See the patent drawing below.) The space between the tubes was best suited to storing ink sticks rather than tablets as such, and the end of the cap unscrewed to provide access to the ink sticks (tinted pink in the drawing). This cap was part of a complete pen that featured a pump-action filler. When using an ink stick, the user partially disassembled the pump and dropped the ink stick into the barrel, then reassembled the pump and filled the pen with water. Wahl appears never to have marketed such a pen, however.

Patent drawing
De Luxe TAB-FIL Pen

Alexander P. McArthur patented a fountain pen (U.S. Patent No 1,222,555, issued April 10, 1917) whose cap featured a “thimble” (callout 35 in the drawing below), for storing ink tablets, that fitted in above the real inner cap. This thimble had an opening in its side (callout 37), and it could be rotated to align that opening with one in the outer cap (callout 38). A metal brad (callout 39) was inserted through a lateral slot in the outer cap into a tight-fitting hole in the thimble to rotate the thimble. For filling the tablet compartment, the cap crown screwed off. As reported in the October 1913 issue of The Stenotypist Magazine, the TAB-FIL pen was announced the previous month at the 16th National Business Show by the De Luxe Manufacturing Company of Chicago.

Patent drawing

It would appear that the TAB-FIL pen did not survive long enough to go to war with American doughboys; the latest advertisement for it that I have found, shown below, appeared in the March 1916 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine and contained no mention of the war.

The American Stationer and Office Outfitter
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

As shown in the half-page advertisement to the left above, from the inside back cover of the January 26, 1918, issue of The American Stationer and Office Outfitter, New Diamond Point claimed that a patent was pending for the ink-tablet reservoir. The application appears to have been unsuccessful, possibly on grounds of prior art: in August 1910, a George Johnston had applied in Britain for a patent on a virtually identical design for an accessory tablet compartment that would attach to a pen’s cap, as shown below in the drawing from his application.

GB191019067A-3

Johnston’s patent was not granted because he failed to pay the processing fee, but as part of the literature, it might still have served to disprove the novelty of the Diamond Point design. The threaded cap-crown plug in Alexander McArthur’s design might also have been considered prior art — but that feature was not included in his 1913 patent filing.

Diamond Point “Bully” Bullet Pen

The Diamond Point “Bully” Bullet Pen came in two models, No 78 with the reservoir and No 77 without. The advertisement to the right, also claiming “Patent Pending” for the reservoir, appeared in the June 20, 1918, issue of Geyer’s Stationer.

Overall, the cap-top tablet reservoir seems in retrospect to have been less successful than the barrel-end placement. Technologically speaking, there is little difference between the two designs. Given that pens were, and still are, bought partially on aesthetic grounds, however, the difference in popularity might have been attributable to the alteration of proportions necessary to support the lengthened cap; but at a century’s remove, we cannot know what the real reason was.

Afterword

As noted in this article, even the humble fountain pen’s improvement was driven by a military need during World War I. Relatively few advances benefited the folks at home. But those “military” pens not only recorded for posterity what it was like to be in the trenches and go “over the top,” they also helped to improve the morale of soldiers abroad and their families back home, wherever in the world home was.



Notes:
  1. The Gold Starry pen illustrated was jobbed from London-based Conway Stewart & Co., Limited; Gold Starry imported pens from England until about 1921.  Return

  2. The Parker company archive contains eight trench pens, and it lists the model’s years of production as 1917–1919.  Return

  3. The .30-06 designation reflects the barrel rifling lands’ diameter of 0.300" and the year ’06 (1906), when the cartridge design was introduced. In metric measure, it is 7.62×63mm.  Return

  4. Upton and Vaugh assigned the patent to their own company, the Vaughn-Upton Company, and licensed the rights to Moore.  Return

  5. “Some persons mark articles sold with the terms ‘Patent Applied For’ or ‘Patent Pending’. These phrases have no legal effect, but only give information that an application for patent has been filed in the Patent and Trademark Office.” —U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Guidelines for Inventors  Return


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.

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