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World War II and Its Effects on the Fountain Pen

(This page revised April 17, 2022)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


In almost every aspect of life on the home front, the effects of World War II were profound. Rubber and gasoline rationing changed travel habits, creating a boom in railroad ridership — so much so that the U.S. government found it necessary to produce posters reading, “Millions of troops are on the move… Is YOUR trip necessary?” Quotas on fuel oil made knitting fashionable again as families needed sweaters to keep warm in winter, and many women also knitted socks and scarves to be sent to the troops in the field. Diets changed as meat, butter, coffee, and sugar were rationed, and people saved their extra waste fat and turned it in at the butcher shop to be sent off and made into explosives. Victory Gardens sprang up everywhere to supply more fresh vegetables. Limits on clothing and shoes turned many housewives into seamstresses and even cobblers — and skirts got shorter. As the lyrics of a song by the Hoosier Hotshots put it, “So we’ll eat less, and see a bit more, if it’s gonna help win the war.” The war even touched that most prosaic of tools, the pen.

Army-Navy "E" award bannerArmy-Navy "E" award pinThe principal effect on U.S. pen manufacture resulted from the War Production Board’s restrictions. Rubber, steel, aluminum, brass, petroleum, and other raw materials were designated as critical war resources and strictly rationed, with most of the supply going to the manufacture and shipping of war matériel and the operation of the Allied war machine. Pen companies had to scale back their pen production, devoting their efforts instead to manufacturing war goods. (In November 1942, the WPB limited production of fountain pens to 46% of 1941 output.)

Army-Navy "E" poster Magnifying glass

Companies that excelled in war production received the Army-Navy “E” Award for Excellence in Production, and they proudly displayed the award banner (shown to the left above) at their factories and in their advertising. The G. S. Parker Pen Company received the “E” Award on October 29, 1943, for the production of bomb and shell fuzes, and the W. A. Sheaffer Pen Company received it on May 13, 1944, for the production of bomb and shell fuzes, microphone and headphone plugs, and automatic radio tuners for aircraft. The enameled sterling silver lapel pin shown to the right above is one of those given to Sheaffer’s employees at the company’s award ceremony. The poster shown directly to the right is one of a series that companies that had received the award would display in their factories to encourage workers to keep up their efforts. Some companies also provided additional awards to their workforces. The Parker “51” shown here, engraved to commemorate the awards ceremony, was given to a Parker employee:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glas

Advertise It Even If You Can’t Sell It!

1944-P51-ad Magnifying glass

The heart of a free-market economy, even in the midst of a war that caused severe shortages, was advertising. But how to advertise a product you can’t sell? American companies came up with many ways to do that, and the first and best guideline was to play on the people’s patriotism. A classic example of this technique was the advertisement shown to the left, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1944, comparing the streamlined look and smooth performance of the Parker “51” to those of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter. Of course, you might not be able to buy a “51” right then because fountain pen production was restricted by the government, but (as the ad was careful to point out) the “World’s Most Wanted Pen” was worth the wait.

ink_o_graph_ad_life_430823 Magnifying glass

Other companies found different ways to link patriotism to their advertising. All sorts of products, from shoes to pens, were advertised with encouragements to the reader to take care of the things he or she had: treat them properly, and they would last longer. But if you had to buy something new, as explained in the 1943 Ink-O-Graph ad to the right, which appeared in Life Magazine’s August 23, 1943, issue, you would get longer and more reliable service from the advertiser’s product than from the competition.

Borrowing Technology from the Military

It is an axiom that technology advances more rapidly in wartime than in times of peace. In the case of military technology, this is certainly true, but advances made for the military often spill over into the civilian world, and the fountain pen was not left behind during World War II. Before the war, metallurgical technology had not developed to a degree sufficient to support the economical manufacture of high-quality alloys suitable for tipping fountain pen nibs. Tipping material was culled from high-grade ores of platinum-group metals, principally iridosmine and osmiridium, naturally occurring alloys of iridium and osmium. Ore was crushed, fragments were selected based on their metal content and welded to nibs, after which the tips were ground and polished to finish them. This technology worked reasonably well, but the quality of finished nib tips could vary greatly: one might have a crystalline cleavage line that would result in a fracture of the tip, the next might have a spongy texture that made polishing it into a smooth tip impossible, and a third might be perfect in all respects.

The American military’s need for highly refined alloys that were very hard led to the development of the necessary technology to meet that requirement. When the U.S. went to war in December 1941, Parker had just introduced the revolutionary “51”. Early in the war, Parker advertised that the nib of the “51” was tipped with osmiridium. During 1943, on the back of new technology, the nib tipping material changed to a refined ruthenium-based alloy that Parker called Plathenium, a name derived from the inclusion of sufficient platinum to produce a weldable alloy. The “51” shown here was made in 1944 and has a Plathenium nib. The initials engraved on the cap are those of its owner, Helen Frances Frisz, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard during the war.

fountain pen Magnifying glass

Other manufacturers quickly followed Parker’s lead, and soon nibs tipped with highly refined alloys were the rule rather than the exception for high-quality pens.

Because steel was a critical resource in the U.S., some lesser pen makers, among them David Kahn Inc. and the Morrison Fountain Pen Company, began fitting their pens with gold nibs. They were fortunate because the price of gold in the United States remained relatively stable, floating at about $35.00 per Troy ounce from late 1941 to the end of 1945. With an average nib weighing approximately 0.5 to 0.6 gram, the value of the gold in most third-tier nibs was 40¢ or less, a rise in cost that was relatively easy to absorb. Shown here is a Wearever Pacemaker, made by David Kahn Inc. and fitted with e 14K nib that appears to have been made by the Grieshaber Pen Company of Chicago.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

A few manufacturers, notably Esterbrook, began producing nibs of a less costly silver-palladium alloy. Shown to the left below is a silver-palladium Esterbrook 8668 nib.

Esterbrook 8668 nibAs can be seen from some of the pens illustrated in this article, some third-tier manufacturers managed to stick with steel. It is reasonable to conjecture that these companies had determined that continuing to use stainless steel for nibs and mild steel for clips would not exceed their allotments under WPB regulations. Some third-tier pens continued to appear with untipped steel nibs, changed in no way from the nibs used before the war. The Conklin and DU-PONT pens illustrated here left their respective factories fitted with butterfly (untipped) nibs. Other third-tier makers, such as David Kahn Inc., switched to tipped nibs, and the longevity of their pens increased immensely. The Wearever Zenith pictured earlier in this article was made during the war, and it has a 14K nib. After peace was concluded in 1945, the Zenith’s nib became tipped steel, allowing Kahn to keep the price down while still producing a pen that was better than its prewar ancestors.

Furniture Goes Down- or Up-Market

Until World War II, brass was the base metal for most pen furniture (clips, levers, and cap bands). With brass restricted, manufacturers turned to other metals. While cheap pens appeared with thinly gold-plated furniture of low-grade steel, first-tier models from the Big Four manufacturers acquired more intrinsic value in the form of gold-filled parts made with sterling silver instead of brass. (This material is not vermeil, which is plated, not sandwiched, and has much less actual gold in its makeup). Here are a cheap pen (Chicago Conklin) with a plated steel nib and painted-on cap bands, and a more expensive one (Sheaffer’s “TRIUMPH”, introduced in July 1942):

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Silver layer on wartime furnitureSilver layer removed from wartime furnitureThe use of sterling silver as the base material for clips, cap bands, and other trim led to an interesting phenomenon. Gold and silver are chemically similar, and over time, silver ions migrated upward through the gold and formed a new layer atop the gold. The migrated silver, which was deposited absolutely uniformly, appeared in a color that can best be described as “gunmetal” and might be believed to have been intentional. This phenomenon is most frequently seen on Sheaffer and Eversharp pens but is not exclusive to those brands. Illustrated to the left is the cap from a Sheaffer Tuckaway, showing the appearance of the silver layer on the clip and band. Fortunately for modern collectors, the silver can be removed easily; to the right is the same cap after restoration.

Material Restrictions Lead to Changes, but That’s Not Always a Bad Thing!

Times change, and with them the things of everyday life. In times of war, the changes are frequently sudden and profound. Resources that had been cheap and available before the war suddenly became critical. Because of their popularity among collectors, the Parker Vacumatic and “51” are widely recognized as having “gone under the knife” due to material restrictions. The Vacumatic’s filler pump had been made almost entirely of metal, primarily aluminum. With aluminum needed for aircraft manufacture, Parker went back to the drawing board and redesigned the filler, producing a new version that used much less aluminum and was also less costly and less likely to jam or suffer corrosion. The new filler’s plunger is made of celluloid and features an external spring instead of the one enclosed by the older tubular aluminum plunger. Shown here are a 1939 Vacumatic Speedline Major (upper) and a 1946 Vacumatic Major (lower):

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

As the war went on, Parker tried further refinements of the new filler; the final version appeared in late 1943 or early 1944 and is made entirely of plastic except for the spring. This all-plastic version is sometimes cemented into the pen barrel very securely and can be very difficult to remove when diaphragm replacement is required. Parker retained the new filler design after the end of the war but reverted to metal for the two collars that secure the diaphragm and the filler itself into the pen.

Parker also responded to the restrictions on brass by switching to a silver base for its furniture, and it took an additional step by redesigning the exterior of its pens to eliminate the blind-cap tassie. This change saved material, and — like the filler redesign — reduced the manufacturing cost of the pens. Shown here are the same two Vacumatics illustrated above:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

More immediately important to most pen companies’ designers, however, was the restriction on rubber. Pens that used only a little rubber, like Parker’s Vacumatic and Sheaffer’s Vacuum-Fil models, could skate through with minor functional changes; but pens that used more rubber, i.e., anything with a sac, presented a problem. Sac pens continued in production, but there were far fewer of them, proportionally speaking. Sheaffer’s Vacuum-Fil, with its tiny rubber usage, was immensely popular among those who could afford it; this was fortunate because Sheaffer, in response to the WPB’s enactment of serious restrictions on rubber in October 1942, ceased manufacturing lever-filling pens. Thus, the number of lever-filling “TRIUMPH” pens produced was minuscule in comparison with the much greater numbers of the Vacuum-Fil “TRIUMPH” version.

Parker Advertisement, 1944 Magnifying glass

T/Sgt John A. Hauck, Kiska, 1943When the U.S. went to war in December 1941, Parker had just introduced the “51”, whose body is made of Lucite (acrylic). The war put the success of the “51” in jeopardy because Lucite was suddenly needed in greater quantities for aircraft canopies. Parker did continue making the “51”, but in severely restricted numbers — of which the majority went to the military. The difficulty of obtaining a “51” in the civilian market only heightened the pen’s desirability; Parker’s wartime advertising used patriotic sentiments to capitalize on the obstacles to owning the pen, and “51” sales took off like a rocket after the war ended. The 1944 advertisement shown to the left, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, explained that more than half of the already-limited “51” production was being delivered to the military “under Priority AA-1 orders.” What it carefully does not say is that the U.S. military did not issue fountain pens to personnel in the field. As explained by former T/Sgt John A. Hauck, shown to the right in 1943 at his desk on Kiska Island in the Aleutians, clerks and other staff in forward areas used wooden-handled dip pens like the one shown below, with untipped 19th-century-style nibs made of ordinary steel, not stainless.

Dip pen Magnifying glass

The fountain pens that went to the military were sold in Stateside and rear-area Navy Exchanges (NEXes) and Army Post Exchanges (PXes) operated by civilian contractors, not by the military, where officers and enlisted personnel alike could buy whatever pens their budgets could afford. Writing letters became such a widespread pastime, both overseas and at home, that it was the subject of popular songs like “Dear Mom”:

Marine writing a letter with an Eversharp Skyline

Dear Mom
The weather today was cloudy and damp
Your package arrived, but was missing a stamp
Your cake made a hit with all the boys in the camp
How they love it

And Mom
The food is okay, don’t worry your head
I sleep pretty well, but I miss my old bed
And, oh, how I wish they’d make this army co-ed
Still, I love it

If you should run into a certain you-know-who
Please do this for me
Give her a kiss for me
Tell her to write me, nightly

Dear Mom
That’s all for tonight, the bugle just blew
Tomorrow’s a big day with plenty to do
I like it here, but I’m kind o’ homesick for you
For I love you, Dear Mom

The U.S. Marine in the photograph to the right is writing a letter home with an Eversharp Skyline that he probably bought at an NEX.

Changes in Body Materials

Parker was able to obtain enough Lucite that it did not have to cease “51” production entirely, and because celluloid was not on the critical materials list, Parker and other companies were able to continue making most of their pens using the same body materials as before. The L. E. Waterman Company, on the other hand, appears to have seen the war coming and taken steps to forestall a materials crisis. Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen, introduced in 1939, priced at $8.50, and made of Lucite, was produced in black and transparent red, green, and blue. In 1940, Waterman followed up with another Lucite pen, the $5.00 model 515. Here are a 1939 Hundred Year Pen and a 515:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The first step toward working around what promised to be serious material restrictions was an unpublicized change, as late-production black 1940 Hundred Year Pens (made in early-to-mid 1941) acquired some celluloid body parts. The black Hundred Year Pen shown here has a Lucite cap and a celluloid barrel:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Things went further, however. The Hundred Year Pen took on a dramatically different (but rather more conventional) style for the 1941 Christmas season, as the company had already introduced its new pens before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Hundred Year Pen wore a new body of celluloid, offered with or without a transparent barrel end that was an apparent nod to the transparency of the barrels of previous models. The 515 stepped up the patriotism game, becoming the all-celluloid Commando, with a transparent or opaque end on the barrel only. In 1945, when Waterman introduced the Taperite, some trim versions of that model also had transparent barrel ends. Here are a brown 1942 Hundred Year Pen (upper two views) and a black Commando (bottom view), both made of celluloid.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Another material change, one that was probably seen as a technological advancement rather than merely as a way to cope with the exigencies of war, was Eversharp’s transition from celluloid to polystyrene in the manufacture of its Skyline pens. At the outset of the war, all Skylines were celluloid. I. G. Farben had pioneered polystyrene production in Germany before the rise of Adolf Hitler, and when the material became commercially viable in the U.S. during the war, Eversharp adopted it. There are several significant advantages to polystyrene as a pen material, principal among which is that — unlike celluloid, which must be made ahead and cured for several months — it is sold in pellet form and can be fabricated very rapidly on demand by injection molding. This process eliminates most of the costly machining required to produce a Skyline barrel from celluloid rod. Polystyrene also resists the corrosive action of some inks, making it a material of choice for use in pens that could handle the new faster-drying formulas then appearing on the market.

Polystyrene could not be made in the brilliantly patterned colors that were available with celluloid, and this minor deficiency led to the eventual discontinuation of the Modern Stripe Skylines. Eversharp continued to produce striated celluloid caps, however, because the sleeve that makes the body of a Skyline cap could be turned easily from tube stock. Shown here are a Modern Stripe Red Skyline in celluloid and a Jet Black Skyline in polystyrene:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Eversharp was not the only maker to adopt polystyrene. David Kahn Inc. had been experimenting with injection molding since David Kahn himself had purchased molding equipment in Germany in the late 1920s, some years before I. G. Farben had perfected the process. Kahn’s company contributed to the war effort by producing huge quantities of injection-molded valve caps for inner tubes to go into military vehicle tires. The company further capitalized on the cost of the valve-cap molding dies by using them to mold blind caps for the button-filling Wearever Pacemaker (pictured earlier in this article), a celluloid Striped Duofold knockoff that Kahn introduced during the war. Beginning in 1944 with the solid-colored Wearever Zenith (shown below), Kahn also produced polystyrene pens.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass


Seen in retrospect, Waterman’s new celluloid design, while it produced aesthetically pleasing pens, had a consequence that made the Hundred Year Pen’s century-long guarantee a sad joke. Unfortunately, celluloid is a relatively unstable material. Its instability appears as ambering (discoloration) and, in more severe cases, as crystallization, crazing, cracking, and eventual crumbling. The tendency to crystallize is directly proportional to the object's thickness and inversely proportional to the curing time and the amount of colorant in the celluloid. The combination of these factors has led to the disintegration of the transparent barrel ends on celluloid Waterman pens that featured this design, including Hundred Year Pens, Commandos, and Taperites. (The barrel end of the Hundred Year Pen shown with this article has been professionally replaced with a more stable material.)

The worst disadvantage of Eversharp’s polystyrene did not become evident until some decades after the Skyline ended its product life in 1948. The early resin formulation was relatively untested, and the pens often faded. As annoying as a cosmetic defect like that can be, a more serious problem was that under under the chemical action of some inks, certain parts could deteriorate mechanically to the point of becoming brittle and frangible over time. Polystyrene Skyline inner caps, molded integrally with the cap derby, are sometimes found in a crumbled state.

David Kahn Inc. had more than a decade’s experience with polystyrene before Eversharp got into the fray, and in that time Kahn’s people had learned a thing or two that turned out to be beneficial. Wartime molded Wearever pens do not appear to be subject to the crumbling decay that ruins some Eversharps.

The “Real Deal”

Advertising blottersIn every country that was involved in the war, patriotism sprang up everywhere. In some countries, you were patriotic “or else”; in others, patriotism was the natural outgrowth of the fact that the home front was as much a part of the war as were the young men and women who were off fighting somewhere. Especially in the United States, where the home front was virtually untouched by the ravages of the conflict, manufacturers played on people’s patriotic sentiments (as noted earlier) to sell their products.Matchbook So much of patriotic Americans’ daily life was about supporting the “boys over there” that Olive Drab became a popular color. Patriotic merchandising affected pens, of course, and it also affected pen-related accessories and ephemera. One obvious example was advertising blotters. A staple of a world in which the principal writing instrument was the fountain pen, advertising blotters were given away by thousands of businesses, and some companies’ blotters got a wartime makeover. Shown to the left are several blotters from a series titled “America’s Finest Planes,” produced to promote Bond Bread, a product of the General Baking Company of New York.

The pen model that got the biggest bang for the buck with Olive Drab was Morrison’s Patriot, which was also advertised by a peripheral product, in this case matchbooks like the one to the right above. The Patriot had been introduced before the United States became a combatant, and it was produced in versions honoring the four U.S. military services and several other organizations such as the American Legion and Britain’s Royal Air Force. The Blue Star Mothers, an organization of American mothers who had sons or daughters in the service, was conceived by U.S. Army Captain George Humphrey Maines and founded in Flint, Michigan, in February 1942, and Morrison even made a Blue Star Mothers Patriot. Here are Army, Navy, Air Corps, and Marine Corps Patriots:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass Patriot cap crown
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Each of the service pens has the crest of its service, cast in sterling silver and thinly plated with gold, glued to the cap crown. The cap-crown emblem to the right of the pens, cast in sterling and enamel filled, is for the Blue Star Mothers. The most significant feature of these pens, however, is not the external design, but the internal one that resulted from the progressively stricter rationing of critical war resources. When limits were established on the use of steel, Morrison switched to gold nibs; and in late 1942, when the WPB published an almost crippling limitation on rubber (which was needed for tires for military vehicles), Morrison began producing a version of its Patriot that complied with the new regulations. The new version used a syringe (Post) filler, with the entire barrel screwing off to expose the filling unit. Except for the disappearance of the filling lever, the new Patriot was exactly the same in appearance as the old.

fountain pen filler Magnifying glass

The new Patriot lived up to its name when it came to conserving critical war resources. Except for the filler’s two gaskets, the nib, and the metal parts on the cap, the entire pen — including the section and feed — was made of celluloid.

Wartime pens in America did not spring suddenly into existence after Pearl Harbor. In Chicago, Illinois, Solomon M. Sager, founder of the Sager Pen Corporation, realized early on that Yankee troops would be going into battle. His response was to reintroduce the trench pen, which had appeared during World War I. Trench pens were eyedropper fillers that made their own ink by mixing a dried ink pellet or tablet with water in the barrel; but Sager’s version — which he intended to be used by civilians as well — added the multiple-fill feature pioneered in the ’20s and ’30s. Sager even set up the Graphomatic Corporation to be the manufacturer of his new Inkmaker pens. Shown here is an Inkmaker in “Military Khaki”; the pens also appeared in Jet Black, Burgundy, Navy Blue, and Hospital White.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Sager was careful in designing the Inkmaker to ensure that it met the needs of the military audience, foremost of which (after eliminating the need to carry bottled ink in the field) was a military clip, so that the pen would not disturb the appearance of a soldier’s uniform while being carried in his pocket. (For obvious reasons, unless the soldier’s commander was a “chickenshit” officer, this restriction did not apply in combat.) He also ensured that it used no potentially critical resources: the nib was 14K gold, the feed was plastic, the clip was made of the same plastic as the pen body, the cap band and section trim were made of gold-plated sterling silver, and the seal at the back of the barrel was made of a flexible plastic. There was no rubber anywhere in the pen.

Good Ideas Should Be Shared

Morrison’s Patriot was not the only syringe-filling pen to appear during World War II. With virtually crippling restrictions on the amount of rubber available for pen manufacture, and with the Rev. Woodruff Post’s patent (U.S. Patent No 510,145) long since expired, cheap pens with syringe fillers (including the blue Conklin illustrated near the beginning of this article) appeared in relatively great numbers. These cheap pens were made along more traditional lines, with the front half of the barrel forming the ink reservoir and the back half forming a blind cap that screwed off to expose the plunger in the same manner as in the Post pens of earlier decades. These pens were made extremely cheaply, with crudely fashioned filler parts and, in most cases, with celluloid sections fused onto barrels rolled up from thin celluloid sheet. Today, most are virtually impossible to repair. Here is a DU-PONT pen, better made than most of its competitors in that it has a hard rubber section. This pen has been refitted with a Pelikan M200 nib, with plating removed from the tines to match the original DURIUM TIPPED nib’s design.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Interestingly, although most of the cheap syringe fillers featured bright and cheery colors, there was at least one produced in Olive Drab. This pen has no brand markings:

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Unlike many of its competitors, including the Morrison and DU-PONT pens shown here, this anonymous pen has a military clip and could indeed have been worn by a soldier or a Marine while in uniform.

Service Sets: Convenience for the Serviceman and Woman

Pen makers had long offered sets of a pen and pencil together; but for those in the military, carrying writing instruments in the breast pocket was not necessarily convenient and might (as did the Patriot) violate uniform requirements. People in the service needed a better way to carry their pens and pencils with them. Manufacturers answered the need by adding a leather carrying case that would keep the pen and pencil together and protect them while packing more compactly than a box (which might be crushed in a duffel bag or seabag). Sets with leather cases were called “service sets,” but anyone could buy them; the tacit assumption was that such sets were being purchased for service members. Shown here are service sets from Waterman and an unknown third-tier maker:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen

Price Fixing

OPA price/tax noticeProduction limits set by the WPB were not the only way U.S. government wartime regulations affected pen manufacture. Another government agency, the Office of Price Administration, was authorized to set ceiling prices for all items except agricultural products. The purpose of price ceilings was to prevent war profiteering, and because fountain pens were scarce, they were among the articles for which the OPA established ceilings. As shown by the slip of paper illustrated here (included with a Morrison Patriot service set), the OPA placed a $6.25 ceiling retail price on that particular service set, and there was also a 20% federal tax, bringing the buyer’s actual price for the set to $7.50. The paper states incorrectly that the federal tax was imposed on service sets, but it was actually imposed on gold nibs. Steel-nibbed service sets were not encumbered by the tax.

Not Your Grandfather’s Paper and Ink

V-Mail posterThe huge volume of mail being sent from the American home front to the men and women fighting overseas created the need for a more efficient way to use the limited space available for transport. Letters and parcels could be sent the usual way, but that mail went by ship and could take many weeks to arrive. In fact, given the Germans’ unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, mail sent by ship might not arrive at all. To provide for reliable, expedited delivery, the government created V-Mail (“V” for Victory), a system whereby people would write their letters on special V-Mail forms that folded up to make their own envelopes, like the Wessel’s Envo-Letters illustrated below. Folded, sealed, and mailed, the letters were sent to a central post office where they were unsealed, censored, and photographed onto rolls of microfilm that were then forwarded overseas by airplane. On arriving at rear-area centers in the war zones, the microfilmed letters were printed at 60% of their original size onto cheap, readily available paper, sealed, and delivered to their destinations.

The three dots and a dash between the letter V and the word Mail in the V-Mail logo are Morse code for the letter V.

Service personnel could send V-mail without charge. Others paid the usual rates, 3¢ for ground transport to the central post office for microfilming, and 6¢ for airmail. Not only did V-Mail save thousands of tons’ worth of space and weight, but it also foiled potential attempts at espionage because invisible ink, microprinting, and microdots would not reproduce on microfilm.

V-mail Envo-Letters

Photographic films designed for microfilm work were more sensitive to some colors than others. Betty’s beautiful purple ink and Edith’s gorgeous pale-blue ink would not register properly on microfilm. To solve this problem, pen and ink companies produced special V-Mail ink. Parker named the colors of its two V-Mail inks Micro-Film Black (shown here) and Micro-Film Blue.

V-Mail ink

On the Other Side of the Lines

German ration cardRestrictions on materials did not affect only the Allied nations. Axis civilians too found the necessities of life rationed, as illustrated by the German “cereal ration card” shown to the right, which entitled the named bearer to purchase specified quantities of cereal grains, starch, ersatz coffee, and certain food additives. Living conditions in Germany and Japan became progressively worse as Allied bombing destroyed not only homes, businesses, and factories, but also domestic food production, while blockades prevented imports of both war matériel and home goods.

The Nazis had recognized early on that Germany lacked sufficient resources to conduct a war and sustain the country’s people. They knew that they would have to purchase imported goods and raw materials. Reasoning correctly that neutral countries would be unlikely to accept Reichsmarks in payment, they established a policy of plundering and hoarding gold. They placed gold on Germany’s list of critical war resources to restrict its use in the making of jewelry or other precious items, and they seized the gold stocks of countries they annexed or overran and even pried gold fillings from the teeth of people murdered in their extermination camps. The result, as it affected the pen industry, was that instead of fitting lesser pens with gold nibs, as happened with U.S. manufacturers such as Morrison, German first-tier makers such as Pelikan and Soennecken switched to steel nibs. Illustrated here are a Pelikan 100 and a Soennecken 118, both wartime pens fitted with flexible steel nibs. The Pelikan’s nib is imprinted with the letters CN in a circle. These letters stood for chromium and nickel, the two principal nonferrous elements in the Edelstahl (stainless steel) of which the nib was made.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

As in Allied countries, there were in Axis countries first-tier pens like those above, and there were lesser pens. One of the latter is the nameless German piston filler below. Like the two above, this pen has a flexible steel nib; the imprint reads Edel / Chromstahl / 1. Qual., meaning “Noble / Chrome Steel / 1st Quality.” As on the Soennecken, the clip on this pen is gold plated rather than chromed as on the Pelikan.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Pocket calendarration bookletJapan, being an island nation with precariously limited natural resources, was even more pressed than Germany. The 1944 ration booklet illustrated to the right was issued in Okinawa to a woman named Mitsuaki Moromi. The long coupons at the top and bottom were specifically for cotton towels, socks, and yarn, while the coupons on the left half, each worth 1 ration unit, could be used toward whatever the buyer chose. In the face of America’s rapidly increasing use of unrestricted submarine warfare, the choice of available foodstuffs, the most critical need, grew more and more circumscribed until many Japanese were surviving on acorns, rough grains, and small amounts of rice, supplemented in rural communities by scavenged roadside weeds and roasted grasshoppers.

With less gold to be acquired in China and the European colonies in Asia and Oceania than in Europe proper, the Japanese reportedly intended to finance their war effort with gold looted from Southeast Asia. It is not clear now much gold was looted, but there are persistent stories of a huge hoard collected by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was called “The Tiger of Malaya.” Whether there was such a hoard or not, the Japanese government, as in Germany, listed gold as a critical war resource, and Japanese pen makers found themselves compelled to use progressively less gold. The gold-plated steel nib in the urushi-coated hard rubber eyedropper-filling pen shown below (upper), made by the Morison Factory Company, indicates that the pen was made during the 1930s, after the company’s 1933 name change. In 1938, a total embargo on gold ushered in a period lasting until some years after the war, during which all new pens had chrome-plated furniture and nibs of unplated steel, known as 白 (shiro, “white” nibs).

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

During the war, as in Allied nations, companies in the Axis countries converted to the production of war matériel. In Japan, Morison made wireless transmitter parts for the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company until the Morison factory was totally destroyed by Allied bombing. The Sailor Pen Company produced munitions for the Imperial Japanese Navy but was still able to produce a small quantity of pens. The shiro nib and the poor quality of the chrome plating on the furniture of the celluloid Sailor eyedropper-filler shown here mark this latter pen as having been made during the war, with the clip design suggesting the closing years of the conflict:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Until concerted Allied naval blockades and aerial bombing crippled Japan’s industrial capacity, Japan was producing more aluminum than Great Britain and the Soviet Union combined ( (141,100 tons in 1943 vs 118,900 tons). Enough aluminum was available over the urgent needs of wartime aircraft manufacture to allow the production of the unusual aluminum-overlay pen shown here. This eyedropper-filling pen, made by the Best Pen Company, has a slightly flexible shiro nib, aluminum cap and blind cap, and an aluminum overlay on a hard rubber barrel. The high quality of its stainless steel clip, in comparison with the usual shoddy chrome-plated furniture on wartime Japanese pens, indicates that it was unusually well made for the time.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Material shortages did not prevent Japanese pen makers from advertising, and like their American counterparts they took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves. Pocket calendars have long been immensely popular among Japanese citizens, and the 1938 Pilot pocket calendar to the left above is a typical example of something useful that was also a patriotic advertisement. The red text along the left side reads, “Pilot High Quality Fountain Pens” while the black text reads, “Invincible Japan.”

Taperite Advertisement, 1946 Magnifying glass


The war wrought its changes on all aspects of life; and when daily life returned to normal, it turned out that even “normal” had changed. New technology enabled more rapid and more economical manufacture of better pens, and new cultural norms made the sexes more nearly equal than at any time in the past — which also played a role in pen design and marketing. (See, for example, the Waterman adver­tise­ment to the right, clearly targeted at the postwar “Modern Woman”!) Pens from the war years offer a surprisingly penetrating look at the times, and a collection containing nothing made before 1940 or after 1945 would be a richly fascinating one indeed.

  1. The Billboard, August 7, 1943, page 52.  Return

  2. Apparently, everyone working at Parker’s Janesville plant received one of these pens; Henry Ahrbecker, who got this one, was a 64-year-old part-time custodian.  Return

  3. Priority AA-1 was the highest procurement priority, used by the U.S. government to purchase parts and supplies for critical projects such as the Manhattan Project. Parker registered copyright for this ad, containing the phrase “Priority AA-1” on June 20, 1945 (Catalog of Copyright Entries, New Series. Vol. 40 No. 1 Pg. 167, Library of Congress Copyright Office, 1945. Registration number KK 33131).  Return

  4. Technical Sergeant John A. Hauck served as a divisional clerk in the Army’s 7th Infantry Division from mid-1943 until the end of the war, while the division was deployed to retake and hold the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska.  Return

  5. Written hastily by Maurey Coleman Harris immediately after Pearl Harbor. Published on December 17, 1941, recorded by Sammy Kaye on the same day, and released on January 2, 1942. Subsequently recorded by several other popular bandleaders.  Return

  6. Tubeless tires were patented in 1903 by P.W. Litchfield of the Goodyear Tire Company, but they were not put into production for half a centiury, first appearing on the 1954 Packard.  Return

  7. Morrison used the “Air Corps” name throughout the war despite the fact that the U.S. Army Air Corps had in June 1941 been officially renamed the U.S. Army Air Forces.  Return

  8. Do not confuse Morison (with one r) with Morrison. The former was a Japanese company, originally named Kikaku Man’nenhitsu Seisakusho. For more information, refer to the Glossopedia’s entry on Morison.  Return

  9. This was not the international embargo of 1917, which was lifted in 1930. It was an internal embargo imposed by the Japanese government in 1932 in an effort to stem the financial hemorrhaging that resulted from the cost of the Manchurian campaign in 1931. Some gold use was allowed until 1938, when the total prohibition was put in place after the 1937 invasion of China.  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. My thanks to David Rzeszotarski, who provided images and information about life in Japan during the war.

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