(This page revised February 9, 2021)
Not even a Supreme Court case could keep this plucky entrepreneur down.
|This 1897 A. A. Waterman two-page advertisement in The American Stationer & Office Outfitter lauds the virtues of the company’s middle-joint pens.
In partnership with Edward L. Wilson, A. A. set up the first A. A. Waterman Pen Company to build high-quality eyedropper-filling pens. Shown here are an RMHR taper-cap pen and a BCHR pen with repoussé barrel bands, both typical of similar pens from any number of manufacturers at the turn of the 20th century:
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Soon, the company began producing pens of A. A.’s own design, featuring a joint in the middle of the barrel instead of in the usual place, intended to avoid depositing ink on the user‘s fingers (U.S. Patent No 619,702). Waterman called this design the “Union Joint” and advertised that it “swept away” the past, overcoming every fault of older designs, which had the joint near the front end of the pen. The pens featured good-sized 14K gold nibs and were sold at moderate prices.
The back half of the barrel, which was the ink reservoir, was externally threaded, and it screwed into the front part of the barrel. This design allowed the user to fill the reservoir completely without the risk that the pen would eject some ink when its two parts were screwed together, and A. A.’s advertising did not fail to point out this advantage.
The company lasted until 1899, when it was dissolved as the result of a lawsuit brought by the L. E. Waterman Company claiming that A. A. was trading on the well-established Waterman name. It was common, especially in the more remote parts of the country, for people to associate a product with the salesman who sold it rather than with the company that made it, and when A. A. had left L. E. Waterman, he had naturally taken advantage of that association.
A. A. thereupon formed a new company by himself, two months later entering into partnership with Edson E. Dewey to manufacture Dewey’s Perfect Self-Filling Fountain Pen. This incarnation of A. A. Waterman & Company, also located in Boston, lasted only until late in 1900, when it was dissolved and its assets transferred to Dewey’s year-old Colonial Pen Company to satisfy a debt. Among those assets were the patent rights to A. A.’s middle-joint design, and soon other companies were making middle-joint pens. The pen shown above is actually not an A. A. Waterman product; it is a hub fountain pen, No 31, made by the Hub Fountain Pen Company of Everett, Massachusetts. (Waterman’s own pens did not have a protruding ring at the location of the barrel joint; the addition of this ring provided the user with a visual cue that could prevent him from getting ink on his fingers when opening the pen to refill it.)
Once again, in 1901, A. A. started over, founding what was to be his third and last pen manufacturing firm, in partnership with William G. Frazer and Hobart W. Geyer. The new company, located in New York City, was registered as the Modern Pen Company, but it continued using the A. A. Waterman name. This might simply have been because A. A. was well known and the name would sell pens, but it might also have been because A. A. owned the patent on a critical feature it used. He had developed a feed (U.S. Patent No 638,779) that would hold a little ink when the pen was carried nib uppermost, theoretically just enough that the pen would start on the first stroke. In about 1903, the company introduced a line of twist-filling pens based on a patent taken out by Harry W. Stone (U.S. Patent No 744,642) and assigned to Waterman, Frazer, and Geyer; this design is the one that is today most widely recognized as belonging to A. A. Waterman. Advertised as “The Pen with the Magic Button,” it was claimed to be “as easy as winding your watch” to fill. Shown here are two typical early-production twist fillers in mottled hard rubber:
|Pens lent by Mike Kennedy
The pens above do not bear model numbers, but they do carry an imprinted line, above the company name and patent numbers, that reads automatic self-filling modern.
As shown by a 1903 stock offering from Frazer and Geyer that identified them as the actual manufacturing force behind the Modern Pen Company, Modern might also have produced pens for their Lincoln Pen Company. Shown here is a Lincoln pen featuring a silkscreened imprint of Abraham Lincoln on the cap. This pen came in a box identifying A. A. Waterman & Company as the manufacturer, and other Lincolns are actually imprinted with the A. A. Waterman & Company name:
|Pen lent by Daniel Kirchheimer
In addition to its relatively ordinary black, black chased, and mottled hard rubber models, Modern produced overlay models, “Mounted in Sterling Silver, Gold Filled and Mother Of Pearl [sic].” Overlay models were offered in both filigree (as illustrated by the example below, personalized with the initials MBJ) and full-overlay versions, the latter available with “chased” designs such as a checkerboard or with elegant repoussé work.
With the Modern Pen Company doing what looked like a land-office business selling pens of notably high quality, the life of A. A. Waterman would appear to have settled down. However, as we shall see, such was not the case.
From a business point of view, A. A. Waterman’s third company would seem to have been a fatal venture for him. In 1905, he left the company under an agreement that named the reduced partnership of Frazer and Geyer as manufacturer and sales agent for the Eastern United States and Waterman as sales agent for the Western region. Some modern accounts state that A. A. was forced out, but the evidence strongly suggests that he was a willing signatory. As he himself wrote later, this agreement was actually made to protect him, giving him a way to “hide out” while continuing to produce pens right under the nose of the L. E. Waterman Company, and he did so until he retired in 1919 — but not, as will be seen later, as an independent manufacturer.
Lewis E. Waterman died in 1901, but his death did not stop his company, under the leadership of his son Frank D. Waterman, from pursuing legal action against those who offended against it. In 1910, the L. E. Waterman Company sued Frazer and Geyer, aka the Modern Pen Company, again over the Waterman name. The court decided in L. E. Waterman’s favor; and after the appeals had settled, Modern was handed an injunction ordering that all pens thenceforth manufactured by the Modern Pen Company must be imprinted made by A. A. waterman & co. and must also bear an imprinted legend disclaiming an association with L. E. Waterman: not connected with the original waterman pen. Shown here is a BHR A. A. Waterman No 30 pen bearing this legend:
In 1912, the L. E. Waterman Company again sued Frazer and Geyer, this time over “devious” advertising tactics allegedly implying that the two companies were affiliated. District Court judge George C. Holt and Circuit Court judges Henry G. Ward and Walter C. Noyes decided in L. E. Waterman’s favor and issued a stronger injunction requiring that all pens thenceforth manufactured by Modern must bear a revised legend: not connected with the l. e. waterman company. On appeal, the case ended up going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 30, 1914, Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., delivered the Court’s opinion, which upheld the lower court's ruling.
Life went on for the Modern Pen Company while the 1912 decision was being reviewed by the Supreme Court. In January 1912, the company had received the assignment of a novel clip design (U.S. Patent No 1,016,166, issued to Marius Marcucci). The new clip’s virtue was that it could be installed easily, from the outside of the cap, without tools. It is not clear whether this clip actually entered production, but in 1913 an even better design came Modern’s way in the form of U.S. Patent No 1,075,815, issued to William L. Chapman. This latter clip became the famous “A. A. Clip”; in addition to installing in the same way as Marcucci's design, it also allowed the pen to seat as much as half an inch (13 mm) lower in the pocket. Because it could be stamped as a single piece from sheet stock, it was also less costly to manufacture. Shown here are excerpts from the two patents. Conveniently, Chapman (right) used the same part numbering as Marcucci (left); the clips work as follows: Callout 22 is a small tab with a T-shaped end. It was inserted into a longitudinal slot in the cap, and then the clip was rotated 90° until the pin at callout 50 dropped into a hole in the cap:
Sometime around 1910–1912, Modern adopted a threaded-cap design. The gripping section in this version was very short. It is possible that the idea was to put the threads below the place where the average user would grip the section; if this was the case, then if the pen did happen to eject a little ink into the cap, it would be unlikely that that ink would make it past the threads to soil the user’s fingers. This advancement did not enable Modern to claim that it was now producing safety pens, however; each pen had a single small hole in the side of the barrel to equalize air pressure, and that hole was a potential point of leakage if the sac should happen to fail. The pens below, a No 39M (upper) and a No 48M (lower), illustrate the short gripping section. The No 48M also features the A. A. clip:
There was yet another lawsuit in 1916, not unexpectedly from the L. E. Waterman Company. The case was decided in 1917, and this time the judgment required Modern to stop using the Waterman name altogether, although it could continue using A. A. In a way, the whole eight-year saga was unfortunate because the repeated publicity implied that the pens made by the Modern Pen Company were in some way inferior to those of L. E. Waterman, and that is not the case. Their business ethics aside, they produced pens that were equal in quality to those of L. E. Waterman, and in some cases better.
From earliest production to latest, the shape of the twist knob changed. It was originally bell shaped, but long before the Modern Pen Company disappeared from the scene in 1921, the knob had become cylindrical. Shown below are an early knob (left) and a later one (right). Very early production had no indication of which way the knob should be turned to fill the pen. Later, Modern began imprinting a directional arrow showing the user which way to turn, as illustrated on the cylindrical knob to the right below. After that arrow first appeared, it never went away. Late pens did not have it filled with white, but it was still there when America went to war in 1941.
A. A. Waterman’s use of the Stone twist filler is so well known that it might seem as though the Modern Pen Company made no other types of pens once the twist filler got going. That would be a mistaken assumption; even though the ubiquitous twist fillers were almost true safety pens once Modern adopted a threaded cap design, the company still competed with L. E. Waterman for the retractable safety market. The pen shown here was made after the 1914 Supreme Court ruling affirming a lower court’s order that required Modern pens to bear a stronger disclaimer imprint than had been required before 1912.
|Pen lent by Daniel Kirchheimer
This pen exhibits two clear differences from the L. E. Waterman design:
The barrel had an external conical seal to mate with the cap. The L. E. Waterman design used an internal conical seal that mated with a cylindrical boss inside the cap.
The operating knob, a cylindrical knob exactly like that on contemporaneous twist fillers, was smaller in diameter than the barrel. In the L. E. Waterman version (and most others), the knob was very slightly larger than the barrel. It was thus possible to post the Modern pen’s cap, but it could not be used as an operating knob, a feature of L. E. Waterman’s retractable safeties. It is likely that Modern promoted this difference as an advantage; on L. E. Waterman’s pens, the cap/knob could be inadvertently rotated while the pen was being handled, resulting in an unintentional discharge of ink onto the user’s clothing, workpiece, or other objects.
It can be difficult to date a pen like this, but in this case we can come quite close, as the pen itself gives us all the information we need. It bears two disclaimer imprints, one over the other: first a faint copy of the 1910 disclaimer and over it a much deeper copy of the final 1914 version. This combination of imprints very likely dates the pen to late 1914 or early 1915.
In 1921, the Modern Pen Company was sold and relocated to Chicago, Illinois, becoming the Chicago Safety Pen Company, under which name it continued to offer pens of the existing A. A. Waterman design as well as a line of lever fillers. At least some of these pens, of both types, were marked A. A. waterman & co. / modern pen co. successors / not connected with the l. e. waterman pen co.
The new president of the company was Clarence E. Barrett. Barrett also owned C. E. Barrett & Company, whose major source of revenue came from parts and nibs for the National Pen Products Company. Additionally, there is speculation that Barrett owned National Pen Products. If this speculation is accurate, then the A. A. Waterman brand was inevitably going to disappear under Barrett’s ownership, as indeed it did in time. The pen shown here — a BCHR lever filler fitted with William Chapman’s patented A. A. clip — was one of the last pens to bear the A. A. Waterman name, in this case accompanied by the imprint of the National Pen Products Company:
Among the pens National Pen Products made, over quite a long period, was a range of Webster pens, a house brand of Sears, Roebuck, & Company. In the fall of 1941, when military clips were the order of the day, Sears introduced the Webster “Gold Dot” model shown below. These pens carried a lifetime warranty and were priced at $2.95; there were also a special edition with a platinum-plated cap for the same price, intended especially for servicemen, and a standard non-“Gold Dot” edition with a 15-year warranty for $1.98:
The same basic pen also appeared as a lever-filler (below), but not along with the twist filler. It replaced the twist filler in the catalog for spring and summer 1945, in effect ending the 40-plus year saga of A. A. Waterman’s pens.
But what of A. A. Waterman himself? In 1910, he was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the U.S. Census for that year lists his occupation as “commercial traveler.” That's another term for a traveling salesman, and A. A. was selling fountain pens. Two years later, in 1912, the Good Service Pen Company was founded in Minneapolis, selling and repairing fountain pens. The pens it sold were its own brand. The Good Service pen shown below is very interesting. Although it has a gripping section of conventional design, the filling system is easily recognizable as the classic A. A. Waterman twist filler, complete with a directional arrow imprinted on its cylindrical knob.
Who made this pen? The 1905 agreement under which A. A. left the Modern Pen Company included a 36-year non-compete clause; therefore, A. A. could not have been making his own pens in Minneapolis. This fact, coupled with the manufacturing quality of the Good Service pens, even to a specific imperfection in the imprinted directional arrow, offers convincing proof that Modern made the pens and A. A. jobbed them. That he did so provides additional evidence, beyond the wording of the 1905 agreement itself, to refute the myth that he left Modern under a cloud.
But wait! A. A. Waterman retired in 1919, but he wasn’t done yet. In 1922, the Good Service Pen Company was being run by John Fuller Waterman, who was the son of Arthur Allan Waterman — and almost certainly his partner and successor in the business, then located in the Plymouth Building. Two years later, in 1924, A. A. had moved across the river to St. Paul and was operating A. A. Waterman’s Pen Shop. From 1926 to 1934 he managed The Abon, a different pen shop in St. Paul. All of these little facts, when put into line, lead to the inescapable conclusion that A. A. Waterman set up the Good Service Pen Company and stayed in the pen business until at least 1934, excepting a brief period after his 1919 retirement when he sold insurance. He died in 1939 at the ripe old age of 79 years.
A. A.’s long-running feud with the L. E. Waterman Company notwithstanding, there is no question that the A. A. Waterman twist filler, built on Harry Stone’s 1903 patent, was a successful pen. It was so successful, in fact, that imitators appeared (using different designs at the back end of the pen). In 1922, Charles H. Ingersoll founded the Chas. H. Ingersoll Dollar Pen Company, which produced several generations of twist fillers at prices beginning with the eponymous dollar. The W. A. Sheaffer Pen Company also got into the act in the 1930s, with a twist filler offered under its VACUUM-FIL sub-brand. Shown here are three generations of Ingersoll pens and a VACUUM-FIL twister.
And, as everyone knows, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Arthur Allan Waterman, our hats are off to you.
A. A. Waterman wrote that he was not related to L. E. Waterman, and he may well have thought that was the case; but they were actually sixth cousins, both descended from a Robert Waterman (1608–1652) and his son John (1642–1718). This table shows the relationship:
|Robert Waterman II
|Samuel Waterman Sr
|Samuel Waterman Jr
|Robert Waterman III
|Samuel Waterman III
|Elisha Waterman II
|Arthur A. Waterman
|Lewis E. Waterman
The complete text of the 1914 Supreme Court ruling includes a description of the 1905 agreement. This text can be found at https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/235/88.
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. Some of the information regarding the 1905 agreement and the business relationships among various of the players was provided by Daniel Kirchheimer, who also lent three of the pens for photography.