(This page revised January 22, 2022)
|This very early Balance advertisement appeared on the back cover of the May 1929 issue of National Geographic Magazine. It features an ice skater to emphasize the elegant balance of the new design.|
The First Streamlined Fountain Pen: Early fountain pens were made of hard rubber, and they were of pretty generic shape, usually plain cylinders with flat ends and the occasional cap with a hemispherical end. In 1924, Sheaffer introduced the first widely successful plastic pen, made of celluloid; but although colors blossomed excitingly over the next few years, shapes continued dull and cylindrical and fairly heavy.
Then, in 1929, just as streamlined was becoming the watchword of major industrial designers such as Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes, Sheaffer got the jump on virtually all of its competitors by introducing a radical departure in pen design, the elegantly torpedo-shaped Balance (U.S. Patent No D78,795, issued to Craig R. Sheaffer). Suddenly, new pens were attractively streamlined, with smoothly tapered ends. The new pen’s excellent ergonomic design set a new standard for writing ease and comfort: it was light, so light that it almost floated over the paper! Not only was the Balance designed to be light in weight, but what weight there was, was distributed so that the pen, even when posted, was lightest at the back end of the barrel and heaviest at the nib end. No longer would a pen lean backward in the user’s hand, gently but persistently lifting the nib from the paper. You could use a Balance all day long without worrying about hand fatigue!
This illustration shows a very early Jade Green
Oversize Lifetime Balance, made in 1929 or 1930.
Despite its dramatic new shape, the Balance was a conventional pen internally. That was not a bad thing, as Sheaffer’s pens of that period were, and still are, remarkably durable and reliable. Furthermore, it should be noted that although the Balance was torpedo shaped, tapered at both ends, it was not the first fountain pen to feature a tapered barrel — or the first to be advertised using the term “balanced.” The honor for creating the first “balanced” fountain pen (not counting desk pens) goes to William A. Houston. It is unarguable, however, that Sheaffer took the concept to a higher level.
Over the decade following the introduction of the Balance, innumerable cheap copies appeared as me-too companies rushed to get on the bandwagon. Some were obvious ripoffs even to the clip design, while others were a little less exact. One of the latter has a cap that is a very close copy but a barrel with a hemispherical end.
During the same period, Sheaffer made several subtle changes to its own design, mostly in the area of smoother, more attractive clips and gripping sections. The following table illustrates the various clip designs.
|The Clips of the Balance|
|When Sheaffer introduced the Balance in 1929, the pen bore a long humped clip that was essentially the same as the clip used on later models of the Flat-Top pen that had preceded the Balance. (Sheaffer continued to offer Flat-Top pens well into the 1930s, however, and it is not known whether the humped clip’s first appearance on Flat-Tops occurred before, concurrently with, or after the introduction of the Balance.) This clip is the first embodiment of U.S. Patent No 1,794,154, issued to William R. Cuthbert and assigned to Sheaffer. Here is an early Balance cap with the long humped clip. Note the round ball; the shape of the ball becomes important later.|
|In 1930 or 1931, Sheaffer modified the clip very slightly, shortening it a little and rounding its top so that it doesn’t stick out straight, as shown on the clip here. Like its predecessor, this version is referred to as a long round ball humped clip.|
|In 1931 or 1932, Sheaffer shortened the clip further and slightly streamlined its top. This new clip, called a short round ball humped clip, was used into 1934. Some reference books state that this streamlined version came into use in 1933, but I have seen a Blue 3-25 Balance, engraved on its band DL TO EMP 5-26-'32, with a clip of this design. The best evidence indicates that Sheaffer made these Blue pens no later than 1932.|
|In late 1934 or early 1935, Sheaffer flattened the top surface of the ball, leaving the remainder of the clip unchanged (U.S. Patent No D86,111). On Lifetime pens, this flat ball humped clip was used for only one year; but it continued to appear on lower-priced pens into the 1940s, long after it was discontinued on Lifetime models. When Sheaffer revived the Balance in the 1990s, this was the clip that the new version wore.|
|In late 1935 or early 1936, Sheaffer redesigned the clip, streamlining it (a feature of U.S. Patent No D96,023). The flat ball remains, but it is smaller. This clip, known as a “radius” clip, was used until Sheaffer retired the Balance in favor of its new “TRIUMPH” models in about the middle of 1942, during World War II.|
|During 1941 and early 1942, Sheaffer offered a military version of the Balance (U.S. Patent No D123,485, issued to Ray E. McKiernan and assigned to Sheaffer). This version’s clip, which made its appearance in 1940, has been described as an ordinary radius clip cleverly adapted to wrap over the top of the pen. It isn’t exactly what it seems, however; it uses existing design features, but it is a unique design made specifically as a military clip. Its anchor is similar to that of Sheaffer’s standard radius clip (shown above) but is somewhat beefier, the clip is significantly longer than a standard clip in order to span the greater distance over the cap and down the other side, and there is no visible ball protruding sidewise at the open end. The over-the-top clip design complied with military regulations of the time by allowing the pen to seat deeper in the pocket so that the user could button his pocket flap without having the pen show.|
None of these changes produced a pen that could be mistaken for anything except a Balance, but the final result was smoother and even more streamlined, and it set the standard for many pen companies. Sheaffer’s economy-priced Fineline pens of the late 1940s were virtual duplicates of the final Balance design; and the style remains so elegant that in the mid 1990s Sheaffer introduced the Balance II, a thoroughly modern pen whose design is very strongly reminiscent of the 1934/1935 Balance without being an exact duplicate.
This illustration shows a Balance 5-30 made probably in 1936. Note
the smoothly tapered section and the streamlind “radius” clip
In 1934, Sheaffer began “field testing” a new plunger-type filling system. Called Vacuum-Fil and protected by U.S. Patents Nos 1,926,405, 1,983,682, and 2,158,615, the system appeared first on pens carrying sub-brand names such as WASP and Vacuum or Vacuum-Fil. Offered alongside the venerable lever filler and at the same prices, the new system appeared on Balance pens beginning in 1935; it lasted until the introduction of the Touchdown filler in 1949, long after the Balance had been discontinued. Vacuum-Fil pens can be identified by the lack of a lever and the presence of a lightly knurled blind cap at the back end of the barrel. Shown here are two Balance Valiants (1941–1942) that are identical except for their fillers. Note the Visulated section in the lever-filled pen (upper); the Vacuum-Fil pen has transparent strips in the striated barrel, giving a good view of just how much ink is really there.
As noted above, the appearance of the Vacuum-Fil system did not drive out lever fillers. Sheaffer continued producing them into 1942, when wartime restrictions on rubber made it impracticable (and unpatriotic) to use that much rubber. (The entire Balance line was discontinued in 1942 with the advent of the “TRIUMPH” models.) Lever fillers reappeared after the end of the war and continued until the advent of the Touchdown.
For many years, collectors thought that the appearance of the Balance signaled the demise of Sheaffer’s previous model, the venerable “Flat-Top,” but such was not the case. Based on catalogs and other evidence, it appears that Sheaffer continued making Flat-Tops until at least 1939, and the company also marketed a hybrid design with the streamlined cap but a flat-ended barrel.
Until fairly recently, collectors also assumed that these hybrid pens were a transitional design, to use up old parts upon the introduction of the new model. This assumption is also not correct. Physical evidence and Sheaffer catalogs show that hybrid pens were real models and were sold well into the 1930s. The natural supposition is that these hybrids, now sometimes called “Half Balances,” were merely a less expensive option for the customer who needed to economize. (They may have been an attempt by Sheaffer to cut some of the third-tier copies out of the market.) In the pocket or posted, a Half Balance looks just like a “real” one; thus, it seems that you could have the status without the price. Overall, the price differential was small, only 50¢ — and, at that, the largest Balances were priced the same for either “Half” or “Full” models. (This pricing structure supports, but certainly does not prove, my supposition that the lower-priced Half Balance models were aimed at third-tier competitors.)
As with most other high-quality pens of the Golden Age, Sheaffer offered the Balance in several sizes, the smallest a “Petite” model and the largest an Oversize pen.
This illustration compares an Oversize Marine Green Balance with a
Petite Lifetime Balance. Both pens were made 1932–1934.
The most usual sizes were the short and full-length-size models. Both short and full-length Balances appeared in two girths; when Sheaffer began imprinting numbers to indicate prices, the company imprinted the number 1000 on the full-length Lifetime and 500 on its non-Lifetime sibling, while the shorter pens were imprinted 875 and 350, respectively. These numbers are not model numbers; they reflected Sheaffer’s retail price in dollars. Shown here is a Blue full-length slender pen from about 1932:
The following table lists the sizes of some Balance models in the 1930s. All dimensions are approximate; both subtle model changes and the natural variation between production runs produced a distinct range in actual measurements. For example, the 1929 standard-size Lifetime Balance is a little longer than its 1934 descendant because the earlier pen’s barrel taper is longer and less streamlined, and I have seen slender pens with barrel diameter as small as 0.406".
To correlate model names with sizes, refer to the Glossopedia.
|The Sizes of the Balance|
|Petite (350 & 875)||4"||" (0.422” )|
|Short slender girth (350 & 875)||4"||" (0.422” )|
|Short standard girth (500 & 1000)||4"||" (0.469” )|
|Full-length slender girth (350 & 875)||5"||" (0.422” )|
|Full-length standard girth (500 & 1000)||5"||" (0.469” )|
|Oversize||5"||" (0.516” )|
During the first half of the 1930s, combination pen/pencils (combos) were popular, and Sheaffer jumped on the bandwagon with its own combos (U.S. Patent No D78,794). Shown here is a late Balance combo:
Until 1938, if you asked what model a given Sheaffer pen was, the answer would be a number, like 3-25 or J 5-30P. In 1938, the company assigned names to all the Balance models; suddenly, instead of a 3-25, you could buy a Craftsman. Same price, same nib, same size, just an easy-to-remember name instead of a cryptic number. (The 3-25 number meant that the pen had a No 3 nib and was warranted for 25 years.) You can find a complete list of the 1938 model names in the Glossopedia.
Among the Balance variants there was one that Sheaffer manufactured in quantity but never offered to the public. For sale only to Sheaffer dealers, the bright red Balance illustrated below was what’s called a service pen, intended to be lent to customers whose pens required repairs that could not be performed while their owners waited. These pens were fitted with nibs smaller than would normally be used on pens of their size, and they were engraved to identify them as service pens; this example is engraved SERVICE PEN LOANED BY A. LA ROCHELLE:
Many modern pen makers have tried to capitalize on their heritage by issuing revived versions of older pens; the most successful of these has been Parker’s Duofold, but the Sheaffer Balance II, produced beginning in 1998 and featuring a somewhat lengthened flat-ball humped clip, was also a success, both in its lever-filler and cartridge/converter limited editions and in an open-production cartridge/converter version. Shown here is a Balance II LE in Aspen:
Over its long life, Sheaffer’s Balance wore many color variations. Although the Lifetime models usually received enhancements before the less expensive lines, the Blue color never appeared on Lifetime models; and colors that proved unpopular were used only briefly. To protect colors such as Ebonized Pearl and the striated patterns, Sheaffer took out design patents on pens featuring them (U.S. Patents Nos D92,212 and D99,218, respectively). The following table shows you the different colors used on Balance pens, in the order of their introduction. Use this color information in conjunction with the information above on clips to estimate the age of a Balance.
|The Colors of the Balance|
|Color||Name (Years Used)|
|Jet Black (1929–EOL)|
|Jade Green (1929–1932)|
|Pearl and Black (1929–1934)|
|Marine Green (1930–1935)|
|Red Veined Grey Pearl (1931–1935)|
|Grey Pearl (1934–1936)|
|Ebonized Pearl (1934–1939, until 1940 on Junior)|
|Golden Brown (1936–EOL)|
|Grey Pearl (1936–EOL)|
|Rose Glow (1936–1938)|
|Marine Green (1937–EOL)|
The color illustrations in the table are from photographs of actual pens. (3D highlighting was added with a computer.)
Some modern collectors have raised the question of whether Craig Sheaffer’s being credited with the design of the Balance pen and combo was a distortion of history; the patent for the design of the Balance pencil (U.S. Patent No D78,777) was issued to Harold C. Mundstock, Harold P. Falvey, and Willard W. Garrison.
As with 1930s flat-top pens, Half Balances exist with barrels made new at the time of the pens’ production; this is shown by the attachment of their levers with snap rings, a post-1931 innovation.
End Of Life, spanning a period of months beginning in mid-1942, when Sheaffer introduced its new “TRIUMPH” line.
This color, commonly called “Blue and Black,” was named Blue by Sheaffer, and it actually contains no true black. The areas that appear black are a very dark blue, whose color can be observed where one of these areas lies adjacent to a white streak such that the white is subducted under the blue. This material is prone to discolor, however, and when it discolors the dark blue areas almost always fade to a hue that looks black even under bright light.
At its 1936 introduction, the color was called Rose-Glow. In 1937, the hyphen disappeared; thereafter, the color was Rose Glow.
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 thanksl to Michael Richter, who compiled the color information, and to Roger Wooten and Daniel Kirchheimer, who have kindly contributed certain little-known information.