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|This Camel advertisement appeared in the June 1936 issue of Esquire Magazine.|
In 1935, a very bad year to start a company, Joseph Wustman founded the Camel Pen Company in Orange, New Jersey, to produce a line of fountain pens that he hoped would obsolete the competition overnight. His gimmick? The pens would make their own ink when filled with plain tap water. As the advertisement shown here says, “This... (pointing to a lever-filling fountain pen being filled) is now as out of date as this (pointing to a man shaving with a straight razor).”
Old Times, Old Pens
The idea of a pen that made its own ink wasn’t new. During World War I, Parker and other manufacturers had produced eyedropper-filling pens with a small screw-capped compartment at the back of the barrel for storing dry ink pellets. The idea was that you would drop a pellet into the barrel and fill the pen with water, and you’d have a pen full of ink. Made primarily for use by soldiers, who were not permitted to have bottled ink with them in the trenches of France, these pens are generally called “trench pens.” Shown here is a Mabie Todd “Swan” trench pen made probably in 1918:
New Times, a New Pen
Camel’s approach (U.S. Patent No 2,024,228, issued to Russell B. Kingman and Ralf L. Hartwell) was radically different. This patent describes a replaceable cartridge (shown at left) containing an ink pellet, mounted to the back end of the barrel and mated to a lever-style filler. Unlike the pellets for use in trench pens, Camel’s pellet dissolved slowly, over the span of dozens of fillings. (The cartridge bore an imprint reading NEVER EMPTY NEEDLESSLY to remind the user that emptying the pen was wasteful of the pellet’s reserve.) The lever-filling version never appeared in a production pen, however; a later patent, issued to Kingman alone (U.S. Patent No 2,123,427), introduces the exact filler design that Camel actually used: the cartridge is built into a button filling mechanism.
The concept was good: a modern pen that could free the user from the shackles of an ink bottle for a year or more. But, as so often happens in the real world, the execution was not satisfactory. The ink pellet’s slow — but continuous — dissolving meant that the pen’s writing was thin and watery immediately after filling, and thick and muddy at the end of a fill. The pens were well made, though, and purchasers found that they worked very nicely as ordinary button fillers. The pen shown here fell toward the bottom of Camel’s line; its furniture is relatively flimsy and thinly gold plated, and it was fitted with an untipped steel nib:
In order to support the removable ink cartridge, the filling system (functionally a button filler) is structurally quite different from that in a typical sac-filling pen:
The sac is actually a tube open at both ends, attached to the section at the front and to a tubular red hard rubber holder at the rear. The ink cartridge screws into the rear holder. The pressure bar is notched at both ends to fit into slots cut in the section and the holder, and it is secured by metal bands. To fill the pen, the user unscrewed the blind cap from the end of the barrel and then pressed and released the button (actually the end of the ink cartridge) while the nib and section were immersed in water. Shown here is the end of the barrel with the blind cap removed to show the cartridge/button:
Camel pens are distinctly Art Deco in style, but beyond the unusual filling system they are quite ordinary. Sections are hard rubber, bodies are celluloid, and nibs appear at several quality levels, ranging from untipped steel to very good 14K gold. Shown here is a deluxe-level Camel (style 15), longer than the one at the top of this article and fitted with a Camel-imprinted gold nib.
The two pens shown above illustrate Camel’s lower and higher-line models. There was a third basic model (style 64), fitted with double narrow cap bands as shown here:
Like the low-line pen at the beginning of this article, this black pen was fitted with an untipped steel nib. (This pen’s nib has lost all but traces of its gold plating.) To fill intermediate slots in its line, Camel offered both of these models with gold nibs as well as steel.
Decline and Fall
As pen sales slacked off due to the filler’s unsatisfactory performance, Camel engineers saw the handwriting on the wall and took steps to save the company. They redesigned the back end of the pen to eliminate the ink cartridge by converting the hard rubber holder into a solid block that also included the shape of the now-departed cartridge. These later pens are easy to identify because their filler buttons are red:
The button illustrated above is in the pen shown below. This pen, later than the ones above, illustrates how Camel changed without changing; it retains the elaborate Art Deco styling of the deluxe pen above:
This change converted the pen, functionally speaking, into an ordinary button filler. But the mechanism, except for the disappearance of the ink cartridge, remained the same, and it was a relatively costly one. The engineers soon went further, redesigning the filling system so that it was in all respects an ordinary button filler. (Interestingly, the pen whose filler is shown here still bears the complete Camel barrel imprint, including the words “Holds a Year’s Ink.”)
As the photo above shows, the engineers kept the fat button, now made of celluloid and hollowed to allow insertion of a cheap pressure bar’s end. In order to secure the new button into the barrel, they created a threaded ferrule of aluminum. This filler design is thus easy to recognize because it has metal threads on the end of the body instead of plastic threads on the open end of the blind cap:
But getting rid of the unsuccessful cartridge system was not enough to save the day, and the original Camel company was out of business before the end of 1938. Camel’s assets did not go to waste, however. When the company failed, Wustman transferred at least some of its parts and raw materials to the Newark Pen Company, which he also owned and which began making Camel-branded lever fillers like the stickered mid-line model shown below. This pen is fitted with a Camel-imprinted 14K nib:
Camel-branded pens later emerged from the Wearever factory in North Bergen, New Jersey; these pens are markedly inferior in quality to those made by Wustman’s companies.
The Fly in the Ointment, for the Modern Collector
Camels are good solid pens and work very well as ordinary button- or lever-filling pens. The catch is that the original button-type filling system (either with or without the removable cartridge) is more difficult to repair than most; the metal parts are often found corroded to the extent that the back-end parts are frozen in position. Attempting to disassemble the pen without understanding exactly how it is built will usually result in destruction of the section, cartridge holder, or pressure bar — or all three. If you’re not an experienced restorer, it behooves you to find one who is familiar with the Camel design.
Swat That Fly! Camels Are Collectible — and Fixable!
As one of America’s lesser-known and more unusual brands, Camels can be an exciting brand to collect. The color range is broad enough to make a complete collection quite a challenge, one whose pursuit will be well rewarded through the thrill of the chase.
Because I have no Camel catalog information, the following color table is not definitive. It lists only colors that I have personally seen. All color names are my own guesses.
|The Colors of the Camel Pen|
|Gray and Brown|
|Gray and Brown “Shadow Wave”|
|Gray “Shadow Wave”|
|Green “Shadow Wave”|
|Red “Shadow Wave”|
|Red Veined Gray Pearl|
Some sources record that Newark already existed when Wustman founded Camel in 1935; others say that Wustman founded Newark out of the ashes of Camel.
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 Tom Levien for the loan of some of the pens illustrated here.