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Profile: William Houston, the Snapfil Pen, and What Happened in the Meantime

(This page published August 1, 2019)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


Snapfil advertisement, 1918 Magnifying glass
This Snapfil advertisement oc­cu­pied a half page in the St. Lou­is Post-Dis­patch’s Sun­day Ro­to­gra­vure sec­tion on July 14, 1918.

Manufacturer logoThe history of William A. Houston and his pen companies is about as clear as mud. One thing that is not in doubt, however, is that some excellent and innovative pens bearing his name flowed from factories with which he might, or might not, have been connected.

William Andrew Houston was born in 1872. By the time of the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, he had been married about a year and had a son three months old. He was at that time a successful barber in Tracy, Minnesota, but five years later he was living and working on the road as a traveling salesman. At some point, probably during the long nights while he was traveling, he came up with a novel design for a fountain pen feed, and in November 1908 he changed professions again, returned to Tracy and his family, and settled down to set up the Houston Pen Company, implementing his feed design in the manufacture of eyedropper- and matchstick-filling pens in a radically new style.

Fountain pen Fountain pen
Fountain pen Fountain pen

New! Really New!

Houston’s new/old style had the goal of eliminating the need to post the cap or hold it in one’s other hand while writing. Attached to the pen in the photos above is a chain that Houston called the “safety device,” about 5" (~13 cm) in length. This chain was attached to the ring atop the cap and fitted with a somewhat lyre-shaped “guard pin” at its other end. (The lyre shape became much more pronounced in a few years.) The gentleman user would pin the chain to his garment a few inches above his shirt or vest pocket. Ladies would hook the ring on the cap over the “tongue” of the safety device’s guard pin and allow the pen to hang therefrom. To write with the pen, the user would unscrew the pen from its cap and leave the cap dangling. The tapered back end of the elongated barrel provided something of the same length and balance normally created by a desk pen’s taper. (It also made the pen somewhat too long to clip into a pocket, and Houston did not market a version with a clip.)

The real “magic” of Houston’s pens was his cleverly conceived feed, dubbed the “Alligator Feed” after its toothed appearance. It was intended to provide better buffering of the variable ink flow produced by a pen with a flexible nib. Shown here are two figures from U.S. Patent No 999,648, for which Houston applied on January 3, 1911, and which he received on August 1, 1911.

Fountain pen

Figure 2 shows the shape of the feed as manufactured. The “ink conductor” (part 14 in the drawings) is somewhat resilient, and it curves gently upward when the nib is not present. When the nib is pressing on it, as shown in Figure 1, the ink conductor is forced downward. The “tongue” (part 15), which is somewhat more rigid than the ink conductor, does not flex; thus, the nib rests on the end of the tongue (callout 10), with the ink conductor lying below it. The wavy gap (callout 16) between the ink conductor and the tongue offers somewhat more capillary surface than a straight gap would offer. The particular feature of the feed is that when the writer applies pressure, the nib rises from the feed; the ink conductor rises with it, increasing the volume of the gap to allow the retention of a greater amount of ink than could otherwise be held. As the writer relaxes pressure, the nib and the ink conductor return to the rest position, reducing the volume of the gap and forcing it to disgorge the ink it contains. This action momentarily reduces the need to draw more ink from the reservoir.

In 1911, the Houston Pen Company added an “Inc.” to its name, listing as its officers William A. Houston, president and manager; Neil A. Finch, a Tracy merchant, vice-president; and Elizabeth V. Houston (William’s wife), secretary/treasurer. A year later it packed up and relocated from Tracy, Minnesota, to Sioux City, Iowa, where it took up residence at 496 South Chambers Street, moving within about a year to the Old Exchange Building at 1819-1823 Washington Avenue. The last Sioux City Directory in which the company appears was the 1917 edition, which was compiled in 1916; thereafter, it is absent. Iowa state records show that the Houston Pen Company had fallen into tax default, and there is no record that it ever paid off the taxes due. No state seizure of the company is recorded, and the most likely scenario is that Houston himself simply shut its doors in 1916 and walked away.

On May 17, 1917, a notice appeared in the Sioux City Journal, announcing the incorporation of the Houston Fountain Pen Company, whose business would be “to purchase, acquire, succeed to, conduct, carry on and continue the fountain pen business heretofore engaged in and transacted by the [defunct] ‘Houston Pen Company...’” The Houston Fountain Pen Company did not set up to conduct business in the Old Exchange Building; instead, it was located in the former Sioux City Brewing Company plant, on the southwest corner of 3rd and Park Streets. Officers of the company were Byron. H. Kingsbury, president; George S. Parker, vice president; and Henry A. Meyer, secretary/treasurer. Kingsbury and Meyer were also the president and secretary/treasurer of the General Manufacturing Company (which had already existed for about 18 months), and Parker was a banker.

The General Rides into Town

Running the clock backward a little, we find that the General Manufacturing Company suddenly appears in the record in the November 1915 issue of The Western Brewer, a monthly trade publication for brewing companies. On page 171 is the following squib:

      ——The Sioux City Brewing Co., of Sioux City, Iowa, who will discontinue brewing on account of the prohibi­tion law of that state, have changed their corporate name to the General Manufacturing Co., and will manufacture food products and do a general cold storage business...

The General Manufacturing Company was busily selling off its brewing equipment in 1916; but it would appear that the proposed food and cold-storage business did not pan out. Except for advertising to buy a new boiler and to rent out a two-story building located at 905-907 4th Street, the company was strangely silent in 1917 and 1918. By September 20, 1919, still “sharing space” with the Houston Fountain Pen Company in the old brewery building, it was advertising for 20 women and girls to work in a fountain pen factory. On December 1, its classified ad read, “We can now use a few girls for fountain pen work. Nice, light, clean employment. Pay every Saturday noon. No Saturday afternoon work.”

The question of what might have caused General Manufacturing suddenly to become a successful fountain pen manufacturer is answered by the existence of two things: the Houston Fountain Pen Company and U.S. Patent No 1,268,206, issued to Martin Borbeck on June 4, 1918, for his invention of a filling system that ran no risk whatsoever of falling afoul of Walter Sheaffer’s lever-filler design. Borbeck’s development was probably supported by Henry A. Meyer and Eric A. Burgess, to whom Borbeck assigned one-half of the patent. Meyer was the secretary/treasurer of the Houston Fountain Pen Company and also of the General Manufacturing Company, and Burgess was an attorney. The order in which things happened is not clear, but Borbeck’s patent drawings show his filler built into a pen that looks suspiciously like a Houston pen:

Fountain pen

The filler’s operation is simple. The “lever” (callout 16 in the drawings) is pivoted at the end toward the back end of the barrel. When the lever is raised, a secondary arm (callout 18), pivoting freely at the joint between itself and the lever, drops down into the position shown in Figure 2. (It is designed so that it can pivot only that far and no farther.) As the lever is then pressed toward the barrel, the end of the secondary arm that rests on the pressure bar (callout 12) pushes the pressure bar into the barrel, squeezing the sac. At the same time, the secondary arm is forced to slip along the pressure bar toward the back end of the barrel. As pressure continues and the end of the secondary arm moves farther along the pressure bar, a point is reached at which the force that is attempting to collapse the structure overcomes the resistance exerted by the friction between the arm and the pressure bar, and the arm pivots back into its rest position, releasing the pressure bar and also releasing the lever, which resumes its closed position with a snap!

Business Equipment Topics

As trumpeted by the advertisement above. which ran in several issues of Typewriter Topics magazine during 1920, the result of the alliance between Martin Borbeck and the General Manufacturing Company was the Houston Snapfil Fountain Pen. There were models at prices from $2.50 to $15.00. Shown here is a $4.00 model complete with its “safety device”:

Fountain pen Fountain pen
Fountain pen Fountain pen
Fountain pen Fountain pen

General Manufacturing registered the Snapfil logo, seen at the top of this page, as a U.S. Trademark (Serial No 113,621) on October 8, 1918, claiming use since July 1 of that year. The company did not hesitate to invoke Houston’s name in its advertising; the name appears no fewer than 15 times in the newspaper ad at the top of this article, including as a part of the Snapfil logo.

Except for a revision of the pressure bar spring, very few internal changes were made to bring the Snapfil pen from patent to product. The design shown in the patent uses a ring-type arrangement on the pressure bar spring (callout 14 in the drawing below) to wedge the pressure bar/spring assembly into the barrel, somewhat akin to Walter Sheaffer’s design in U.S. Patent No 1,118,240.

Patent drawing

Borbeck’s revised method for securing the pressure bar and spring into the barrel appeared as U.S. Patent No 1,342,736, issued on June 8, 1920. He formed the end of the spring that went first into the barrel into a small tubular boss that could be pressed into a blind hole drilled at the end of the barrel, as shown below. The boss, shaped like a machinist’s roll pin, would hold itself (and the rest of the pressure bar/spring assembly) reliably in place. This change allowed for easier and more precise insertion because the barrel’s internal length, and thus the position of the blind hole, could be tightly controlled.

Patent drawing

As time passed, it became clear that William Houston’s original styling, with the chain and the elongated barrel back end, was not the way of the future. Clips had become the new thing. General Manufacturing responded with pocket-model Snapfil pens whose barrels were traditionally shaped, not narrowed into a taper. The tapered Snapfil pen shown earlier has a No 2 nib; the pocket model below is much larger, with a No 6 nib, yet it is shorter than the earlier model.

Fountain pen Fountain pen

Freed from the constraints of the original styling, the company extended its line even further, all the way to the huge MHR pen shown below.

Fountain pen Fountain pen

But What of William Houston?

Manufacturer logohook pinIn 1916, after the apparent demise of the Houston Pen Company, William Houston and Haftor Sve, the proprietor of the Sioux City Optical Company, founded a new pen manufacturing enterprise, the Jiffy Fountain Pen Company, at 406 Pierce Street, still in Sioux City. City directories list Houston as the manager, not the president, of Jiffy until 1922. Sve’s participation was as a silent partner or possibly as a source of finances; he does not appear in city directories as being connected with Jiffy until 1923, when the Houstons are gone from Sioux City and Sve is listed as Jiffy’s proprietor.

There appears to have been no sharing of essential technology between Jiffy and Houston/General. Little is known about Jiffy, which jobbed to various retailers and also produced pens under its own name. The company is known to have made Post-type (syringe-filling) pens and also plunger-filling pens based on U.S. Patent No 1,320,393, issued on November 4, 1919, to William and his younger brother Edmund Miller Houston, who still lived in Tracy, Minnesota. (William also received U.S. Trademark No 126,703 on September 30, 1919, for the Jiffy logo, illustrated to the left.) As shown by the advertisement below, from the May 1918 issue of The National Underwriter, a weekly newspaper for insurance people, the Jiffy design reverted to Houston’s original concept of a long dip-like body (now with a knob on the end for operating the filler), with the familiar Houston “safety device” chain on the cap. The safety device soon acquired a new decorative J-shaped hook pin (U.S. Patent No D55,515, issued to William A. Houston on June 22, 1920; shown to the right, rendered from the patent drawing).

Jiffy advertisement

The Houston brothers’ plunger filler was a two-step vacuum-style plunger filler. The plunger, as described in the patent, is the plunger head only (callout 11 in the drawings). There is a passage through it for ink to flow. The plunger shaft (callout 16) is smaller in diameter than the passage through the plunger, and it is secured to the plunger by a cross-pin. The plunger slides in a sleeve (callout 15), whose external end is fastened to a large knob (callout 19). The external end of the shaft is fastened to a small knob (callout 20) that fits into a depression at the end of the large knob. The sleeve is shorter than the shaft, so that the sleeve and its knob can slide back and forth a small distance along the shaft. To fill the pen, the user unscrews the large knob and pulls it outward, carrying the shaft with it. The sleeve’s shorter length allows air to flow between the sleeve and the plunger and down through the passage in the plunger (shown in Figure 2). This action prevents a pressure buildup behind the plunger.

US1320393-1

The user then immerses the nib and section in ink and pushes the sleeve and its knob downward. The sleeve seals against the plunger, blocking the flow of air and ink, and a partial vacuum develops behind the plunger. Because the sleeve is shorter than the shaft, the small knob rises out of the depression in the large knob (Figure 2). When the sleeve is all the way down and screwed in, the user presses the small knob. This pushes the plunger away from the sleeve, opening the passage between the interior and the exterior, allowing ink to flow into the barrel.

As times and tastes changed, Jiffy changed with them, offering celluloid pens in a design that was suitable for carrying in the pocket and fitted with a clip, similar to the appearance of second-generation Chilton pens. That design evolved, too, with the large knob made slenderer and concealed beneath a blind cap.

The Jiffy Pen Company disappears from the Sioux City Directory after 1929.

Play It Once More

Upon leaving Sioux City in 1922, William and Elizabeth Houston relocated across the state to Davenport, Iowa, on the Mississippi River, where William worked for about four years as an engineer for Harned & Von Maur, Inc., a department store chain. In 1926, they relocated once again and moved in with their son Dillman Charles Houston and his wife and daughter in Los Angeles, California. On November 29, 1926, William and Dillman applied for a patent on a second plunger filler, and on August 6, 1929, they received U.S. Patent No 1,723,171).

Patent drawing

The drawings above illustrate a much simpler mechanism than that in Houston’s earlier patent; this is a single-stroke design that relies on a cage-like valve (callout 29) at the front end of the plunger to open and close the ink path. The valve opens on the upstroke of the plunger, providing a passage for air so that there is no pressure build-up behind the piston head, and it closes on the downstroke to create a partial vacuum behind the piston head. At the end of the downstroke, with the valve still closed, the user immerses the nib and feed in ink and pulls the plunger up a very short distance to open the valve, allowing ink to be drawn into the pen. Although its location under a blind cap would make it easy to forget, the plunger could also serve as an ink shut-off; the user could push it down again when finished writing.

Shown below is an oversize pen built to this patent. The design was apparently licensed to the D. W. Beaumel Pen Company, which sold this pen under its “Aristocrat” brand. Imprinted on the blind cap is the phrase “Jiffy-Vacuum.” Below the pen is a backlighted photo of the piston-head valve, taken through the pen’s ruby Bakelite barrel. The valve is in the open position as shown in the patent’s Figure 2.

Fountain pen Fountain pen
Fountain pen Fountain pen
Fountain pen Fountain pen
Pen lent by Daniel Kirchheimer
US1723171_piston

It is unclear exactly when this pen was made, but the use of the name “Jiffy-Vacuum” suggests that the original design work might have been done while William Houston was still involved with Jiffy in Sioux City, as a follow-on to his earlier patent. The design would have then been licensed to Beaumel, which refined it and built a pen around it. The design of the barrel, with its cap threads at the front and no separate gripping section, suggests that the patent — which illustrates that design — was framed around an existing prototype.

By early 1930, William and Dillman Houston were both employed by a cosmetics manufacturer. By 1932, William had joined the newly founded de Fon Pen Company at 727 West 7th Street. The company’s officers of record in the 1932 Los Angeles City Directory were Charles M. Hatch, president; William A. Houston, vice president; and Lorne A. Irwin, secretary/treasurer. Two years later, William had risen to the presidency of de Fon, and Dillman was vice president. De Fon pens appear to have used a design that was based on the 1929 plunger filler patent.

William Houston died on September 14, 1935, and the de Fon Pen Company appears to have died with him.



Notes:
  1. William Houston does not appear in any Sioux City Directory as having any connection with the Houston Fountain Pen Company.  Return

  2. The street that was named Park Street in the early 20th century no longer exists, but its location can be inferred.  Return

  3. Some modern authorities give the name of Houston’s partner, a naturalized citizen of Norwegian birth, as Heftor Sve; but Sioux City Directories, his World War I and II draft registration cards, the 1925 Iowa State Census, and other documents consistently show it as Haftor Sve.  Return

  4. William Houston appears in the 1916 Sioux City directory as the president of the Houston Pen Company. The 1917 city directory lists him as the manager of the Jiffy Pen Company.  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 Daniel Kirchheimer for the loan of his pen and for several useful suggestions on content.

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