Profile: The WASP Clipper

(This page revised July 11, 2013)

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Wasp Clipper Advertisement, 1937 Magnifying glass
This Wasp Clipper adver­tise­ment appeared on the inside front cover of the May 1, 1937, issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Manufacturer logoOver the years, many of the major pen companies also produced “off-brand” pens. Some of these pens were made with no name at all, and others were products of secondary companies established to allow their manufacture without risking the prestige of the original company’s name or because the off-brand product was so different as to cause confusion about the company’s main products. Wasp, whose name is merely the initials of the name W. A. Sheaffer Pen Company, is a great example of one such secondary brand — although it was also atypical, and possibly unique, in the multiple and frequently changing ways in which the marque was used and related to the parent company. At various times, it was a pen model, a separate company, and a division of Sheaffer. It was explicitly associated with Sheaffer during some periods but apparently independent during others. This history is quite complicated, and it is well beyond the scope of this article.

Early Wasp pens were imprinted with just WASP or WASP VACUUM-FIL; soon one or two lines reading WASP PEN CO., INC. and FT. MADISON, IOWA, U.S.A. appeared. When Wasp got around to calling pens by model names, it took notice of the phenomenal growth of air travel, chose “Clipper” to evoke the elegance of Pan American Airways’ new China Clipper service (inaugurated October 7, 1936), and changed the first line of the barrel imprint to read THE CLIPPER. (The adver­tise­ment shown to the right features an airplane drawn to look like the Martin M-130 Ocean Transport, the plane used for the China Clipper.) This one model offers sufficient variety and interest to make a large and quite varied collection without requiring the acquisition of hundreds of subtle variants. The Clipper appeared, in a deliberately limited (but still, over the years, quite diverse) range of sizes and trim levels, for a period of about five years. Period advertising gives the impression that Clippers sold initially at prices from $1.95 to $3.95 for a pen alone and $1.95 to $4.95 for a pen/pencil set. Pen setInterestingly, the $1.95 set — shown to the left — comprised a pen, a pencil, and a sample bottle of Skrip, pieces valued at $2.25 separately. This pricing implies that the pen, if you could have bought it separately, would have been cheaper even than the bottom-end $1.95 pen — and in fact there were Clippers that went for prices down to $1.25 or possibly even $1.00. (It is unclear whether the $1.00 pens were actually Clippers.) These lower-priced pens were displayed on counter-top cards each holding a dozen pens, but they are not currently known to have been otherwise promoted.

Shown below is a Large Clipper De Luxe FP/MP set, the top of the Clipper model range, from about 1939, the pinnacle of Wasp’s product development. Prices had risen a little as the end of the decade approached, and this gorgeous Large pen was priced at $5.00 and $2.50 for the pencil, a combined total of $7.50 for the set. By this time, the low-end sets priced the same as the lowest-priced separate pen had disappeared; no longer was the Clipper competing directly with Esterbrook and its companions in the dollar-pen crowd. This set was priced at roughly the same level that Sheaffer applied to its non-Lifetime own-branded pens and pencils. (To compete with Esterbrook and its Re-New-Point interchangeable nibs, Wasp launched a model called the Addipoint that featured screw-in user-interchangeable nib section assemblies complete with sacs.)

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(If there is a magnifying-glass symbol (Magnifying glass) next to an image, click the magnifying glass to view a zoomed version for more detail.)

As the photo shows, the Clipper’s designers (U.S. Patent Nº D111,301) avoided treading on the toes of Sheaffer’s streamlined Balance by retaining flattened ends; the faceted shallow conical crowns in bright metal are an elegant finish; and, because they screw out, they provide an attachment for a sturdy washer clip whose washer is concealed within a machined depression in the cap body.

At the lower end of the price range were pens like this $1.95 Clipper Junior, which even bore a nib imprint (WASP Junior) indicating its status.

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Product logoLike Sheaffer’s own-branded pens, the WASP line included lever fillers and plunger fillers. WASP plunger fillers appeared both with and without VACUUM-FIL imprints. (Note that VACUUM-FIL, another of Sheaffer’s sub-brands, also produced pens other than plunger fillers.) To avoid diluting Sheaffer’s “Visulated” trademark for its lever fillers with partially transparent sections, designers created a new Trans-O-Meter trademark (illustrated to the left) for Wasp lever fillers. Like the Visulated trademark that also referred to the insulated properties of a sac pen, Trans-O-Meter touted not only the visible ink supply but also another feature of the pen: a “perfectly metered flow.”

Another distinguishing feature of Wasp pens appears in the plunger filler. Unlike Sheaffer-branded plungers, with their integral blind caps, Wasp plungers nestled under removable blind caps, as illustrated by this Large standard Clipper:

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WASP Clipper nib

Yet another distinguishing feature of the Clipper, one that Sheaffer touted loudly, was the solid gold nibs that set these pens apart from their competition. At that time, many third-tier pens appeared with gold-plated brass or steel nibs, but the Clipper featured a solid 12K (not 14K) nib, and in some adver­tise­ments, the word GOLD appeared as part of the background in letters 6" high! On De Luxe pens, attractively plated two-tone nibs provided a further touch of class. Shown to the right is the nib belonging to the De Luxe pen above.

Early Years

As with any product, styles develop over a pen’s product life. Early Wasp pens were fairly ordinary, slightly tapered at the ends, with a clip that looks like Sheaffer’s flat-ball humped clip except that its upper surface is flattened, not rounded (probably based on U.S. Patent Nº D86,111).

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The pen shown above is in a color Wasp called Silver Lahn, featuring silvery metallic threads embedded in transparent celluloid (U.S. Patent Nº 2,081,538, owned by the Celluloid Corporation). Other Lahn colors included Brown and Green. These are examples of some of the dramatic and exciting colors that might not have seemed “appropriate” to the more dignified Sheaffer brand name. (The “dignified” distinction might also be set aside in the face of Sheaffer’s Ebonized Pearl, surely one of the most exciting colors of the period.) Perhaps the most exotic of these colors are those that are commonly called “Birdseye.” (Sheaffer tended to be boring in its color names, e.g., referring to the green Birdseye as just “Green.” Because of their chaotic appearance, David Isaacson has nicknamed these colors "Screaming Souls in Purgatory," an allusion to “The Scream,” a painting by Edvard Munch.)

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Moving Along

From the early design shown immediately above, the Clipper progressed to the squared-off shape illustrated at the beginning of this article. But Art Deco took a serious nosedive in popularity as the 1940s approached; the Clipper followed current fashion by losing a little of its angularity. Here is a standard- or ladies’-size standard Clipper set from about 1940. The most obvious difference between this and the 1938/1939 pens above is the rounded cap-crown tassie on this later version, first advertised in August 1940. (You can see the tassie more clearly in the zoomed view.) Interestingly, the pencil’s design did not change along with that of the pen; this pencil is identical to a pencil that would have been partnered with the black 1938 pen above.

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And the Inevitable Mutation

This uncatalogued black Wasp Clipper is a “sport,” an unaccountable genetic mutant that is identifiable as a Clipper only by its barrel imprint. It appears at first glance to have been made by hastily hacking the ends off a Sheaffer Balance. (The cap crown and barrel end are absolutely flat, and the cap crown isn’t even polished — it still shows lathe marks!) But upon close inspection it proves to be an almost random assemblage of Sheaffer parts. The clip, a true Sheaffer flat-ball humped clip, doesn’t bear the Sheaffer’S logo that would appear on a non-Lifetime Balance, and the lever is slightly different — and located differently — from that on a Balance. This pen was almost certainly made during World War II: “Hey, people, we have to make some Clippers to fill this order. What parts we got?”

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Mutant Clipper lent by Daniel Kirchheimer

Colors of the Clipper

Other than the ubiquitous black, Sheaffer used colors for the Clipper that did not appear on the company’s own-branded pens. This choice provided further differentiation between the product lines, and it also allowed Sheaffer to use some fairly dramatic colors that might not have been thought appropriate for the flagship name. The colors shown here may not be the entire range; they reflect only colors I have actually seen on pens bearing the CLIPPER imprint. Color names in quotation marks are those commonly used by modern collectors, not assigned by the manufacturer.

It appears that not all colors were used for both plunger and lever fillers; for example, I have never seen a plunger pen in a Lahn color or a lever filler in “Lizard.”

Clipper adver­tise­ments I have examined, from the late 1930s into the 1940s, give the impression that the Pearl colors (sometimes called “circuit board” by modern collectors) supplanted the Lahn, “Birdseye”, and “Lizard.” I have seen no advertising that shows all four groups together, but the latter three all appear in the adver­tise­ment at the top of this article.


Clipper Colors
Color Name

Jet Black Jet Black
Gray Pearl Gray Pearl
Brown Pearl Brown Pearl
Green Pearl Green Pearl
Blue Pearl Blue Pearl
Silver Lahn Silver Lahn
Brown Lahn Brown Lahn
Green Lahn Green Lahn
Gray “Birdseye” Gray “Birdseye”
Green “Birdseye” Green “Birdseye”
Gray “Lizard” Gray “Lizard”
Green “Lizard” Green “Lizard”
Marine Green Pearl Marine Green


Notes:
  1. It is interesting to note that the Martin M-130 was powered by four Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engines. Is this a coincidence, or was this airplane/engine combination perhaps the real inspiration for Sheaffer’s conjunction of the Clipper name with its own WASP?


The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information. I am indebted to Daniel Kirchheimer for some of the minutiae that make the Clipper — and all Wasp pens — so fascinating.

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