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Profile: The Wearever Zenith

(This page published November 1, 2022)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


Zenith ad, 1945
This 2-color Zenith ad­ver­tise­ment ap­peared in the April 23, 1945, issue of Life Magazine.

wearever_lWorld War II saw some major innovations in the manufacture of fountain pens. One of the most far-reaching developments was in the use of modern, high-tech plastics to make pen bodies. In the 1920s, pen manufacturers had migrated to celluloid, which could be made in many beautiful colors and was more resistant to breakage than the hard rubber it replaced; but it was not without its own set of problems. The manufacture of celluloid was a long process; once the rod or sheet was made, it needed to cure for several months. Furthermore, the material was extremely flammable, and in the decades since its introduction, it had caused many disastrous and deadly fires in curing and storage warehouses. Another deficiency, one that affected companies that made products of celluloid, was that it could not be molded. Once cured, it needed labor-intensive fabrication into shapes that could be made into pens.

Something better was needed. The huge German chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate known as IG Farben (Interessengemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG) began working with purely synthetic materials. Before the end of the decade, IG Farben had come up with a technique for injection molding polystyrene, a synthetic long-chain polymer made from the aromatic hydrocarbon styrene. Polystyrene is supplied as a raw material in the form of pellets that can be melted and molded in high-speed injection-molding machines. It can be molded into intricate shapes, and it comes out of the mold with smooth, glossy surfaces that often do not require further finishing. For obvious reasons, it was something pen manufacturers might find interesting, and here is where David Kahn, Inc., the maker of Wearever fountain pens, enters the picture.

In the late 1920s, David Kahn went to Germany to investigate the injection molding process being developed there. He liked what he saw, and he brought machinery back to the U.S. to develop a process for producing injection-molded pens. His company was probably the first American pen manufacturer to implement the use of polystyrene, but the transition did not happen overnight. In fact, it took until the middle of World War II, and while Kahn was working on it, Eversharp Inc. was setting up its own production line. Both companies began producing polystyrene pens for the market at about the same time, but Eversharp, with less experience than Kahn, did not fare as well as Kahn. The product that David Kahn, Inc., brought to market in 1943 was the Wearever Zenith, a completely new lever-filler. Shown here is a Zenith in Coachman’a Green.

Wearever Zenith
Note
Note
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Zenith ad, 1943
This Zenith ad­ver­tise­ment ap­peared in the Ju­ly 1943 is­sue of Es­quire Mag­a­zine.

As good as it was, polystyrene was not a panacea. It was less costly and more durable than celluloid, but at that time it could be molded only in solid colors. Unlike most of its competition — or even its celluloid siblings such as the Pacemaker, shown below, a button-filler introduced in 1940 — the Zenith could not roll itself out in “fancy” mixed hues or patterns.

Wearever Zenith

The Zenith’s success relied entirely on the pen’s quality and on the fact that the Parker “51” and the Eversharp Skyline, two of the most popular pens in the business, were also dressed in monochrome hues, along with several others of lesser renown, including Morrison’s Patriot and the Graphomatic Inkmaker and Colonel Deluxe. The only fancy color on the Zenith was its “ruby top,” a transparent red cap-crown jewel that secured the clip in place, with a matching jewel at the back end of the barrel.

During the war, as did many other manufacturers, Kahn used patriotic sentiments to sell its pens. The text of the advertisement to the left features an imaginary letter from a soldier in training camp to his sweetheart:

Dearest Betty:
. . . Thanks for the swell Wearever Pen.
Whenever I use it, I think of you—and
that makes it extra welcome. Wearever
sure is popular here in camp.

Given the huge numbers of Wearever pens produced, together with their low prices, it is not at all difficult to understand why Wearever was “popular here in camp.”

The name “Zenith” was well chosen. The word zenith means the acme, the apogee, the high point, the top — and the Wearever Zenith delivered. It was, and eight decades later still is, an excellent pen. While by no means a first-tier product, the Zenith was well engineered, nicely styled, and solidly built, unquestionably equal or superior to any previous Wearever pen. Adding to its quality and appeal, it was introduced in wartime, and the United States had placed stainless steel, normally Kahn’s nib material of choice, on its critical war resources list. But gold was not on the list, and in response to that situation Kahn used 14K gold nibs in its wartime production. Zeniths got the same nibs that were used in Pacemakers after America went to war. Manufactured probably by the Grieshaber Pen Company in Chicago, those nib were of superb quality, and as a result, the $1.95 wartime Zenith was able to compete on a fairly level playing field with lower-end models from Eversharp, Waterman, Parker, and other pens that cost twice as much (or more) and would normally have been out of its league. Shown here for comparison are a Maroon Zenith and a $5.00 celluloid Waterman’s Commando in Jet.

Wearever Zenith
Fountain pen

After the war, as material restrictions were lifted, Kahn reverted to steel nibs. But postwar steel wasn’t the same as prewar steel. During the war, the Parker Pen Company had pioneered the use of highly refined platinum-group alloys for nib tipping, starting with an alloy that the company called Plathenium. Kahn was not slow about using similar alloys when they became available, and postwar Wearever nibs were of excellent quality. Along with the Zenith fountain pen and its matching mechanical pencil, Kahn added a Zenith ballpoint pen to its catalog. Aft of the barrel threads, the ballpoint’s styling was a perfect match for that of the fountain pen. Shown here is a Coachman’s Green Zenith ballpoint.

Wearever Zenith ballpoint

Time marches on. No pen model stays in the catalog forever, not even the immortal Parker “51”. The Wearever Zenith, America’s first wholly successful injection-molded fountain pen, was withdrawn in 1950. During its seven-year lifetime, David Kahn, Inc., had risen to become the world’s largest pen manufacturer.

Colors

Because early molding technologies did not provide any method for mixing colors, the Zenith was available in only solid colors. The following table shows the colors of the Zenith. The color chips are from photographs of actual pens; 3D highlights were added with a computer.


Colors of the Zenith
Color Name

Black

Black

Maroon

Maroon

Coachman’s Green

Coachman’s Green

Navy Blue

Navy Blue




Notes:
  1. Interessengemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG means “Dye Industry Syndicate Stock Corporation.” The shortened form, IG Farben, means “IG Dyestuffs.” IG Farben was formed in 1925 by a merger of BASF, Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa, Chemische Fabrik Griesheim-Elektron, and Chemische Fabrik vorm. Weiler Ter Meer. After World War II, the conglomerate was seized by the Allies, and in 1951 it was forcibly liquidated and dissolved into its constituent companies.  Return

  2. Plathenium was an alloy of ruthenium and platinum. Ruthenium is very hard but cannot be welded readily to other metals. The addition of small amounts of platinum produced a weldable alloy.  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.

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