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April 2002: The Dating Game

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Welcome to my new column, “Extra Fine Points.” In the interest of full disclosure: first, I am a freelance writer, and I frequently write about all manner of collectibles, from fountain pens to fruit crate art to Fostoria Glass, for different clients, the most well-known of which is the TV program Antiques Roadshow’s sister publication, the Insider; second, I am Richard Binder’s son-in-law; and third, I am a fountain pen collector whose tastes run toward vintage pens.

With the exception of date-stamped Parker “51”s and Vacumatics, have you ever tried to conclusively determine the year of a pen’s manufacture, or even figure out an accurate range of years? Extra Fine Points

As such, I am fascinated with pen history, which brings me to the crux of this month’s essay: on March 20, I interviewed a certain John Thom for Antiques Roadshow Insider for an article on soda bottles. The national Coca-Cola Collector’s Club refers journalists to Thom — who lives in Woodstock, Georgia — whenever they need to speak with “the bottle guy.”

Like most hardcore Coke-bottle collectors, Thom wants one bottle from each of the more than 1,600 bottling plants operating in the United States during the 20th century. He’s passed the 1,400 mark, and those last 200 “are not very easy,” he says. How does he even know where all the bottlers were? “There’s probably ten collectors who have most of the information. That’s just because they have huge collections, and they have actually sought to find out more information,” Thom told me. “There’s nothing the Coke company has to offer, so the collectors have — in talking to each other about finds — put together what they know in a format that’s easy to add to. Each collector kind of has his own format.

“Of course there’s some errors in the information, one of those deals where ‘so-and-so said he saw a bottle from such-and-such,’ and somehow it makes the list, even though there never actually was a bottle from there, so there’s a little bit of erroneous information out there. But pretty much, the bigger collectors have pretty decent information … to share with other collectors. It makes it a lot easier to collect.”<

I know exactly what he means, I thought, when I heard this. With the exception of date-stamped Parker 51s and Vacumatics, have you ever tried to conclusively determine the year of a pen’s manufacture, or even figure out an accurate range of years? Ever try to ascertain whether or not some pen has the “correct” feed or nib? Ever get in a verbal arm-wrestling match with another collector about the true age of a pen?

The argument usually goes like this: one collector alleges your pen was not made on a certain date; he says he can tell “for sure” it’s a Frankenpen comprising parts from different eras. You object to the insult, insisting that your pen is perfectly fine. It probably came that way from the factory, but heck, if an authorized repairer put in a different feed, so what? Is the pen less “correct?” Less desirable? Less valuable? Less of a daily writer? Will the people at work who envy you when you whip out a gold-nibbed fountain pen to sign a purchase order think less of you if that pen has something that’s generally considered “the wrong nib”? At least, if the pen doesn’t leak?

And who’s to say what was going on at the factory on the day your pen was made? Were you there? Was the opponent who is arguing with you there on the assembly line watching them put your pen together? Were the titans of our hobby who have written excellent reference books — most of which I own and for which I am forever grateful — were they there?

No! And neither was I, so far be it from me to pass judgment on your pen. The truth is, people can only guess what the “correct” part is for a pen. Pen companies didn’t use model years like Fords or Harley-Davidsons or put expiration dates on their pens as Nabisco does with its Fig Newtons or the way your local dairy producer does on cottage cheese. The hobby’s best collector and researchers can only piece together a pretty good picture of what happened when from catalogs, adver­tise­ments, pictures, and other ephemera.

Late 1930s ring-top pen
In the 1920s and 1930s, Sheaffer seemingly mixed feeds, nibs, and imprints.

That being said, just because you find an exception to the rule doesn’t mean you have a junk pen or something pieced together by a mad pen scientist. The other day I had a Sheaffer flattop, black chased hard rubber, one that George Fischler and Stuart Schneider termed “Pre-Lifetime” and dated 1914 on page 170 of their seminal Schiffer book Fountain Pens and Pencils: The Golden Age of Writing Instruments.

It has gold-filled trim, not much brassing, and just fantastic chasing. As is typical for me, I had the pen a while, appreciated it, and decided to trade up. When I listed it for sale on eBay, my friend and Sheaffer flattop collector Allan Fuld contacted me, asking about the feed and nib. I told him what I knew, quoting chapter and verse of Fischler and Schneider. It’s not a “correct” nib because it’s not the #8 nib the authors said came with the pen, I said.

He “corrected” me.

“There really is no correct feed or nib for that pen,” Fuld wrote in an email. “You have to put yourself in Sheaffer’s mindset at the time the pen was made. They probably had a stock of these pens, with #8 Nibs. Then someone came up with the idea of “Lifetime” nibs. They probably took most of the stock pens and converted them to Lifetime pens. The #8 nibs were probably melted down and recast as Lifetime nibs. I have a pen with a #8 nib that has the comb feed, and I don’t know if it was one that was sold that way or not. The #8 nib is probably worth more than the pen; they are rarely encountered.”

Any authority who claims to know absolutes when it comes to pen dating — except of course for those date-stamped Parkers — is a false prophet. As the Good Book says about the end of the world, no one truly knows the day or the hour. That being said, I congratulate the researchers of our hobby — including my father-in-law Richard — who dare to publish. If Parker and Sheaffer can’t tell us what parts were used in what pens, we only have interested researchers and “supercollectors” to sort out what they’ve seen from their personal observation of many thousands of pens and their accompanying manufacturer publications.

Richard, I think, goes about it in a pragmatic fashion. Far from claiming to be the definitive source of information, he gives a healthy “oh-by-the-way” with his reference pages: “I have researched the information in my reference pages to make it as accurate as possible; but because pen companies sometimes mixed and matched parts, and because catalogs didn’t always show every single variation of a product line or mention that a particular model or color had been withdrawn, I cannot be certain that my information is complete. I update these pages continually, as new information comes to light.”

I have to say, that’s about the only way a pen historian can cover his can when it comes to this tricky business of dating pens.

One of my favorite collector-dealers when it comes to dating/identifying the correct parts of Parker Vacumatic pens — be they 51s, Vacs, or striped Duofolds — is David Isaacson, whom I think of as the Vac Man, having met him at the Boston and D.C. pen shows. I email him questions all the time.

He not only knows a ton about the pens, but he also knows how to hedge on behalf of our beloved Parker, who, it seems, would have attached a Vac nib to a Duofold section to a Jack Knife barrel with a 1912 slide-on clip if the company thought my great-grandmother would buy it at the local drugstore. If Isaacson errs, he does it on the side of conservatism, meaning that he assumes your pen is more likely “correct” than not. I like that. He wasn’t in the factory when the pen I’m asking about was put together, and he freely acknowledges it.

I emailed him the other day about a Vac I’d purchased that contained seemingly contradictory parts: a Canadian-imprint golden pearl Junior with a 1942 barrel (and nib) date-stamp and a silver breather tube, but a metal collar to go with the plastic plunger on the filler… . I was confused. It also had double jewels. So was it 1942? Weren’t they conserving war materiel at that time? Or had it been assembed after Pearl Harbor from old parts? And if it was a true 1942 pen, shouldn’t the blind cap be smooth and not jeweled? Or was this pen a monster recently created from a parts bag, pawned off on me as original?

“It’s probably not a Frankenpen,” Isaacson wrote me. “Even in the U.S.A., the cutoffs were not necessarily January 1, 1942. Who is to say it’s not correct? Besides, if you really want to make it a ‘correct’ 1942 single jewel, plenty of folks will swap smooth blindcap for jeweled.”

Putting “correct” in quotation marks says it all. He’s my kind of guy.

cover Further Reading: Coca Cola Commemorative Bottles: Identification & Value Guide (Coca-Cola Commemorative Bottles, 2nd Ed), by Bob Henrich, Debra Henrich

No one’s written the definitive Coke bottle dating guide — but the records on the commemorative bottles are much less fuzzy.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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