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February 2006: Pen Ads: What Good Are They?

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Sheaffer’s ads say, “A Lifetime of sweet performance — at a few cents a day.” Parker’s say “This ink [Superchrome] proves pen failures can be avoided!” Eversharp spins some boring yarn about a long-forgotten "$64 Question" radio show.

Pen ads. Who needs them? What good are they, beyond cluttering eBay search pages — as in, I’m looking for a Hundred Year Pen and when I type that into the search field I get listing for three pens and fifteen adver­tise­ments some would-be entrepreneur clipped from Life magazine, at prices that, as my father-in-law Richard is wont to say, would be a bargain at half the price?

For people who aren’t hip to the excellent content in pen adver­tise­ments, here’s a list of 10 things you can learn about your favorite pen models from just glancing at an adver­tise­ment. Extra Fine Points

They’re plenty good. In fact, for serious collectors they can be priceless. For people who aren’t hip to the excellent content in pen adver­tise­ments — and no, we’re not talking about the throwaway slogans that became trite the minute the publication’s cover date expired — here’s a list of 10 things you can learn about your favorite pen models from just glancing at an adver­tise­ment:

  1. Magazine advertisement  
    Colors: What’s the color of a pen really supposed to be, fading and discoloration notwithstanding? While ads might themselves have faded, a crisp magazine page can give you a good general idea.

  2. Trim lines: Is there a brown variation available in nickel-silver trim? Ads will tell you.

  3. What metal is this, anyway? Is the trim plated or solid? What is the alloy, and what cleaning agents will destroy this pen? Ads sometimes offer said data.

  4. Dates: Show me 10 ads from a manufacturer from 10 consecutive years and I can give you a pretty good composite on how its product line evolved during that period. This is invaluable data for pens whose manufacturers’ catalogs can’t be found today.

  5. Selling points: How many times have you looked at a favorite pen and thought about the clip or feed or something else — “What were they thinking?” You might find the answer in ads.

  6. Magazine advertisement  
    Target audience: Related to the above point, what group of people might the pen company have intended to use my favorite pen? Guys? Gals? Dads? Grads? Soldiers? Seamen? Students? The Rockefellers and Trumps of the day? Everyone under the sun? Ads will definitely tell you this nugget of information.

  7. Nib styles: Sometimes — especially with older ads from the teens and 1920s — ads come with a list of the different nib styles (italic, stub, oblique, etc.) available. Esterbrook made its living offering a wide variety of points up to and beyond the ascent of the ballpoint.

  8. Pricing: Ever wonder what your pen sold for back in the day? Some adver­tise­ments run down full price lists from the basic models to the solid gold versions, but others offer information such as “priced from $1 to $49.99,” which is much more helpful than no information at all.

  9. Filling instructions: You may know how to get ink into you pen, but what’s the correct way the manufacturer said to do it? Ads — especially those touting a “revolutionary new filling system” — will describe and illustrate it.

  10. Maintenance ideas: In some rare cases, ads will show expanded views of pens and give clues on how to repair and replace parts.

Many more helpful little pieces of information lie in adver­tise­ments, which are generally available on eBay, sitting in old magazines in bookshops, or even clipped, bagged, and boarded at flea markets. While you might have blown past these en route to looking for and purchasing actual pens in the past, give the ads a second look sometime — you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.

And if you’re even a little like me, you’ll fine one so nice that you’ll frame, mat, and hang it on your wall. Because, after all, pens are little things best tucked away in a cool, dry space away from sunlight. Ads on the wall, on the other hand, loudly proclaim the beautiful pens you collect — and although an ad’s words tend to be cheesy, the vintage graphics will probably class up the joint.

cover Further Reading: Twenty Ads That Shook the World : The Century’s Most Groundbreaking Advertising and How It Changed Us All, by James Twitchell

It’s a stroll down memory lane and, at the same time, a valuable lesson for anyone charged with the marketing and promotion of anything. What book could possibly cover these two things and be amazingly entertaining all at once? But wait, there’s more! Well, there isn’t, really. Just check out this book about, you guessed it, advertising.

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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