Myths & Misconceptions

Every field has its share of widespread but mistaken beliefs.  The history of writing instruments is no exception.  This is especially unsurprising given that interest in old pens and pencils is so recent, and that virtually all of the research and publication to date has been done by collectors and not trained historians.  Just as important, however, has been the disproportionate influence of an extremely limited number of authorities.  By far the most significant of these has been Cliff Lawrence, whose pioneering work of the late 1970s and 1980s has been freely and uncritically paraphrased and  repeated by nearly every subsequent author.  Second in influence would be the books written by George Fischler and Stuart Schneider, encyclopedic works widely accepted as authoritative.  Then there are the self-appointed online authorities, whose sheer volume of  posts is enough to convince many of their infallibility.  Virtually without influence, unfortunately, have been the many properly researched and referenced original articles published in periodicals such as The PENnant and Pen World, which seem to be ignored by collectors and would-be authors alike.  Clearly, most prefer to pick up (or to crib from) readily-available pen books rather than to consult back issues of publications that may take some time to locate.

The following myths and misconceptions are some of the most widespread, and have proven among the most difficult to stamp out.  In all likelihood, they will be repeated as fact for years to come, despite the best efforts of pen historians.

Lewis Edson Waterman invented the first fountain pen (or first "practical" fountain pen)

Fountain pens of one kind or another have been around for centuries, and they were common enough by the late 18th century for the term "fountain pen" to require no explanation.  Pens predating Waterman's were clearly practical, otherwise they would not have been made, sold, and used.  For more, see our article on the invention of the fountain pen.  

Waterman invented his fountain pen after an ink blot lost him the sale of an insurance policy

This story is extremely widespread, and is found well beyond collecting circles.  There is also strong reason to doubt that it ever happened, in that the story only appeared decades after L. E. Waterman's death, and in a company-sponsored article replete with other self-serving inventions.  For more, see our article on the ink blot myth.

Walter A. Sheaffer invented the lever-filler

There were a few lever-filler patents predating Sheaffer's, the key precedents being Johansson's Swedish patent of 1894 and Barnes' US patent of 1903.  Despite Sheaffer's later denigration of Barnes' patent in his memoirs, it was at least as efficient a mechanism as the one described in Sheaffer's own first patent of 1908.

The Eversharp pencil was invented in Japan

The Eversharp pencil was invented by Charles Keeran, a native of Bloomington, Illinois and later a partner in the Autopoint pencil company.  Keeran's patent was applied for in 1913.  The Eversharp company was taken over by Wahl around the end of 1916, and Keeran was forced out a year later.
Tokuji Hayakawa, who founded Sharp, invented a mechanical pencil in 1915.  The Japanese patent was awarded in 1920.  The pencil was called the "Ever-Ready Sharp pencil".  It became popular in Japan only after a substantial export order was received, but the records do not indicate where that export order was sent.
Cliff Lawrence received a garbled version of Hayakawa's story, combined it with what he knew of Wahl's takeover of Eversharp, and published it in 1981 with embellishments.  Although this has been the accepted account among pen collectors ever since, there was in fact no connection whatsoever between Hayakawa's pencil and Eversharp.  
For more, see A Tale of Two Pencils.

The name "Duofold" refers to the pen's ability to be converted to a desk pen/eyedropper

Although Duofolds were marketed as combination desk and pocket pen ensembles in the later 1920s, no such ensembles were offered in the first several years of Duofold production.  Nor was there any mention of the Duofold's ability to be used as an eyedropper in any Parker literature of any date (it would not be very practical, in fact, since the section did not unscrew freely from the barrel as assembled).  Nor was there any mention of the nib being designed to be able to be used two ways, right side up and upside down.
"Duofold" would seem rather to have been chosen to suggest that the new Parker was twice the pen competitors could offer consistent with its pricing, which was deliberately pushed well beyond existing market norms.  There might also have been a reference intended to the weight and rigidity of the Duofold's nib, which could be seen as extra-manifold ("manifold" being the term for heavy, rigid nibs intended for use with carbon paper). 

Sheaffer was the first to make pens of celluloid

Celluloid was not a new material in the 1920s; as far as commercial utilization was concerned, it was a material decades past its prime.  While Sheaffer was the first large penmaker to successfully make and promote celluloid pens, and started the trend toward celluloid which so rapidly led to the abandonment of hard rubber, it was not the first to make pens of celluloid.
LeBoeuf's "Unbreakable" lever-fillers were made from celluloid from c. 1920 (a 1919 patent covered the production method), while an article from 1909 (reproduced in The PENnant, Feb 1994) on electrodeposition of pen overlays mentions celluloid pen barrels in passing, with no indication that they were anything out of the ordinary. 

Bright red Sheaffers are made of casein

Every one we've seen has been Radite (celluloid).  This myth arises from Walter A. Sheaffer's memoirs, where he recounts how a load of casein pens had to be recalled and were subsequently recycled as loaners.  Collectors jumped to the conclusion that all Sheaffer loaner pens, typically bright red, were made of casein.  For a full discussion of this issue, see our article, originally published in The PENnant.

Parker date codes are unreliable

This is an assertion that is neither provable nor disprovable.  Nonetheless, all evidence indicates that Parker's date codes (see how to read them) are accurate indications of when pens and pencils left the factory.  Certainly there are anomalies, but the fact that these anomalies form clusters suggest logical explanations -- an example being the relatively large number of 1937-dated pens that would otherwise appear to date to the very first years of production, which would seem to represent a clearing of the shelves of old stock and obsolete spare parts (not coincidentally, the same year Parker's flagship Vacumatics underwent a major redesign).  A similar case: Duofolds appearing to date to the late 1920s, but bearing date stamps for the mid- to late 1930s, with another cluster in 1941 (the last coinciding with the introduction of the 51, Parker's new flagship model).  Perhaps the most telling evidence for the accuracy of Parker date codes is the simple observation that anomalous codes invariably seem to be later than one would expect from the pens on which they are found -- never earlier.

The Parker 51 was designed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Moholy-Nagy did work for Parker, but his contributions all postdated the introduction of the 51 in 1941.  For further references, see our Parker 51 Pen Profile

Parker VP filler units are made of glass

A simple examination will demonstrate that they are molded of clear acrylic resin.  The idea that such a shape would have been mass-produced c. 1963 in any material other than plastic is quite ludicrous, though the fragility of the filler neck is certainly glasslike!

And finally, some notes on the use of sources. . . 

Collectors are prone to presume, often unconsciously, that individuals that produce admirable objects must themselves be admirable.  This romantic delusion has colored artists' biographies for centuries, but it is all the more illogical and unjustified when applied to companies mass-producing articles such as pens.
Among pen collectors, this favorable bias has led to a widespread acceptance of pen companies' official publications as the unvarnished truth, even when they are obviously self-serving and inconsistent.  

In fact, the pen business was brutally competitive; no penmaker rose to prominence without pushing hard and playing rough.  This must never be overlooked when evaluating the history of these companies, however beautiful and elegant  their products may be.  Two maxims, in particular, should be borne in mind when reading official histories and other company literature:  The first, "history is written by the winners", applies as much to commercial competition as to warfare.  The second, "nice guys finish last", speaks for itself.