Waterman’s Ink Blot: More on the Birth of a Myth

[The PENnant 1999]

Savvy collectors have known for years that the tale of L.E. Waterman’s ink-stained insurance policy was pure invention.(1)    In the last issue of the PENnant, William Walden presented some of the evidence and traced the origins of the story back to 1956. (2)  In fact, the story may be traced back further, and a closer examination of earlier Waterman literature leaves no doubt that the tale was a complete fabrication.

Copies of Waterman catalogs are available through the PCA’s Reference Library.  These publications did not stint on promotion, and consistently devoted plenty of text to the company’s history and its commitment to its products.   Examine all the catalogs up to 1933, however – dates available are c. 1892, c. 1897, c. 1902, (3) 1908, 1918, 1919, 1925, and 1933 – and you will find no mention of the ink blot story whatsoever.  Another telling silence is that of George Edgar’s 1904 article, "The Story of the Fountain Pen", reprinted in the Pen Fancier’s Magazine without reference, but clearly from the Pen Prophet or another official Waterman company publication.(4)  This piece was published only three years after the death of L.E. Waterman, and it devotes considerable attention to the early history of the company.   Frank D. Waterman and Waterman’s European agents L. & C. Hardtmuth are credited as sources – one can’t get much more official a history than this – yet once again there is no mention of the ink blot incident.

L.E. Waterman went into the pen business in 1883.  Fifty-one years later, with blithe disregard for historical accuracy, the Waterman Pen Company celebrated its 50th anniversary.  To mark this occasion, Waterman also published a special issue of the Pen Prophet.(5)  In keeping with the spirit of the event, this 1934 Golden Anniversary issue was packed with historical misinformation and outright invention.  Given pride of place was an anonymous article titled "The Story of the First Waterman’s" – an account that bears no resemblance to anything that came before, and in which the ink blot story appears for the first time.

I have not investigated what happened to the story between 1934 and 1956.  How the myth made its way into the world of pen collecting, however, is not hard to explain.   In 1982 Cliff Lawrence published a serialized account of Waterman’s history, the first written specifically for pen collectors.  The articles began with a paean to L.E. Waterman as "Father of the Modern Fountain Pen," immediately followed by a reprint of the 1934 "The Story of the First Waterman’s".(6)  Lawrence’s uncritical acceptance of this account, which was reprinted once again six years later, planted the myth deep just as pen collecting was getting off the ground.


Shortly after this article was completed, I became aware of an account of the ink blot story that dates to 1921, which appeared in a periodical devoted to the advertising industry (Edward T. Tandy, "How Waterman Pen Business Grew from an Ink Blot," Printer’s Ink Monthly 4/1 December 1921) pp. 62-9).  While this pushes back the appearance of the tale another 13 years, my conclusions regarding its historicity remain unchanged.


1.  For example, see Fischler and Schneider, Fountain Pens and Pencils: The Golden Age of Writing Instruments (Schiffer, 1992), p. 13.

2.  William Walden, "Birth of a Myth" PENnant 13/1 (Spring 1999), pp. 6-7.

3.  This catalog is dated to 1906 in the Reference Library listings; internal evidence, however, points to a date four years earlier – note the reference to the Waterman feed having being in use for 18 years, and the most recent medal mentioned being from the 1900 Paris exhibition.

4. Pen Fanciers Magazine 5/12 (Dec 1982), pp. 8-15; also 14/7 (Sep/Oct 1992).

5. Pen Fanciers Magazine 11/3 (Mar 1988), pp. 8-13.

6.  Pen Fanciers Magazine 5/10 (Oct 1982), pp. 10-11.

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Copyright © 1999  David Nishimura. All rights reserved.