Pen filling systems: anyone have a light?
During the first part of the 20th century every pen company was trying to come up with a self filling fountain pen. Eye dropper filled pens, while still popular with those from the old school of dip pens were still sufficient, but everything new was all about filling without getting yourself inky and messy. Sheaffer’s lever filler eventually won out as one of the most popular and consistent methods of self filling, but it wasn’t for lack of other companies trying to find new and different ways to depress a metal bar to compress a rubber sac. Some methods were better than others, some simple, and some downright absurd.
During this time period smoking was a more common occurrence in the forms of pipes and even cigarettes were glamorized in advertising. Therefore it was pretty certain most people had one of two things in their pocket at all times, coins or a wooden match. If you didn’t, then surely a friend or stranger near you did. Pen companies found these to both be excellent methods of depressing the metal J bar to compress the rubber sac and fill the new fangled self filling pen.
Matchstick fillers, as we call them now, typically took the barrel of the pen and drilled a small hole to access the J bar. This seems to be the most common approach, but some pens, like this example by Wirt, utilized a more complicated method with a rotating sleeve to cover the hole, very similar to the rotating sleeve on a Conklin Crescent filler. I’m not completely certain why manufacturers felt the necessity to do this, as it would be difficult to depress the J bar through the small hole without purposefully doing so.
Weidlich, from Cincinnati, Ohio even went so far as to include the “matchstick” by putting an inch long protrusion at the top of the cap with which the users could depress the J bar.
If you weren’t a smoker, then plenty of manufacturers made a self filler for you whereby all you needed was a coin to fill the pen. These appear to have been a more popular option as even Waterman produced a coin filler for a short period of time between 1913-1914. A special oval coin was even offered to be used with the pen. The short period of time these were offered make these pens quite hard to find today.
Many third tier unmarked pens can be found with coin filling mechanisms as well, many with 14kt warranted nibs, but some with even cheaper gold plated nibs with the end of the nib stamped to form the tipping surface. This is really testimony to the fact how inexpensive this was to make. Cut a slot in the barrel, insert a J bar and glue on a sac and you have a self filler. Compared to a lever filler with it’s lever, pin, and in some cases like Waterman, an encasing lever box, the coin filler was quite simple. Perhaps the matchstick filler was even more the height of simplicity, just drill a hole and you’re done! Coin fillers also serve double duty as matchstick fillers as the center of the slot is round allowing for guiding of a match for filling.
While matchstick fillers are easy to identify, coin fillers can be a bit trickier as one has to be careful the pen they are looking at is not, in fact, a lever filler missing the lever. Typically coin fillers have this round hole in the middle of the slot, and you can also look for the presence of the lever pin or groove inside the barrel for a lever ring.
Both types of filling mechanisms make for a nice addition in any vintage pen collection, and while the coin fillers are more commonly found, I think the matchstick fillers are more aesthetically pleasing as you see less of the J bar. After close to 100 years, original J bars sometimes don’t look all that pretty and a modern replacement becomes immediately apparent.
So, keep your eyes open when at a pen show or when pen shopping, and hey, anyone have a match?
Brian Anderson lives in Appleton, Wisconsin. He and his wife, Lisa Anderson, own and operate Anderson Pens. Brian has been collecting for well over a decade and claims to have “stopped counting” when he reached 1200 pens. You can read more from Brian – and enjoy the podcast that he and Lisa produce – at his blog: Vintage Writing Elements