Every pen has its time!

Among the many questions that come to me is why a company made a particular pen as they did, and the question is often written in the “what were they thinking” tone. Sure, pendom is full of strangeness and mistakes, but when viewed from when the decision was made, they usually make sense. With that in mind, I focused this Thought on the notion that all objects made for use are always best understood from the vantage of the time in which they were made. In this notion, a few pens stand out in 2021 as errors, but deserve reconsideration for what they were in their time.

Two of those are in this inventory batch: the Sheaffer Snorkel and the Parker VS. The Snorkel was the second phase of Sheaffer’s postwar, post Balance, rebuilding plan. The Touchdown, which provided the Snorkel’s filling system, appeared in 1949, in a campaign where Sheaffer announced its future was, in the rocket-crazed time, “touching down”. Levers and celluloid were jettisoned, and new plastics, a new pneumatic filling unit, and a new shape were anointed. The Touchdown TM was a big success as a pen, and it bought Sheaffer the time it needed to finish the second phase, the Snorkel, which added an all-new wrinkle to a Touchdown filler.

The culture of the times demanded something new. I’ve often joked that the Snorkel is over-engineered, but it was a great pen for its time: the early 1950’s featured cleanliness, chrome, and gadgetry in homes and automobiles, and this carried over to the office. Snorkels are wonderful writing pens that feel great in the hand, and if their plastic doesn’t last as many decades as a Balance, that’s ok too. A mistake? No, surely not. It was a superbly executed plan that only seventy years later seems excessive.

The Parker VS is another pen that does not seem to fit. Was it part of a plan or a means to use up parts? It was only made for three years, 1947-9, just after the last Vacumatics and just before the Aerometric Parker 51’s, and carries characteristics of both. The metal cap, solid plastic barrel and matching hood were all 51, but the filler was Duofold AF and the nib unlike any of Parker’s major models. Finally, that traditional nib and feed fit into a hood as if masquerading as a 51. What was its true story? I don’t know, but would bet Parker needed a lower cost pen that looked like a 51, and they hadn’t yet engineered the 21 or 41 from the 51’s overall designs, so used inexpensive componentry they knew well: the aluminum push button, the lucite barrel and hood, and the latex sac. It worked as a design, and filled a market gap. If, seventy years later, it doesn’t make as much sense as it might have in the Parker boardroom, so be it.

This is a thought exercise one can practice with almost any pen, not just from the output of the two largest, most established companies — fit it into its time and moment in history and consider the determinants. The key, however, is not just pen history, because that pen is from its time and only its time.