When faced with multiple Parker 51s and Vacumatics, Sheaffer Balances and Triumphs, as I have these past two months, one cannot help noticing the significant differences in manufacturing methods, in addition to these two companies’ very different designs and filling methods.
By the advent of World War II, Parker and Sheaffer dominated the American market for finer fountain pens. Sure, there were Esterbrooks and Wearevers, sold from “dime” stores; but the Big Four had become two, with Wahl/Eversharp’s and Waterman’s fall-off in sales, variety and quality. The peak pre- and post-WWII decades for both Parker and Sheaffer saw the production of what in my opinion were their best pens — the Vacumatics and 51s, Balances and Triumphs. It’s continually interesting to me, as a restorer working with them regularly, that in producing these wonderful pens only 250 miles apart, they used essentially opposite production methods to produce very different pens, with probably equally different aims.
One of these major differences, and one that crosses models and brands, is parts interchangeability, which every restorer knows is a singularly important variable in fountain pen production, repair, and restoration. Parkers, from the earliest Duofolds forward, were largely identical in their components, normally differing in size only from the smallest to the oversize models — a Vacumatic filler part will fit and work in almost any Vac. Caps from one pen generally fit on barrels from another, even across models, which of course is why I named a pen of mine a Duollenger, a Duofold with a perfectly fitting Royal Challenger cap.
Not so with Sheaffer. Early Balance parts fit others of similar size pretty closely, but as the years wore on, Balance parts lost their match. Triumph parts, from blind cap fittings to plungers, nib units and connectors, never seem to match — every little part needs to be carefully matched for the pen; I have never seen a Triumph that is the same as any other Triumph.
Clearly, these differences are not accidental, but are rooted in manufacturing philosophy. This was an era of large-scale parts production in factories: while no part was hand-made without machines, automation had not yet arisen as a force. It was a labor-driven, machine-operated process.
Having only partial information available to attempt to explain the differences, one is led to ask: did Parker, the largest producer in the world, with divisions in at least six countries, focus on internal interchangeability to intentionally enable remote pen shop technicians to function more independently and release the factory for production? Did Sheaffer, which focused on an essentially American market, make thousands of nib units and blind caps in each of several sizes and colors, plus four or five varieties of plunger rods, plunger nuts, and gaskets with the expectation that pen shops would send the pens in for repair? Certainly, they didn’t encourage remote repairs; available repair manual text confirms this. Or, was centralization of repairs the necessary result of a decision by Sheaffer to enable greater sales variety?
I’m often asked why I’m so interested in fountain pens and why I spend so much time working with them. To me, they are not only the work on my bench and what I do, they’re a continuing, growing source of active learning and more passive reflection. Every brand and model has a reason for existence and a cultural history in which it grew and flourished. They are my entry into learning more about their times. As always, I am very interested to know your thoughts on these differences, and whether your knowledge can fill in some of my gaps!