Silver for Brass: Some Notes on Wartime Pen Manufacture

[The PENnant, 1995]

Most collectors know of the constraints imposed upon American pen manufacturers during WW2, when materials and manufacturing capacity alike were diverted to the war effort (see "Pushing the Pens," Fortune, Oct 1944). Metals in short supply included aluminum, brass and steel, but not silver or gold. As a result, even economy brands such as Wearever and Venus used gold nibs during this period, and while stores often had trouble getting adequate stocks of ordinary pens after 1942, deluxe solid gold models remained in plentiful supply.

Less widely known is that many other pens had their precious metal content boosted during the war years. Browsing wartime Sheaffer ads for another project, I came across a July 1942 ad that proudly stated that "substantially all of the materials used in "TRIUMPH" construction are of the least critical type. Bands, metal caps and clips are 14K gold filled on a silver base. The use of aluminum and brass in all Sheaffer products has been discontinued" (see Lawrence, An Illustrated Fountain Pen History, 1875 to 1960, p. 220). Looking further, I found Eversharp describing their standard Fifth Avenue caps as "14 carat gold over sterling silver" (ibid, p. 228: December 1943). In neither case is the silver-base trim so marked, and when wear exposes the substrate, collectors are apt to presume it to be pot metal, standing in for brass.

Were wartime caps for the Parker 51 also gold over silver? I have yet to find any documentation to confirm it, but wartime caps in gold filled metal do seem softer and more dent-prone than their postwar counterparts. Certainly Parker had to minimize its use of strategic metals just like everyone else, and it is no accident that wartime ads nearly always picture the 51 with a sterling cap. Furthermore, I have observed that many wartime Vacs in grey pearl have silver clips and bands – not marked, but their soft, mellow, tarnishing surfaces are unmistakable – while contemporary gold-filled bands often reveal a silvery substrate when worn.

These notes are hardly exhaustive, so I will close with a suggestion for further research. While pen company archives are often inaccessible, incomplete, or no longer extant, governmental supervision of industry during wartime has left a vast trove of documentation which will undoubtedly repay scrutiny. What was each firm allocated? What methods did each propose to save on raw materials? Which products were preempted for government use or for sale in PXs? Answers to these questions and many more await.


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Copyright 1999 David Nishimura. All rights reserved