New Evidence for the Early History of the Sheaffer Pen Company: Introduction & Notes [2001]

A few years back, Jim Lobb, a Louisville, KY real estate attorney who collects early Sheaffer and Kraker pens, told me of an interesting discovery. He had been doing archival research, and had uncovered the transcripts of the bitterly-fought patent dispute between Sheaffer and his former partner, George Kraker. Pen collectors had long known about this litigation, but only by way of Walter A. Sheaffer’s 1937 autobiography. There it is presented as the vindication of an honest businessman and inventor, defending himself against the slick machinations of unscrupulous rivals and backstabbing partners. A rather different picture emerged, however, as Jim dug into the 2000-odd pages of testimony, dating between 1914 and 1916. For while the courts ultimately handed Sheaffer a crushing victory, a close reading of the original record raises serious doubts as to whether justice was truly served. At the least, the decision would seem to have owed as much to the talent of Sheaffer’s lawyers as to the merits of his case.

About a year and a half ago, Jim concluded that he wasn’t likely to have the time anytime soon to do a proper writeup of all he had discovered. Wanting to see the pen collecting community benefit from his work, he brought his copy of the transcripts to the 1999 Columbus show, where Cyndie Schlagel made several copies for other Sheaffer collector-historians to examine. This article is based upon my reading of one of these copies. Several more articles will follow, as the material in the transcripts casts new light on so many issues beyond the patent dispute proper.

We are all deeply indebted to Jim Lobb for uncovering and making available such an important source document. This research is as much Jim’s as mine; nonetheless, any errors of fact and especially of points of law are my responsibility alone. I would also like to thank Sheaffer specialists Rick Horne, Dan Reppert, and Cyndie Schlagel for their interest, input, and friendship.

The transcripts begin under the heading US District Ct, Northern District of IL, Eastern Division. Walter A. Sheaffer vs. C.E. Barrett. In Equity. No. 348. 1124 Monadnock Block, Chicago, 11 Feb 1915 [miswritten 1914 on first page] (Notice and Testimony in Prima Facie in Suit), but the skirmishing had already begun the previous year. At issue was the so-called double-bar – the combined spring and pressure bar familiar to anyone who has ever disassembled a Sheaffer lever-filler. The transcripts make it clear that Sheaffer’s original single-bar lever-fillers did not work at all well, and that the great success of his pens would have been unthinkable without the introduction around April of 1913 of the double-bar, for which Sheaffer received patent #1,118,240 on Nov. 24, 1914.

Although Clarence E. Barrett was the first defendant named, his role was decidedly peripheral: a subcontractor for other penmakers, Barrett had supplied hard rubber caps and barrels (“holders” in the parlance of the day) for the Kraker Pen Company, components that allegedly infringed n Sheaffer’s patents. Sheaffer’s main targets were the Kraker Pen Company itself, along with Sheaffer’s former partner and backer, George Kraker, and Sheaffer’s former employee, Harvey G. Craig, who claimed to be the double-bar mechanism’s actual inventor.

At the time of this lawsuit, the Sheaffer Pen Company was only a few years old, and in that short time had already emerged as a major player in the fountain pen market. The lever filler had turned out to be a smashing success, but it was obvious to all that if Sheaffer failed to protect his patents, he and his backers stood to lose everything. Kraker and Harvey likewise had all they owned riding on the outcome of the case. It was a tough fight with no holds barred, and with so much depending on personal recollections, each side brought in as many witnesses as possible, subjecting each to extraordinarily long and detailed questioning. The records of this testimony are thus a veritable gold mine for the pen historian, preserving as they do the eyewitness accounts of virtually everyone involved in the birth of Sheaffer’s pen business. On top of this, there is the expert testimony of industry insiders such as Julius Schnell, offering a unique window into the rough-and-tumble business of fountain pen manufacture and marketing in the early years of the 20th century. If this weren’t enough, we also get an unvarnished look at the personalities and power games hidden under the whitewash of official company histories – a look that reveals, among other things, that Walter A. Sheaffer seems to have made a habit of getting information on partners and rivals by suborning their female clerks, sometimes by bribery and at other times by seduction.

NOTE: The versions of the articles published here differ in some details from the versions published in the Pennant; these are virtually all minor corrections that do not affect the overall picture drawn.


Copyright © 2001-2003 David Nishimura. All rights reserved