Sheaffer pens

Walter A. Sheaffer was born in Bloomfield, Iowa in 1867, the son of a local jeweler. He learned the jewelry trade himself, and shortly after the turn of the century took over a shop in Fort Madison, Iowa.

In 1907, Sheaffer began work on his own unique fountain pen design. By the next year, he had his first patent, and by 1912, with help from two former associates of the Conklin company, Sheaffer had converted his jewelry shop into a pen factory and began selling his products to the public.

The Sheaffer lever fill system would go on to become the standard of the industry in the U.S. and abroad for several years after the Sheaffer company itself gave them up in the 1940s.

tour this exhibit

or, view individual pen images:

1930 jade green Lifetime Balance

1930s jade green Lifetime ringtop

pair of mid-'30s Lifetimes

1943 Vac-Fil

pair of 1950s Snorkel fillers

pair of 1980s Targas

A typical Sheaffer magazine advertisement from the late 20s. These lush layouts featured the giant "S" decorated in Art Nouveau style, with colorful depictions of the products (color, after all, was Sheaffer's big selling point in those days).

The lever filler was superior to other self fillers of the time because there were no parts to remove and lose (as with the Parker button-filler), no parts to have to carry around in order to accomplish the filling (as with matchstick and coin fillers), and no unsightly protrusions from the barrel (as with the Conklin crescent filler). On the strength of this innovation, Sheaffer's sales grew rapidly throughout the rest of the '10s.

Despite the firm's vigorous legal defense of its patents, the lever filler soon spread to most of the rest of the industry. and the company's offerings were no longer unique. It was time for more innovation.

Early fountain pens were rather expensive, and were regarded as not always perfectly reliable. Sheaffer decided to address this perception in 1920 by offering a pen that cost even more ($8.25, versus $3 or less among the competition) but carried a lifetime guarantee. The white-dotted Lifetime pens with their serially-numbered gold points sold extremely well despite the price, and remained in the Sheaffer line for the next three decades or so (by which time the white dot would become a general trademark for all of Sheaffer's products).

The 1920s were a busy period at Fort Madison. Sheaffer developed its own aniline based ink, which it sold as "Skrip, the successor to ink" (and took pains to avoid the i-word in its advertisements thereafter). The sensational Radite (pyroxalin resin or celluloid) pens appeared in 1924, available at first in marbled jade green and black colors; these pens were much more durable and stable than other "colored" pens that had appeared on the market; they were in instant hit, and within five years or so all of the other important U.S. brands had switched over to some form of celluloid. In 1930, Sheaffer introduced the taper-ended Balance, which set yet another industry trend for "streamlined" pens, and was literally the shape of Sheaffers to come for the next three decades. More marbled and mottled colors were offered in the '30s, along with snazzy striated solid/pearlescent finishes. Clips evolved from "old timey" ball end types to the sleek, rigid, internally sprung types of the 40s and 50s.

Sheaffer's first departure from the old faithful lever filler came in 1935 with the introduction of the sacless Vac-Fil models, which were sold alongside the more conventional lever fillers (Sheaffer had introduced a plunger filler in its Wasp "junior" brand the year before). These pens worked on the same pneumatic principle as pens like the Onoto and others. Sheaffer marketing materials pointed out smugly that the Vac-Fil, unlike Parker's popular Vacumatic, was truly a "sacless" pen since the Parker pen used an inverted rubber sac for a pressure diaphragm (which presents the same dryout risk as a full sac), and also informed salesmen that the Vac-Fil had up to 400% greater ink capacity than competitive models.

After WWII, two more new filing systems were introduced (both, curiously, sac based), the Touchdown and Snorkel fillers.

If the Vac-Fil was an answer to Parker's Vacumatic, the conical Triumph point of 1942 was clearly a nod toward Parker's 51, helping Sheaffer's lineup look a bit less old-fashioned when compared to the sleek new Parker. The inlay point made its first appearance on the Pen for Men (PFM) of the late 1950s), and has remained a Sheaffer hallmark ever since.

Sheaffer has been through several changes in management over the past thirty years or so, most recently having been purchased by Bic (in the summer of 1997). The company has remained very active in all sectors of the industry, with a product range that currently encompasses inexpensive cartridge pens for students all the way up to a limited-edition reissue of the original Balance.

This file last posted on:
2005-Jan-20 17:50:26 CST
MCMVIII, the red network