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Chilton pens

Chilton Pneumatic Filler, black-and-pearl, c 1927

What's the best way to fill a fountain pen? Many manufacturers have made many attempts to answer this question over the past century or more, but for my money we have one of the worthiest claims before us on this page: the Chilton Pneumatic Filler.

The Chilton company was founded by Seth Chilton Crocker, the son of another famous pen pioneer, Seth Sears Crocker. The elder Crocker began making pens under the Crocker name in about 1902; these were all self-fillers of the "blow filler" type (later, Crocker would adopt the "hatchet filler," a take on the lever filler principle that was apparently sufficiently removed from Sheaffer's patent to keep the company out of legal trouble). Seth S. Crocker left the pen business in about 1920, although the Crocker company itself continued on for some years.

The younger Crocker set up shop under his middle name in Boston in about 1924; his pens used a new "pneumatic" (positive pressure) filling system technically related to his father's famous blow fillers (we'll get to that filler in a moment). Chilton began making pens from celluloid plastic in 1926, and this resulted in more colorful pens like the black-and-pearl example shown here (the barrel is slightly discolored compared to the cap, showing the effects of "amberizing," or chemical reaction between the celluloid and sulfur given off by the rubber sac). In the latter 1920s, Chilton moved operations from Boston to Long Island. In 1934, the prettiest of the Chiltons appeared; the Wing Flow was named for its new point, which was crimped onto the feed so that it would never go out of alignment. The most characteristic finish for Wing Flow pens was solid-color plastic with small strip inlays in Deco patterns (the pens also were offered in marbled colors). Unfortunately, despite the beauty, quality, and effectiveness of their pens, Chilton's sales did not generate enough return, and the company was out of business by 1940; their demise is often attributed to the fact that they did not seek national markets for their pens, which were distributed mainly in the northeastern U.S. (it didn't help that Chilton released its best models in the teeth of a raging business depression). This is a shame, since with the proper promotion and backing, these high-quality pens could well have rewritten the history of the pen business.

Chilton's two innovations, the pneumatic filler and the Wing Flow point, survived for other makers to exploit; the Sheaffer Touchdown filler is really an adaptation of the later "mark II" Chilton pneumatic design, and remained in production from 1950 to the mid-70s (and was revived briefly in the mid-1990s on some models of the Sheaffer Legacy). Echoes of the Wing Flow point can also be found in the tubular points on Sheaffer Triumph-point pens and Parker 51s (et. al.), while the crimped-on points of the Parker VP and 75 pens are a more direct crib.

The Chilton pen is remarkably simple in design and easy to service.

The initial "mark I" version of the Chilton Pneumatic filler consists of a conventional section (with large sac attached) that screws into a metal tube (called the "inner barrel"). An "outer barrel" of hard rubber (or, as in this example, celluloid) is fitted over the inner barrel, and the air gap between the two barrels is sealed by wax-coated twine wound around the inner barrel. The outer barrel has a biggish hole drilled and chamfered through its very end. To fill the pen, you simply pull back on the outer barrel (it is not locked down), immerse the point in ink, place your finger over the hole in the outer barrel, and push down smartly. This creates a sharp pressure surge inside the inner barrel that deflates the sac and forces out its contents; at the end of the stroke, when the pressure inside the pen equalizes, the sac expands and takes in fresh ink.

Later, Chilton modified this design ("mark II") so that the outer barrel was fixed to the section and the inner barrel connected to a blind cap with a hole punched in its end; this design is found on later Chiltons (including the Wing Flow models), and it allowed the barrel threads to be moved forward allowing the caps to be shorter (smaller pens of the "mark I" design often had disproportionately long caps).

It's hard to tell how well the Chilton's filler does its work when the pen is dry (you can't hear the "whoosh" you sometimes get from more tightly-sealed Sheaffer pneumatic pens), but the proof is in the filling; the performance is all the more impressive when you realize that the Chilton utterly lacks polymer o-rings, silicone, or other "space age" technology for sealing the barrel. Also, since the barrel doesn't have to contain the springs, levers, or other doo-dads associated with mechanical sac fillers, there's more room for the sac; the Chilton takes full advantage, and holds much more ink than other sac-fillers of comparable size. Best of all, the Chiltons are among the easiest pens to re-sac; the section can simply be unscrewed from the inner barrel with none of the trauma associated with forcing out press-fit sections or screwing sections back in around pressure bars.

If you prefer, the Chilton can also be operated as a Crocker-style blow-filler: put the pen in the ink, put your mouth over the back of the pen, and blow in sharply to collapse the sac (this technique is good for getting at the last few drops in an ink bottle, a situation in which operating the outer barrel may be a bit awkward).

Although the design is very simple, the Chilton is by no means an inferior pen; it is made with a greater degree of precision and care than most other pens of its time. Chilton simply didn't add "features" where none were needed; for example, the outer barrel does not lock down on this pen, but it doesn't really have to; even should it slide a bit during use, the big breather hole keeps the inside pressure constant so there won't be any flooding or skipping from the point. The cap threads clench the outer barrel, so that the pen is held closed while it is in your pocket. The clip is an "s-shaped" strip of metal fished into the cap through a slot and held in place by the inner cap (a common design of the day which, while not technically adventurous, assures that the clip can attach to thick pockets without springing or popping out). Despite the metal inner barrel, Chilton pens are quite light, not appreciably heavier than other pens of the period.

While some writers have complained of the Chilton's "dull design," these pens were at least as handsome as any that were made at the time; the inlaid Wing Flow models were particularly elegant and subtle compared to other "Deco" pens of the period. Chilton's plastic work was top-notch, and the points and feeds were of high quality.

The Verdict

Although their simple design and quality construction has helped Chiltons stand the test of time pretty well, so few of them were ever made (thanks to limited distribution) that they are quite rare today, and have their own particular sub-cult among collectors. The Wing-Flow Deco models, in particular, are highly sought after (and in consequence highly-priced).

Chilton pens are very easy to re-sac, although more extensive rebuilding (like replacement of the packing twine that closes the air gap between inner and outer barrels) are jobs best tackled by a specialist restorer. Cracks or holes in the outer barrel (other than those placed by the factory) can cripple the effectiveness of the Pneumatic filler.

Maker Chilton
Origin US (Boston, New York)
Production 1924-1940
Type Fountain pen (pneumatic filler)
Point 14k gold
Construction Metal inner barrel; celluloid cap, outer barrel, and section.