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Parker Vacumatic

Parker Vacumatic, black translucent, 1942

By 1930, the sac-filler pen had pretty much finished off the competing eyedroppers and safeties, but it still had a couple of perceived weaknesses: the sacs limited the amount of ink that the pen could hold, and they could petrify or burst if left to sit too long without being filled or used. Not content to rest on the laurels of its successful Duofold line, Parker began to research alternatives to the sac sometime in the mid-to-late 1920s. Elaborating on an invention by a University of Wisconsin engineer, Parker came up with an all-new filler system and installed it on a new and visually-arresting line of pens that first went on sale in 1932.

Speedline Vacumatics, c1937

These were originally known as "Golden Arrow" pens (inaugurating the new Parker "arrow" trademark designed by artist Joseph Platt), and then as "Vacuum Filler" pens. Eventually, Parker settled on the zippier model name "Vacumatic" (the suffix '-matic' being to the 1930s what the prefixes 'e-' and 'cyber-' were to the halcyon dot-com days of the 1990s).

The new Vacumatics looked quite modern compared to the Duofold; although Parker had updated the Duofold with new colors and a more streamlined appearance, it still had the ball-end washer clip and black ends of the 1921 model. By contrast, the Vacumatic came in amazing laminated plastics, made up from sheets of alternating solid and pearlescent colors. Taking advantage of the new filler design, these pens were translucent, allowing you to see how much ink remained in the pen at any point (the ravages of time and ink exposure have made most surviving Vacs rather opaque, although you will still find lightly-used or new-old-stock examples with good transparency). The smart new arrow clip was fixed to the top with a handsome jewel screw, and a similar bit of trim was found on the blind caps of most of the earlier Vac models (the arrow clip and top jewel would remain a Parker hallmark through the 1970s). The points had a "golden arrow" engraving, set off (in earlier models) by two-tone plating. Some of the earlier Vacumatics actually had a "reversible" point; you could turn the pen upside down and write (with the feed facing up) to get a finer line.

Although the Vacumatic's filler plunger may look superficially like an earlier button filler pen, the filling process is actually quite different. Instead of merely mashing once on the button, you tap several times on the plunger; each tap extends a rubber diaphragm, reducing the volume inside the barrel. When the plunger pops back up under spring tension, it creates a partial vacuum inside the pen that causes a small amount of ink to be drawn halfway up the barrel through a "breather tube" and deposited in the barrel. It takes around 5-10 taps of the plunger to fill the pen completely. The breather tube allowed the air pressure inside and outside the barrel to be more quickly equalized, which in theory meant that Vacumatics would behave better than sac pens if you took them up in airplanes (even some sac-fill pens, such as the Eversharp Skyline, would later adopt breather tubes for similar reasons).

Vacumatic fillers: plastic, lockdown (up), lockdown (down)

The Vacumatic filler unit evolved over time; originally, it was made largely of aluminum, and was designed to stow away in the down position (with its internal coil spring fully tensed). A slight twist on the knurled gold-colored tip of the filler pops it up to the filling position; when you're finished, you push it back down and twist slightly to lock it in place (this last step invariably causes a drop or two of ink to be released from the pen). This first version of the Vacumatic filler unit is now known as the "lockdown" filler.

Later, Parker designers apparently concluded that it would be best for the filler to rest with the spring relaxed and the plunger all the way out; these were known as "speedline" fillers (presumably since eliminating the pop-up/lockdown steps made filling faster and cleaner).

Parker Duofolds of the later 1930s often had Vacumatic fillers, like this example that boasts the Speedline filler button.

The design changed more radically in the 1940s, when the second world war made more pressing demands on aluminum; the third generation plastic fillers came into use in the 1940s. These were made almost completely of plastic and are similar to (but not identical to) those used in the contemporary Parker 51s. These later fillers, in particular, are subject to be destroyed by ham-handed users or restorers; replacement Vac filler units (scavenged from parts pens) can be purchased from restorers, but you have to know what kind you're replacing, since they're all slightly different in dimensions and don't interchange well.

1940s Vacumatics

The Vacumatics sold originally for $7.00 for the Deluxe models and $5.00 for the Junior models (matching pencils were available for each). Later models went for as much as $10.00. Thus, the Vacumatic was priced at about the same level as the Duofold. Although Parker offered incentives on the Duofold in the early 1930s to clear its inventories, the Duofold name never really disappeared completely; in the late 1930s, a new line of Duofolds was introduced, some using Vacumatic fillers but having distinct plastics, shapes, and trim.

Like the Duofold before it, the Vacumatic became a worldwide hit, and the pens were eventually produced in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Denmark (whence came one example I've seen that actually had a factory-fitted Duofold-style button filler, rather than the authentic Vac system, the reason supposedly being that button fillers were more popular in Europe).

As one might imagine, the Vacumatic's style and success had a great influence on other penmakers. Although few tried to copy the rather complicated filler system directly, many of them hustled to produce pens with "visible" ink supplies (most often done by the simple expedient of making the section of a conventional sac pen partially transparent). Italian makers, in particular, directly lifted the laminated celluloid design (and even the arrow clip) for some of their midcentury pens.

Of course, amid all this praise, we must also acknowledge the dirty little secret of the Vacumatic: it was anything but the "first sacless pen" it was touted to be. For one thing, manufacturers such as Onoto (with its plunger filler), Pelikan (with its piston-filled 100) and Conklin (with the piston-operated Nozac) had already come to market with truly sacless designs, and in any case Parker publicists were really splitting hairs in refusing to call the Vac's rubber diaphragm a "sac" (a fact that Sheaffer publicists were happy to point out in preferring the virtues of their Onoto-stye plunger filler). Years later, of course, we find that Vacumatic diaphragms do petrify and rot like sacs; however, they're almost as easily replaced by an expert, while most of the Sheaffer Vac-Fils that show up today are basket cases that require very expensive and painstaking repair to restore them to full operation.

Vacumatic production continued throughout the second world war, and ceased in the US around 1948, by which time Parker had made a complete transition to casting of solid-color pen barrels (a process they started with the model 51). So, the beautiful hand-lathed celluloid Vacumatics had to go, replaced by the plainer, open-pointed "VS" (Vacumatic Successor) model, and then by a variety of hooded-point pens priced below the 51. Production of Vacumatics and Vac-like pens continued in the U.K. and Canada into the 1950s.

Parker made things very interesting (or perhaps frustrating) for future collectors by issuing Vacumatics in a huge number of variations, with some downright confusing nomenclature; David Isaacson, who's well on his way to becoming the galaxy's number one expert on Parker Vacumatics, divides the history of these pens into four distinct phases on his website (http://www.vacumania.com/). I won't attempt to give a precise taxonomy (since even David hasn't yet compiled all the data), but here's a brief guide:

If these clues aren't enough to help you identify your prize, you may be able to date the pen fairly precisely by looking for its date code (unless you are under thirty years of age and eat a lot of carrots, you'll probably need a loupe or other strong magnifier). Look to the right of the "PARKER VACUMATIC" imprint on the barrel, where you may find a small single digit surrounded by anywhere from zero to three small dots. The digit indicates the year of manufacture (e.g., "4" = 1944 in the example below), while three dots mean first quarter, two dots the second quarter, and so forth (legend has it that Parker craftsmen started the year with a die that had three dots on it, and struck one of the dots off for each passing quarter). This type of date code was used on other Parkers of the period, such as the "Vacumatic Duofolds" and early 51s.

Standard Parker date code (the "4" for 1944) can just be made out to the right of the "Made in U.S.A." imprint on this Vacumatic.

The Verdict

The Parker Vacumatic is one of the most avidly collected of all vintage pens. They're fairly numerous (and more new-old-stock examples seem to crawl out from under rocks every day), and they range in price (and desirability) from the smaller, later models up to larger 1930s models, or those with special finishes or other unusual features (like the gold-fill metal caps on some later models). Collecting Vacs is an ideal avocation for those who like to impose order on chaos, since you can spend decades tracking down one of each color, style, and model name produced (and there'd probably be a couple more lurking out there in the bushes that you hadn't counted on).

Vac plastic is generally pretty tough stuff, perhaps because of the laminated construction (which should tend to stop cracks from spreading into adjacent layers) and the fairly heavy gauge barrel wall thickness. This, plus the nice smooth (and fairly fine) points, make Vacs excellent pens for daily writing. Although Vacs do get nicked up a bit (as will any old pen), you seldom see them with serious cracks. You should, however, look out for bulging or strained areas at the rear of the barrel, indicating a less-than-expert repair job to the filler. Also, pay attention to the fit of the blind caps (particularly on the later models), since these were generally turned along with the barrel and are therefore not precisely interchangeable from pen to pen (leaving out an adjustment to the filler unit after a repair can also result in slightly misfitting blind caps).

As with any old pen, you should assume that any Vac found in the wild will require some restoration. This is emphatically NOT a job for a first-time do-it-yourselfer. The diaphragm replacement is not straightforward and requires a special "vac tool" for wrenching out the filler unit (these are available from Fountain Pen Hospital and other sources). Replacing the filler properly is even trickier than removing it, and removing the remains of the old diaphragm (along with its tiny locking bead) can be very annoying. You risk damage to the filler unit (particularly if it is one of the later plastic ones) if you are not extremely careful with heat and pressure. Worse, the sections on earlier Vacs are not removable, so it is hard to knock out and reset the nib and feed.

In short, for your peace of mind, I'd recommend turning over your new Vac to a knowledgeable and capable pen restorer. If you insist on doing it yourself, you'll find complete instructions in Frank Dubiel's invaluable book, called simply "Da Book".

Maker Parker
Origin USA and elsewhere
Production 1932-1948 (USA)
Type Vacumatic filler
Point 14k , one or two tone
Construction (Typically) laminated semi-transparent celluloid barrel and cap, gold-fill trim.