[ search ]

Sheaffer Balance

Sheaffer Balance Oversize, Jade Green, c 1929

When Sheaffer pens first hit the national market back in the nineteen-teens, they brought with them the innovative lever filler, but within a few years most of the competition was also using them. Then, in the early 1920s, Sheaffer pioneered the notion of the expensive upmarket pen with generous guarantee (the Lifetime), but soon the competition caught on to this as well. In the mid-1920s, Sheaffer learned how to work with more colorful celluloid rather than drab, fragile, and tarnish-prone hard rubber, but again the other guys were not far behind. Clearly, then, this aggressive young fountain pen industry was not going to allow its leaders much time to rest on their laurels, so by the end of the 1920s it was time for yet more Fort Madison innovation.

Sheaffer Balance Lifetime, Black and Pearl, c 1933

This time, the new feature was more stylistic than technical: Sheaffer simply tapered off both ends of its pens, creating what the jewelers (or bakers) might call a "baguette" shape, or the cigar makers a "perfecto" shape. This alone might have been enough to guarantee a rush of interest in the new pens, but Sheaffer opted to add a bit of sizzle to the steak by touting their supposedly improved writing feel and giving the new range the name "Balance."

Tapered pens weren't new; the 19th century penmakers often created "taper caps" which, when posted, made the pens look like contemporary dip pens. However, by the 1920s, the standard shape for fountain pens was the straight-sided tube, with flat or perhaps slightly convex ends (by way of exception, the Parker Duofold and its predecessor Jack Knife model had a sculpted profile at the rear of the pen where the blind cap attached). However, Sheaffer must have figured that by removing material from both ends of the pen, they could shift the pen's center of gravity forward by a couple of millimeters and thus make the pen feel lighter or more balanced in the hand. I'm not sure I can tell much of a difference between a Balance and a corresponding flat-top model, but Sheaffer was figuring out what most modern penmakers now know by instinct: that what the engineers and designers would call a very small change, the ad copy writers could turn into a huge new "feature."

Sheaffer Balance Lifetime, Marine Green, c 1933

Anyway, the Balance was introduced to the waiting world in 1929, and met with considerable success. In fact, eventually, all Sheaffer-branded pens became Balances, and this would continue for the next several decades. Sheaffer also seems to have goaded the competition into offering their own variations: Parker's "Streamline" Duofold appeared in the same year, along with Wahl's "Equipoise" design. Waterman stayed with the basic tube design for a much longer time, although the Patrician and other models featured slight tapering at the ends.

During this period, Sheaffer was never big on discrete model names, so with a few exceptions all pointy-ended pens from 1929 through 1940 or so are known to collectors simply as "Balances." Sheaffer kept the pens up to date stylistically, but through a process of gradual evolution rather than sudden change.

Sheaffer Balance pens, early and late: (top) Golden Brown striped with
Triumph Point (c 1942), and Jade Green (c 1929).

In the first year, Balances were available in the familiar colors of Black, Jade Green, and Black-and-Pearl. Later, a Marine Green marble and two varieties of Gray Pearl marble (one with red veins) were offered. Two unusual and rarer colors, Blue-and-Black (with an odd "geographic" appearance), and Ebonized Pearl (deep black with squarish chunks of abalone-colored material) were also available. In the mid-1930s, Sheaffer moved toward a conservative style of solid color plastic with alternating pearlescent stripes. With this 'pinstripe' plastic, Sheaffer seems to have hit on the right balance (ahem) of strength, hardness, and workability; these pens seem to resist scratching, shrinkage, and discoloration, and have generally survived the decades much better than other contemporary celluloids. These pens were available in a number of colors, including Brown, Grey, Green, Carmine red, and the rare pinkish Roseglow. See the Sheaffer Balance article at Richard Binder's website (http://www.richardspens.com/) for a complete color chart with dates.

Sheaffer tinkered continually with the clips on Balance pens during the 1930s. The first clips had a distinctive stepped or "humped" profile, with large ball ends. Over time, as if by some organic process, the hump gradually straightened, and the ball was flattened out and integrated into the clip end to form more of a teardrop shape. During 1935, Sheaffer tried and abandoned clips secured by tabs; thereafter they returned to the superior internally-mounted clips. Finally, in the 1940s, the clip became a very smooth simple curve (there was still the remnant of a ball, but you can see it only from the side). For those in the military, whose dress regulations prevented them from wearing pens that protruded from their pockets, Sheaffer offered the "military clip," which was simply a standard tab-secured clip mounted upside down and bent around the top of the pen -- very simple, but effective and stylish. The White Dots on Lifetime models were usually found just above the clip, but were relocated to the very end of the barrel or to a spot below the clip (on the military models).

Sheaffer Balance Lifetime Golden Brown Stripe, c 1935,
with "visulated" section to show ink level.

Balance pens usually have a single cap band, which may be larger on the Autograph or Signature models. In the later runs, the cap band went all the way down to the lip of the cap for a very attractive and modern appearance. Many later Balance models had a very small band around the cap lip, looking like a piece of heavy wire wrapped around the end of the cap.

Sheaffer Balance points. Left to right: early monochrome Lifetime point (c 1929), platinum-masked two-tone (c 1933), #5 Feather Touch (non-Lifetime) (c 1935), Triumph point (c 1942)

The earliest points were monochrome gold, identical to those found in the earlier flat-tops. Lifetime points carried serial numbers (and would continue to do so through the early 1940s). Later, the points were plated in their forward halves with platinum to create a two-tone effect. Also during these years the Feather Touch point was introduced on non-Lifetime pens; this point, like some on the Parker Vacumatic, could be turned around to write on its backside to produce a finer line. In 1942 came a radical new point design, perhaps in response to Parker and its new hooded-point 51 model: the so-called "Triumph" point was actually a gold ring that fitted to the front of the pen, ensuring much more stable and permanent alignment of the point. You can't call these "flexible" points by any definition, but they do write with the firm, smooth characteristics associated with Sheaffer pens. For the first 15 years or so, Triumph points were welded together from sheet gold, and then carefully milled and polished to hide the seam in the back; with the advent of the TM pens (after the Balance), the Triumph point was actually made from drawn gold tube, and became even stronger as a consequence.

Sheaffer Crest set, Triumph point with Vac-Fil, c 1942

The earliest Balances were all lever fillers. In 1935, responding to the competing Parker Vacumatic, Sheaffer offered the Vac-Fil plunger filling system as an alternative to the lever filler. These can be identified by the lack of a lever (of course), plus a knurled blind cap at the rear (where the plunger could be loosened and pulled out). I discuss the Vac-Fil models separately elsewhere.

Although you could get Balance pens in a variety of lengths and girths, Sheaffer generally did not apply descriptive model names to these variations (or at least did not consistently stamp these names or numbers into the pens). There are a couple of exceptions:

Wartime Sheaffer Balance, Vac-Fil and Triumph point, silver trim (c 1942)

During World War II, Sheaffer cut back sharply on its production of pens in order to do war work. Those pens that were made often came in unusual variations. such as silver trim rather than gold-filled brass (the brass was needed on the battlefield). At the end of the war, Sheaffer continued to offer its pre-war line with little variation until the transition to the new Touchdown, Thin Model, and Snorkel pens began. In 1948, Sheaffer began to switch from celluloid to a cast resin called Fortical; there seem to have been quite a few Balance models made from this material, in both Vac-Fil and lever-fill versions. To all intents, the Sheaffer Balance line ceased sometime in the early 1950s.

We should not ignore the pencils made during the Balance era. Sheaffer improved its twist-advance lead filling mechanism, and in the mid thirties began using thinner leads (in the so-called "Fineline" pencils). The tips of these pencils were not conical (as was the custom) but had a short straight section of a couple of millimeters that helped reinforce the thinner lead against breakage. Sheaffer knurled the celluloid near the point of these pencils for a secure grip. This was also the era for Sheaffer's very short and bulbous "golf pencils," which are once again fashionable in these days of unusual new pencil designs.

In 1997 (for the company's 85th anniversary), Sheaffer released a limited edition reissue of the Balance; it was quite authentic, being equipped with a lever filler, and came packed in the obligatory steamer-trunk-sized wooden velvet-lined chest. Following on, Sheaffer produced the mass-market Balance II models, which came in several distinctive marbled finishes with gold points, and used cartridge-converter filling.

The Verdict

Sheaffer Balance models from the 1930s are the among the bread-and-butter of collectible vintage pens. They're plentiful, inexpensive, very easy to restore (at least in the sac-filler versions) and when restored can write rings around many or most modern fountain pens. Sheaffer points are typically fairly firm or rigid, and write very smoothly, perfect for the modern hand. The early Radite pens (most notably the Jade Green and Black-and-Pearl) are prone to discoloration from the rubber parts inside, so if you find a clean one it will be more valuable, and possibly should not be resacked. The later striped models seem less prone to such problems. As with most pens, the larger sizes are scarce and consequently more expensive when you find them. There were only a few colors offered, but some are rarer than others and consequently more costly. Matching Balance pencils are often more easily found than for other brands and models. Serially-numbered points and white dots are found on Lifetime models; standard models have plain 14k points and no white dot. Lever fill pens are usually easily refurbished simply by replacing the sac. Vac-fil (plunger) models may require restoration by a specialist; the back seals often dry out, causing the pen to leak.

Maker Sheaffer
Origin USA (and Canada)
Production 1929-1952c
Type Lever sac filler, or plunger (vac-fil) filler.
Point 14k (serially numbered for lifetime models.
Construction Streamlined celluloid barrels and caps; gold fill bands clips, and levers.