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Sheaffer “Flat-Tops”

The pens made by Sheaffer from 1912 to around 1930 are generally lumped together under the generic term "flat-top," perhaps to distinguish them from the more dramatically-styled Balance models of the 1930s and beyond. This seems to give short shrift to these earlier pens, however: after all, it was during these years that some of Sheaffer's most significant technical advancements were made, and the late-1920s flat-tops differ from the early Balances only in shape.

Sheaffer Lifetime Jade Green, c 1925

Up through the turn of the 20th century or so, fountain pens could carry their own ink supply, but you had to use an eyedropper (usually supplied with the pen) to transfer that ink from the bottle into the pen's insides. This was better than having to dip the pen in the inkwell every few letters or so, but it wasn't as convenient as it might be.

Roy Conklin's 1898 Crescent Filler is credited by most collectors with being the first practical self-filling pen (i.e., one that carried its filling device inside, and did not require an eyedropper). Conklin's big idea was to use a soft rubber sac to contain the ink, with a built-in device (the crescent) to squeeze it for refilling; over the following decade, other manufacturers created their own variations of the sac pen, but there was not yet any strong consensus as to the best way to squeeze the sac (see my page on filling systems for a description some of the many different kinds of sac-fillers). This would change in 1908 when Walter A. Sheaffer began selling his lever-filler pens, made in his Fort Madison, Iowa jewelry shop.

Sheaffer's pen used a short lever of solid brass (a bit less than an inch long) that was fixed to a pin driven through the upper surface of the barrel. The user caught the long end of the lever under a fingernail and pulled it outward; as he did so, the short end of the lever disappeared inside the pen and pushed on the pressure bar, which in turn squeezed the sac and expelled any remaining ink. Releasing the lever back to its normal position loosened the grasp of the pressure bar and allowed the sac to return to its normal shape, drawing in new ink as it did so. Sheaffer received patents on his designs in 1908 and 1913. In 1912, at the age of 45, he staked his fortunes on setting up a pen manufacturing business; he was helped by two partners, George Kraker and Ben Coulson, former sales reps for Conklin.

Sheaffer Lifetime, Jet Black Radite, c 1925

The advantage of the Sheaffer design over other self fillers of the period was its simplicity for the user: there was only one motion—the raising and lowering of the lever—involved in the filling process (by contrast, a Parker button-filler requires you to remove a blind cap, while sleeve fillers required you to move a sleeve and then press the sac). Furthermore, the lever pen had no unsightly bulges or protrusions as did crescents and sleeve-fillers, and when covered in gold it added a bit of flash to the otherwise rather drab sides of the typical black hard rubber pen.

The stories of how Sheaffer had to defend its lever-filler patents are now the stuff of legend; Walter Sheaffer kept his legal team busy sending strong letters (or worse) to competitors both big and small. He even had to fend off the defection of George Kraker, who left Sheaffer to form his own company to sell Sheaffer-like pens (he was eventually forced to stop).

The filling lever apart, the early Sheaffer pens of the nineteen-teens looked quite a bit like pens from other makers of the day, and were a bit higher in quality than most. They were nearly all in the tubular or "flat-top" design which had come to be the standard by this point in history (this would change soon, and Sheaffer would be behind the changes). The pens came in various sizes and grades of trim. All had gold points, which Sheaffer initially jobbed out (they brought this work in-house during the 1910s). Sheaffer developed its own attractive chasing designs for their black pens. According to the fashion of the times, you could also get Sheaffer pens in red hard rubber, or with precious-metal filigrees and overlays.

Sheaffer's clips were probably the best in the industry at the time (which wasn't really saying much, since many manufacturers still offered clips only as optional add-ons, and these were often fixed to the cap very crudely using rivets or external clamps). Sheaffer clips were secured by a metal band to the inner cap (following a Sheaffer patent), so they could be opened to fit over bulky jacket pockets without popping off or springing.

Sheaffer took a bold step in 1920 when it released the $8.75 Lifetime model -- more than twice the price of other comparable pens on the market. Sheaffer offered a lifetime warranty on the points of these pens, which convinced many pen buyers that it would be worth the extra money to have a pen that would outlast two or three lesser models. My theory (unburdened by supporting evidence) is that Sheaffer used more gold in these points to stave off warranty claims; this also led to the well-known firm feel and smoothness of Sheaffer points, characteristics which feature on almost every top-line Sheaffer pen made since those times. Later, the Lifetime models would be distinguished with serially-numbered points (a bit of a marketing gimmick more than anything else), and a large white dot on the end of the cap. This sort of hallmarking was adopted by Sheaffer's competitors, including Wahl-Eversharp (with its "double-check" medallion), and some years later by Parker (with its "blue diamond" mark for top-line Vacumatics, Duofolds, and 51s.) as well as Montblanc (with the white star and "4810" engraving for its Meisterstück pens.

Around 1920, Sheaffer began working on the means to use celluloid resin (derived from plant fiber) to make pen caps and barrels. Development took a while, but eventually in 1924 Sheaffer released its Radite pens to the public. These came in two colors: solid black and marbled jade green (other colors would be added in profusion as the years went by). In addition to having better color and a harder shine, these pens were also more resistant to breakage and tarnishing than were hard rubber models. The pens were made from rods or tubes of cured colored celluloid, which were cut to shape, lathed, and painstakingly hand-polished to a high luster. As you can read elsewhere, Sheaffer did not invent the celluloid pen (credit for this would seem to go to LeBoeuf), but does deserve recognition for perfecting it and putting their clout as a major national maker behind the innovation.

By the end of the 1920s, most of the other large penmakers had adopted their own celluloid models, and celluloid in fact became such a big business that a number of major penmakers formed a cartel to manufacture the stuff in bulk (which accounts for the frequent similarity of the plastics across many brands of pens). Sheaffer, on the other hand, tended to use its own plastics exclusively, which gives Sheaffer pens their distinctive look.

Incidentally, Sheaffer also experimented with a bright-red plastic but apparently set it aside as too unstable for sale. Many of these pens were "recycled" as factory loaners for customers whose pens were undergoing repair. Some collectors speculate that these pens were made from casein (a resin derived from milk), but this is by no means absolutely settled.

Sheaffer 5-30 in Jade Green Radite, c 1935

In 1929, Sheaffer introduced its "streamlined" Balance models. It is commonly supposed that the new design eliminated the old flat-top models from the lineup, but this seems not to be the case. In addition to the strange "transitionals" (flat-bottomed barrels with Balance caps), Sheaffer also cataloged flat-top pens well into the 1930s. The example above is known as a "5-30" (from its price of $5.30), and sports the new Feather Touch point (which could be turned upside down to write a finer line).

If the flat-tops had departed the vale by 1940 or so, they would return: in 1970, Sheaffer offered the Nostalgia, a modern interpretation of the 1915-era black flat-top with silver filigree. In 1985 came the Connaisseur (sic), again a fairly liberal adaptation of the old flat-top theme. Like Parker with its 1970s inexpensive Big Red line, Sheaffer also created a version of the flat-top for the entry-level market, most commonly called the NoNonsense pen (the descendant of this pen, known as the Viewpoint, is still available in Sheaffer's calligraphy sets). Furthermore, you can't help but call the Targa, Sheaffer's top-line pen of the 1970s and 1980s, a modernized flat-top.

The Verdict

Don't overlook the Sheaffer flat-top. It shares most of the virtues of the Balance, and despite its earlier provenance usually sells for about the same money when in good condition (the early hard rubber models, being rarer, sell for more). Personally, I think the early hard rubber Sheaffers are handsomer and of better build quality than most of their contemporaries, particularly where the point is concerned.

Many of my observations and tips for the Balance models also apply to plastic flat-tops.

Maker Sheaffer
Origin USA
Production 1912-1935c
Type Lever-fill
Point 14k
Construction Red or black hard rubber, Radite (celluloid).