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Sheaffer Imperial

Sheaffer Imperial Touchdown, gold filled, c 1970

The Sheaffer Imperial is one of the biggest, most diverse, and (if you count its brief revival during the 1990s) longest running model lines that Sheaffer produced after the Second World War, an era during which the firm was at the top of its game in terms of design, performance, and sales.

The Imperial was both one of the first high-priced Sheaffers to use cartridges, and one of the last not to be able to use them. It was sold both in plush gift boxes and peg-hung blister packs. It spent periods of time both at the top of the Sheaffer line and somewhere near the bottom. Hell, these pens don't even have a model name in common, since some were not sold as "Imperials" (but look enough like them for collectors call 'em Imperials). If you're beginning to get confused, don't worry: that's part of the charm of this protean pen. Trying to summarize the history of the Imperial on one web page is a Herculean task, but I'll try my best. I'm fortunate and grateful here to be able to draw on the resources of Jim Mamoulides' website (http://www.penhero.com/), which fills in many of the question marks and ellipses of the 1960s Sheaffer pen lineup, and goes beyond the material you can find in most published references. If you want to know more about the Imperial and its ilk, I'd point you in his direction.

Pre-Imperial Imperials

Before there was an Imperial, there were a couple of short-run Sheaffer pens of the early 1960s, each having something to contribute to what eventually became the Imperial. For this reason, collectors often lump these pens together with the Imperial proper. These pens, like the Imperial itself, were part of the same general makeover to the Sheaffer line that was sparked by the now-legendary PFM. We'll begin our story with a brief look at these.

Sheaffer Compact II with ink-view windows, c 1961
(courtesy Jim Mamoulides)

First comes the Sheaffer Compact, a middle-of-the-line pen that was sold roughly between 1960 and 1962. This plastic (with metal trim) pen was designed to use the new Skrip cartridge (premiered in about 1955 with the low-priced Fineline pen), and was correspondingly very short. The slip-cap looks like that of a PFM (or the later Imperial) with its "square" end and rectangular clip, but the barrel was rather short and tubular. The Compact had an Inlaid point like those on the PFM, but smaller and with an "arrowhead" shaped cutout (rather than the "diamond" shape on the full size pens). It was available in two levels of trim, the $5.00 Compact I with steel trim and point, and the $10 Compact II, with gold plated trim, white dot clip, and 14k point (this pen was actually sold for the same price as the much larger entry-level PFM I). Some of these pens had translucent panels in the barrel to allow you to see how much ink remained in the cartridge. When the Compact was offered, Sheaffer did not as yet offer bottle-fill converters for its cartridge pens; even if they did, it looks as though even the classic "squeeze" or aerometric Sheaffer converter would be too long to fit.

Sheaffer 500 points
(courtesy Jim Mamoulides)

The next of the proto-Imperials was the 500/800/1000 range, available from 1962-1964. These pens were styled to look like thinner PFMs, and so are close to the profile we associate with the Imperial. They share an unusual point design that collectors call the "dolphin" or "porpoise" (because of its resemblance to the bulbous forehead and pointy beak of that particular sea mammal). The dolphin point was actually a bit of a cost-saving measure; it looks from a distance like an Inlaid point, but it is really a simple non-contoured point of more conventional design, cleverly disguised. Not having examined one closely in person, I'd nevertheless guess that it is mounted something like the contemporary Parker 45. The range started with the 500, which had a steel point and brushed steel cap; it was available either in cartridge fill ($5.00) or as a touchdown filler ($5.95). Next up the ladder was the 800, with a plastic cap and 14k point ($7.95 for cartridge filler, $8.95 for touchdown filler). The top of the line was the 1000, with gold point and gold-plated cap, available only as a cartridge filler for $10.00. Matching pencils were available separately or as part of pen-pencil sets. Unusually, the gold points on the 800 and 1000 were not hallmarked (probably because the visible portions would have been too difficult to stamp).

OK, now onto the real thing

It appears that the first pen to bear the Imperial name was launched sometime in 1961 (although some authors date it from 1964, after the Lifetime model described below). It was intended to be a sort of junior model to the PFM; it shared its general shape with the larger pen, but had cartridge filling. It was available in a variety of trim variations which were, like those of the PFM, identified with Roman numerals. Depending upon the version, you might get a Triumph point or an Inlaid point; both cartridge fillers and touchdown fillers were offered side-by-side. Prices started at $5.00 for a basic steel-pointed model, and probably peaked at around $20.00 for models with gold inlaid points and gold-plated caps.

Sheaffer Imperial Touchdown, burgundy, c 1965 (open for filling)

There was a brief detour in 1963, when the pen was renamed the Lifetime to commemorate the re-introduction of Sheaffer's famous lifetime guarantee (which was now a legally-acceptable "limited warranty"). These pens have "LIFETIME" stamped into their clips and onto the 14k points. After 1963, the Imperial name was restored.

Sheaffer Lifetime c 1963

From the mid-1960s through to the end of the line in about 1976, there were many variations in style. The Touchdown filler remained available for most of this period, although buyers were now more and more inclined to go for cartridge models (particularly once Sheaffer perfected its familiar and reliable squeeze converter in the late 1960s). Sheaffer played games with the design of the Inlaid point during this period; it varied in size and shape from one model to the next, and was offered in nickel-plated or gold-plated steel, or in solid (14k) gold. The Triumph point was also offered on many models during this period. Around 1970, Sheaffer added some dressier models to the line, including the gold-plated model shown above, as well as a beautiful cross-hatched sterling silver model intended obviously as a belated answer to the Parker 75 sterling grid design. Many of these models were assembled in the Sheaffer's newer UK and Australia facilities, as well as in their established Canadian plant. The last Imperials seem to have been shipped in about 1976, corresponding with the introduction of the more modern-looking Targa (which carried on the Inlaid point, but did without most of the Imperial's other hallmarks, such as the old reliable Touchdown filler).

Sheaffer Imperial Inlaid points; L to R: 14k/burgundy c1965, 14k/black c1970,
14k Lifetime burgundy 1963, 23k electroplated steel (Triumph Imperial) c 1998.

But wait, there's more!

In 1995, during its extended "nostalgia" phase, Sheaffer reintroduced the Triumph. This time, the pen was intended to span the wide middle of the market between entry-level pens (like the School Pen or the No-Nonsense pen) and the more expensive Crest. The new pen was redubbed the Triumph Imperial; one might have argued that this mouthful of a name was too princely to adorn what was after all a basic steel-pointed cartridge filler, plus it also probably gave Sheaffer collectors a case of cognitive dissonance (the term "Triumph" seemed to suggest a Triumph point, which was nowhere to be seen on this model, although it was offered on the Crest). Still, these models came in quite a wide variety of styles and finishes during their three-year run.

Sheaffer Triumph Imperial IV (1995-1998) in Cadmium Yellow (top)
and Flame Red (bottom).

The least expensive Triumph Imperials were the plastic-bodied pens with nickel-plated trim and steel Inlaid points. These were often sold in blister packs, and at $18.50 were pitched a bit higher than entry level NoNonsense and School pens. Dressier models included all-steel clad pens, the Triumph Imperial IV (with gold plated points and trim, and a wider range of plastic colors), and even models featuring palladium or gold-plated barrels and caps ($70 and $75 respectively); these latter models came packed in the plush red Sheaffer gift box.

Sheaffer's nostalgia fever began to wane after the takeover by Bic in 1997. Among the first models to go were the Triumph Imperials, which went out of production in about 1998. Much of the remaining stock went off to an internet liquidator, whence I purchased the examples above a few years back.

The Verdict

If you're the kind of collector who likes to play sleuth, but you're disappointed that the fields of Vacumatics, 51s, Dorics, et. al. has been pretty well picked over by others, then I've got a deal for you: The Sheaffer Imperial. Trying to figure out which pens were made when, and in what variations, can keep you busy for years as you fill in the gaps that plague the history of this interesting pen line.

Within the Imperial range, you can find pens that are essentially slender PFMs, with gold plated trim and touchdown fillers; you can find oddballs like the early "dolphin" or the Compact models (neither of which are 'officially' Imperials, but are at least step-siblings). You can also find plenty of the later production of Triumph Imperials; many of these may be available as new-old stock from some dealers.

Whichever one you pick, you can be sure that you'll get a pen with quality construction, and a great firm, smooth-writing point.

Maker Sheaffer
Origin USA (plus UK, Canada, and Australia)
Production 1961-1976; 1995-1998
Type Touchdown or cartridge-converter fill
Point Steel and 14k points in Triumph, Inlaid, and other styles.
Construction Solid-color plastic, metal caps and barrels on some models.