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Waterman was one of the "big four" U.S. penmakers, and the earliest to find national and international success in the late 19th century. Waterman was the undisputed leader of the pack in the years up to 1920, but its failure to keep up with new technology and design caused it perhaps to fall badly behind, and while the company continued to make very fine pens up through the 1950s, it disappeared as a U.S. brand by the end of that decade; however, the name lived on thanks to its former French subsidiary, which remains one of the leading forces in the fine-pen trade today.
The saga of Waterman starts with a wonderful story, much beloved of collectors and Waterman publicists: New York insurance salesman Lewis Edson Waterman presents a policy to a prospective customer, and offers him a newfangled reservoir pen with which to sign. The pen proceeds to let out a giant blob of ink on the contract, whereupon the superstitious customer nixes the deal; this leads Waterman to retreat to his brother's farm upstate, where he invents the first practical fountain pen.
One can't really say that L.E. Waterman "invented" the fountain pen; after all, most of the parts for the firm's early pens (including the gold points) were purchased from outside suppliers, who presumably weren't sitting around on their hands waiting for L.E. to get started. Indeed, one could already have chosen from a number of stylograph pens, as well as split-pointed fountain pens in the 1870s (such as those from the early and highly-regarded John Holland firm) when Waterman was getting things off the ground.
What L.E. Waterman can take credit for, unquestionably, is the three-channel feed. This part, which fit snugly under the point, was carefully designed to balance minute hydrodynamic forces and allow for a smooth exchange of air (going into the barrel) and ink (coming out of the barrel). Later, Waterman made the feed larger and cut spoon-like channels into its underside; this "spoon feed" could buffer a bit of ink in case of heavy flow, which reduced blotting. Waterman's earliest hand-made prototypes worked well enough to encourage him to begin manufacturing and selling them on a small scale beginning in the early 1880s. He was granted patents on his innovations (which also included a process for machining decorative patterns, or "chasing", onto hard rubber pen barrels) in 1883, and incorporated in 1888.
Thanks to heavy investment in magazine advertisements (what we would nowadays call "branding"), Waterman was soon recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in the young fountain pen industry. Waterman's globe trademark was no idle boast; the company enjoyed a very large export trade, and by the 1920s had subsidiaries that made and sold pens in Canada, France, and the U.K. Even in countries where they weren't made (such as Italy), they were often "souped up" with overlays and filigrees by local jewelrs. The company's products earned a gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1900 (which also saw the appearance of the first electric escalator) , a year before L. E. Waterman's death.
Waterman pens set the pace for penmakers up through World War I, and were therefore extensively copied, both directly and indirectly, despite any number of patents on the Waterman innovations. The Waterman lineup of the late 1910s included pens in a variety of filling systems (including safeties and a few lingering eyedroppers), many sizes and shapes, and trim options including gold and silver overlays and filigrees. Waterman pens were pretty much exclusively hard rubber in those years, but the company augmented the normal solid blacks and reds with mottled or woodgrained mixtures of the two, as well as a handful of blue-green- and olive-tinted woodgrained finishes. Well-to-do buyers could have their pens fitted with precious-metal overlays and filigrees.
The earliest Waterman pens were eyedropper fillers; most were very long and slender, with tapered slip caps, matching the profile of the typical dip pen of the period. in about 1907, Waterman created an improved design known as a "safety pen;" it was still an eyedropper filler, but was designed to eliminate the leaks to which traditional eyedropper pens were prone. When not in use, the point of the pen could be retracted into the barrel (much like a lipstick) and sealed with a tightly-fitting cap.
Although Waterman did not invent the Safety Pen, its models were the most visible and distinctive-looking with their beefy girth and short caps. The Waterman Safety was widely copied overseas, and safety pens remained in the catalogs of many makers (including Waterman and Montblanc) until the 1940s. Safety pens remain the only fountain pen that can be relied upon not to leak under any conditions, including on board airliners (unless, of course, you tip one over while the cap is off and the point retracted).
Spurred on by competitors like Sheaffer and Conklin, Waterman began to look for a reliable self-filling system in the early 1910s. They tried several systems, including the "coin filler" (which used a coin-like token inserted in a slot in the barrel to collapse the sac), but eventually settled on the lever filler. To steer clear of Sheaffer's jealously-guarded patent on the lever, Waterman redesigned its lever to fit into a "lever box" inserted into a slot in the barrel (rather than being retained by a pin through the barrel as in the Sheaffer design). Waterman stuck with this system through the 1950s, with the exception of the clever but mechanically troublesome Ink-Vue filler of the 1930s, and the later cartridge fillers of the 1950s.
Perhaps Waterman's early and great success in the industry made them somewhat complacent; in any case, they were slow to respond to the challenges made by its competitors during the 1920s. Waterman delayed the switch to plastic, declined to offer streamlined pens (until the Hundred Year model), and also was late augmenting its range with junior or senior lines. Thus, Waterman slowly but surely lost ground during the depression years of the 1930s. During this time, Waterman offered the Patrician, one of the rarest and most avidly-sought of midcentury U.S. pens (examples in good condition can fetch $1,500 or more). The handsome and futuristic Hundred-Year models from the 1930s and 40s are also very expensive and difficult to find (at least to find intact, at any rate). New cartridge-filler designs kept the company going during the 1950s, but by the end of the decade Waterman's time was up: its all-but-dormant Connecticut plant was finally sold to BIC in 1959, forming the basis of that French firm's American production facilities. All U.S. production of Waterman pens was shut down forthwith.
If the French were responsible for closing Waterman's doors in the U.S., they also deserve credit for the fact that the Waterman name persists to this day as a leader in the industry. In 1926, a Waterman rep by the name of Jules Fagard established a quasi-independent French subsidiary called JiF-Waterman; ten years later, JiF-Waterman would invent the first practical disposable ink cartridge (originally a glass capsule). JiF-Waterman entered the post-World-War-II era in pretty good shape, thanks to astute management by Fagard and his widow Elsa; when the parent company finally gave up the ghost, the French subsidiary carried on the name with further distinguished products such as the Gentleman and Le Man (the latter being a sort of tribute to the old Waterman flat-tops of the 1910s). The company refuses to be trumped in the style department; currently, they offer the large and glamorous Edson and the exotic Serenité at the top of their full line, with the popular and reliable Phileas at the lower end of the price scale. Modern Waterman pens are known for fashionable design and excellent metal- and lacquer-work.
During the 1990s, Waterman came back under American ownership, first by the toiletries giant Gillette (which also purchased Waterman's perennial rival Parker), and later by the Sanford conglomerate. Well-established in the fine-pen market (particularly in Europe), Waterman shows no signs of slowing down.