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Waterman Safety pens

Waterman #42 Safety, black chased hard rubber, c1920

The only kind of fountain pen widely available at the end of the 19th century was what we now call the "eyedropper" pen. It was simply a big empty vial that had a grip section (containing the point and feed) screwed into its open end. Eyedroppers wrote well enough, but had a serious "usability problem:" since they had to be opened each time they were to be filled, they were susceptible to wear, rough handling, exposure, and the general propensity of ink to go where it isn't wanted. In other words, they leaked. Even eyedropper pens in good repair can be very messy to fill.

Self-filling pens with sealed ink supplies were on the way (from Conklin and others) to solve the problem, but there was one workaround that would prove quite popular in the decades around the turn of the 20th century: the so-called Safety Pen. The Safety allows the user to retract the point into the barrel and cover the whole thing with a tightly-fitting cap to prevent leakage and evaporation of ink. They were still filled with eyedroppers, but at least now they did not leak.

The Safety Pen seems to have made its first appearance in the 1890s, although it isn't positively established (at least not to the satisfaction of all) who invented it. Many collectors (including myself) have given Waterman credit for this invention, but Waterman's first Safety dates from 1907, long after Moore began selling its Non-Leakable safety pen (in 1899). The Moore pen used a slider to advance and retract the point. The J.G. Rider company began to make their version of a "Safety Pen" in about 1905; this pen had a special clip on the cap that could be used to hook the feed out of the pen, allowing you to fill it with an eyedropper. The Rider pen wasn't the most practical of designs, but it at least had simplicity on its side, and since it eliminated the section joint, it could also clam to be "safe."

Nevertheless, thanks to Waterman being the biggest kid on the block in those days, its Safeties have come to be most closely identified with the breed (in the same way that Microsoft is now often thought to have invented the computer mouse and bitmapped display, after Xerox PARC is but a distant memory). Indeed, probably most of the Safeties you will find in the wild will be Watermans, or copies of Watermans. In the Waterman Safety, the point and feed are mounted on a retracting screw gear (pins through the feed assembly mate to a helical hard rubber track inside the barrel) that allows them to be pulled completely into the barrel; this allowed a tight-fitting screw cap to be fitted, which virtually eliminated the risk of leakage in normal use. When it again came time to write, the user uncapped the pen (holding it point-up so as not to spill any ink) and posted the cap at the bottom, twisting on the cap (like a lipstick) to raise the point into writing position.

Not only did the sealed design prevent leakage, it also kept the point and feed moist and limited evaporation so that the pen was always ready to write. To this day, the safety pen remains the one fountain pen that you can depend upon never to leak on an aircraft (at least not if you don't use it). In fact, the Safety's seal was so effective that (according to legend) when the body of an American soldier was exhumed from a French farmer's field decades after World War I, the unfortunate doughboy's pen still contained liquid ink.

The unusual construction of the Waterman Safety gives it its distinctive appearance: a short cap and clip, a slight raised lip around the back of the barrel (for posting the cap and operating the retractor), and a disproportionately small point (necessary because it had to fit completely inside the barrel). Safeties came in many sizes and levels of trim; they ran a bit fatter than normal pens of the period owing to the screw mechanism inside, although later safety-pen makers would figure out how to make them much slimmer. The design was widely copied, particularly in Europe, where Montblanc (among others) had a history of safeties almost as long and diverse as Waterman itself.

Waterman Safeties remained quite popular, even after perfected self-fillers had reached the market (this example is probably from about 1920, judging from its trim and nomenclature). The Safety stayed in the Waterman catalog (if perhaps on the back pages) for a very long time; I've seen photos of some wearing 1940s-style clips.

Aside from a recent (1998) limited edition reissue of an old French Stylochap Waterman-style design, there haven't been many modern versions of the safety pen. However, Stypen (a French maker of inexpensive novelty pens) offers a playful salute in the form of its Up cartridge pen (it isn't a safety, but does have a similar retracting feature). The modern Waterman Liaison pen (c 2001) also hearkens back to the original safety pen; you twist the back of the pen to release the section unit for cartridge replacement.

The Verdict

Nearly all safety pens are officially antiques (or very nearly so), and should be treated with the appropriate respect and care. That said, safeties are generally a bit more usable for modern daily writing than other eyedropper pens of the period; they're a bit huskier, and you don't have to worry about leaks so long as the pen remains capped. I occasionally take one out for work or travel, and I find that they're sure-fire conversation starters. Be careful, though, that you open and extend the pen yourself before handing it to someone else, lest they spill ink.

Like all early Waterman pens, Waterman safeties have extremely thin and flexible gold points, and permit you to produce some very nice shaded writing.

Keep your Safety out of the sun and out of water (both of which can promote oxidaton of the hard rubber, with resulting discoloration that is difficult to remove without polishing away chasing and imprints). Also remember to retract the pen before capping it (it's easy to forget to do this).

When shopping for a Safety, you should make sure that it can retract and extend smoothly, and that the back of the barrel will seal (otherwise the pen may require rebuilding by a safety-pen expert). Finding one with fancy trims or overlays is a definite plus, although most are plain black hard rubber like the one shown here.

Maker Waterman
Origin USA (New York City)
Production 1900c - 1940c
Type Eyedropper safety pen
Point 14k flexible.
Construction Black chased hard rubber, nickel-plated Waterman riveted "Cap-Clip"