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Sheaffer: One of world’s top pen makers marks centennial
By Carolyn Noon

FORT MADISON, Iowa — In today’s world, it seems as if society is moving away from a time when people would sit down with pen and ink and transcribe thoughts onto paper. Even a signature, once the hallmark of a person’s individuality, is often only a barely legible scribble on a digital device.

In the news, many schools have banned the use of paper and have chosen to teach keyboarding rather than penmanship and cursive writing. Where this will all lead, one can only imagine. For pen collectors, it is all the more reason to seek out and preserve these classic reminders of the importance of handwriting before the age of computers.

One such collector and dealer is Sam Fiorella, owner of Pendemonium, a Fort Madison retail shop that caters to fountain pen aficionados and offers everything from restored pens, new and vintage inks and inkwells to pen and ink collectibles and ephemera, pen repair supplies, custom nib grinding, reference books and stationery. One of her specialties is W.A. Sheaffer Pen Co. pens and pencils, a locally founded company that will have been in business 100 years this month.

At her shop and through her website, fully restored Sheaffer fountain, ballpoint and rollerball pens and mechanical pencils can be purchased with prices starting at around $35 for a Sheaffer Lifetime Pencil from the mid-1920s to a Sheaffer Balance Fountain Pen with a vacuum filling mechanism from the late 1930s, priced at $150.

“A lot of people don’t understand how condition is key,” Fiorella said, while warning that purchasing an antique or vintage writing instrument from an unknown source comes with risks. “Most likely the pen will not be working.”

Restoring a pen or pencil, Fiorella noted, can cost from $30 to several hundreds of dollars, depending on what is needed. The types of repairs for pens can range from nib grinding to replacing an internal sac. Often, she said, “you end up sacrificing old pens for parts.”

For the do-it-yourselfer, Fiorella recommends a book she sells at her store, Fountain Pens: The Complete Guide to Repair and Restoration by Frank Dubiel.

Sheaffer was sold to BIC USA Inc. in 1997 and the factory in Fort Madison was shuttered in 2008. For those who prefer to leave the repairs to the experts, the company still maintains a local repair shop in Fort Madison that can service antique, vintage and newer pens and pencils still under warranty.

Sheaffer Service Repair Coordinator Kathleen Pilkington reports they generally charge $55 for a simple restoration, plus $10 for processing. “On the older pens, like the Snorkel, we send them to an authorized dealer for repairs,” she said. “Sometimes we can’t find the parts, but about 95 percent can be fixed.”

New Sheaffer pens are no longer made in the United States, but they are still sold at retail outlets. Basic fountain pens sell for about $50. High-end luxury models, including engraved 18K solid gold and sterling silver fountain pens start at around $1,300 and can go for as much as $20,000.

Fiorella is also one of the directors and tour guides at the Sheaffer’s Pen Museum in Fort Madison where the history of the company is told through displays of an epic number of pens and pencils, working factory exhibits and other memorabilia dating back to 1906. This month the museum will celebrate the company’s centennial with a two-day, town-wide event on May 17-18 that will include a silent auction and a drawing for Sheaffer pens, bus tours, guest speakers, special exhibits and demonstrations.

A tour of the museum reveals how, in 1906, Walter A. Sheaffer purchased a jewelry store in Fort Madison, but soon turned his attention to inventing a better fountain pen. He patented his first design in 1908 and along with a group of seven employees was producing pens for sale in the backroom of the jewelry store by 1913.

In 1914 he sold the jewelry store and expanded his manufacturing facility into a building across the street. Sheaffer was a gifted inventor and savvy businessman whose innovative ideas would bring a number of firsts to the industry.

Although he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of a lever-filling fountain pen, Sheaffer was the first to make the idea commercially successful. His was also one of the first businesses to offer profit sharing to its dealers and employees. A letter on display at the museum and dated Sept. 16, 1929 states that $100 invested in company stock in 1913 would be worth, “with dividends paid to date,” $10,000.

Sheaffer’s first pens were made of hard rubber, mostly black or red, with a flat top on the cap. In 1924, the company introduced the jade green pen made of a new plastic material called Radite developed by DuPont. The company also produced mechanical pencils.

At a time when many companies were struggling to stay in the black, Sheaffer’s was the first pen company to offer a lifetime guarantee on its products and add a distinctive white dot on the clip to signify the promise. They also were the first to manufacture and sell desk sets featuring one or two pens. Some of the materials used for bases included cast lead, wood, marble, glass, porcelain, geodes, plastic, leather, and sterling silver. Today, a Sheaffer desk set in good condition can be worth about $1,500 or more depending upon who owned or used it.

Thanks to an invention by Robert Casey of Fort Madison, a new writing fluid called Skrip was introduced by Sheaffer in 1924. It replaced the old acidic inks of the past. In 1929, the Balance pen came along with its new torpedo shape. In 1931 a 14K gold band was added to the cap and clip of pens and pencils, providing the perfect surface for engraving one’s name.

Engraving pens was nothing new but Sheaffer took it one step further and offered his customers the chance to have their actual signature engraved onto the writing instruments. Hiring a group of so-called “forgers,” Sheaffer put together a crew of engravers skilled in replicating signatures. Pens and pencils were purchased along with a card that the customer would sign three times, circle the best of the three and return to the company in a postage-paid envelope. In a couple of weeks the items were returned with an exact replica of the signature engraved as requested.

One of these “forgers” was Dana Bushong, a man who came to Fort Madison and purchased Sheaffer’s jewelry store in 1914 with the understanding that he would also work as a company engraver. The store has changed location but continues to be owned and operated by Bushong’s grandson, Skip Young, and is filled with jewelry cases Young said originally belonged to Sheaffer. He said his grandfather would receive crates filled with pens for engraving each week and did an estimated 40,000 pens for Sheaffer.

One of his first jobs was a pen and pencil set for President Calvin Coolidge when he visited the Black Hills. He even did a pencil for Bing Crosby that a few decades later came up at auction. Young recalls receiving a letter stating the pencil had sold for $35,000. Bushong’s business card was included with every engraved item and “that’s how we know he did it,” Young explained. Crosby, himself, had even sent a thank you letter to the jeweler, commenting on his craftsmanship.

“He was a fantastic engraver,” Young said of his grandfather. Bushong was able to engrave freehand and applied the signatures on the gold band or clip. Signatures were placed directly onto the barrel of the pen using gold flake and a hot iron, according to Young.

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