February 27, 2015

The Ink Tablet Pens

, in the ads and patents.


[Posted on L&P on May 25, 2012 and Mar 8, 2013.]
        Most trench pens are associated with World War I, and that’s when they were the most popular, but the idea of a pen that writes with dry ink tablets or powder originates well before that period.  Ink tablets and ink powder were used more often with dip pens and inkwells, and the use of ink tablets in fountain pens was the exception, not the norm, but in distinguishing between what was usual and what was exceptional, you also have to ask where and to whom.  How extensively ink tablets and ink powders were used was a matter of where the user lived and the time of the year.  They were marketed to travelers and soldiers, but also to the rural market, and to schools.  If we’re talking about the early 1900s, then their actual use depends upon whether the user lived in a house with central heating.  In winter on a farm, or in a small town, or in rural schools without central heating, liquid ink could freeze and spoil over night.  The pigments would precipitate and the sediment would settle out, leaving a watery, wishy-washy, gray ink.  Most of the year, they would still use bottled ink, but in the cold months in northern climates, powdered inks and tablets would become the norm.  One ink maker in Canada was Reliance Ink Mfg. Co. in Winnipeg, Manitoba, formerly Manitoba Ink Mfg. Co., and their pillbox-sized tins of ink tablets and packets of powdered ink were advertized extensively in stationery and school supply catalogues that targeted the rural, small-town, and school markets.  I have quite a few different types of their containers and packets in my collection.  Ink tablets sold under the brand names of prominent fountain pen companies, however, are a different matter and are a little more scarce and uncommon, so let’s look at the advertizing and patent records.
        First, the patent and trademark record.  In the UK between the years 1688 and 1900, there were around 35 patents for ink powder, solid ink sticks, dry ink, and ink tablets, and also for fountain pens and steel nibs that used ink tablets and solid ink.  In the US between the years 1869 and 1950, there were around 81 similar patents and trademarks.
        Here are some highlights from the UK.  Patent no. 258 was issued on Feb 7, 1688 to Charles Holman for “Powder For Making Black [Iron-Gall] Writing Ink”, so the tradition of making dry ink goes back a long time.  All you had to do was mix it with “faire water”, or with “beer, ale, or wine”.  The sugar content of the alcoholic beverages improves the saturation of the pigments.  This is something that we now know chemically, but back then it was something that was “haply” discovered by chance.  Patent no. 906 was issued on Nov 25, 1768 to John Dring for “Manufacture Of Ink Into A Solid Body, Called Cake Ink”.  And then there’s UK patent no. 
9,220 in 1894, issued to Domingo Arriaza for “Fountain Pens” that utilized ink tablets.  The pellets of concentrated ink, or “ink pills” as they are called in the specifications, are stored in a separate “storage-receptacle or magazine” in the barrel end.
       Here are some highlights from the US.  Patent no. 90,417 was issued to John Zengeler on May 25, 1869 for “Improved Ink Powder And Dye From Aniline Colors”.  William A. Bonney, a maker of liquid ink, received patent no. 170,513 for “Improvement In Ink Powders” on Nov 30, 1875.  Patent no. 523,863 was issued to Ernest Nienstaedt on July 31, 1894 for an “Ink” powder called “Magic Ink Crystals” made by the Clean & Ready Co.  John Blair held three patents, 587,032, 620,216, and 740,618, from 1897, 1899, and 1903 respectively, for fountain pens with solid ink or ink powder in their barrels.  Patent no. 751,554 was issued on Feb 9, 1904 to William C. Pope for “Effervescent-Ink-Tablets”.  Patent no. 984,710 was issued on Feb 21, 1911 to James H. Shunk, Jr., for a jointless “Fountain-Pen” that was to be used with ink powder or tablets.  A barrel-end water reservoir used to thin down the thickened ink is connected to the front ink chamber by a spring-loaded valve.  Trademark no. 120,603 for the word “Military” and no. 122,278 for the word “Trench” were issued to Mabie, Todd & Co., the former on Feb 19, 1918, used since Aug 20, 1917, and the latter on July 16, 1918, used since Mar 12, 1918.  The Parker trench pen is missing in action in the patents, but patent no. 1,109,033 issued on Sept 1, 1914 to Edward K. Bixby is for a “Fountain-Pen” with an ink-tablet magazine under an extended barrel-end blind cap.  It almost looks like Parker’s trench pen, and it’s illustrated with a feed that looks like it has a “Lucky Curve” hook on its end, so it may have been used by Parker.  There’s also patent no. 1,255,671 issued on Feb 5, 1918 to Francis W. Vaughn and Henry J. Upton was for a “Fountain Pen Cap” with a compartment for ink tablets.  Maurice Alland received two earlier patents for leverfiller fountain pens with ink-tablet-holding feeds, but his patent no. 1,668,621 from May 8, 1928 was for a multicolor ink-tablet fountain pen & pencil combo that held two reversible ink tablets in a “mutli-holder”, an ink-tablet cartridge or carrier.  These are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
        And now, the advertizing record.  The first advertisement in The American Stationer is the ad on Feb 15, 1894, p.313, for “Magic Ink Crystals” when the patent was still pending.  On Oct 11, 1894, p.653, there is an article mentioning two ink powder makers in Colorado, so you can imagine how many more there were throughout the country.  “Premo Pen Pellets” were mentioned and illustrated in articles on Feb 18, 1911, p.14, and Feb 25, 1911, p.27.  But that’s it until the US entered the First World War.
        Then the patents for the ink tablets and the ink-tablet pens that used them really started flowing and proliferating.  “Simplex” ink tablets appear in an ad in the Oct 25, 1917 issue, on p.13, and an article on p.110.  Salz advertized its cartridge-shaped “Army And Navy” fountain pen and the ink tablets for them on June 16, 1917, p.24, Nov 10, 1917, p.39, Nov 24, 1917, p.39, Dec 8, 1917, p.39, and June 15, 1919, p.26.  Ads on June 23, 1917, p.28, Oct 13, 1917, p.12, and Oct 27, 1917, p.42, feature the J. Ullrich Co. “Independent” cartridge-shaped stylograph and the “Vulcan” ink tablets for their pens.  Mabie, Todd & Co. advertized their trademarked “Military” ink-tablet fountain pen in full page ads on Aug 25, 1917, p.17, Oct 27, 1917, p.85, Mar 23, 1918, p.23, Apr 13, 1918, p.25, and Apr 27, 1918, p.47.  The pens were advertized as “Pat. applied for”, but the patent wasn’t issued until 1919. It’s also very similar to the Arriaza 1894 UK patent above.  And an article on Nov 24, 1917, p.8, titled “Soldiers Want Fountain Pens” is really about advertizing the Swan “Military” pen.  It treats them as a fad, saying that, “The ink tablet novelty has made a great hit with the soldiers”.  Byers & Hayes cartridge-shaped fountain pens are advertized on Oct 27, 1917, p.151, and Nov 24, 1917, p.27.  “Christy’s” Ink Tablets were advertized on Oct 6, 1917, p.12, Dec 1, 1917, p.3, and Dec 15, 1917, p.33.  The General Eclipse “Inklet” ink tablets were advertized on Oct 6, 1917, p.20, and Oct 27, 1917, p.145.  “Economite” ink tablets are advertized on Nov 24, 1917, p.31.  “Prest-O-Ink” ink tablets are advertized on Apr 13, 1918, p.27, saying that they produced 15 million tablets per week.  There is a “Stationers’ Information Bureau” question-and-answer about ink tablet makers on
Dec 29, 1917, p.16, with a list of nine makers, and three on the list are prominent fountain pen companies.  See the pic below.  Parker and Waterman are conspicuous by their absence, but even though Parker had its own “trench pen”, they weren’t advertizing in Am. Stat. at the time, so they were excluded.  Who knows, maybe they didn’t come out with the ink tablets for their trench pen till 1918.  The Waterman’s WWI-themed ads appeared comparatively quite late.  They have an ad on Sept 21, 1918, p.1, with the soldiers wearing the Mountie-style hats with their characteristic “Montana crease”, which should actually be called a “Mountie crease”, and an ad on Nov 9, 1918, p.21, for their “Service Pen”, with its fasces overlay.  But that’s it till after the war.
        There is a very late Waterman’s ad on May 17, 1919, p.1, a full-page ink ad that peripherally mentions and illustrates their “Army And Navy Ink Pellets”, but now they are being touted for “Vacation And Travel Use”.  The article “General Use of Ink Tablets” on Feb 22, 1919, p.28, appears to be about “general use”, but it’s really about desperately trying to sell Salz ink tablets to the general public after the war.  But the death knell for the wartime ink tablet was sounded by the article on Dec 6, 1919, p.20, “War Department Will Sell Ink Tablets”.  They were selling 61,000 cans of ink tablets located at an army facility in Atlanta, Georgia, where liquid ink didn’t stand much chance of freezing in winter.  I guess the fad wore off.  But up here, north of the 49th parallel where it’s colder in winter, the use of ink powder and ink tablets persisted well into the 1960s, especially in some remote rural schools.
        Here’s one of the Mabie, Todd & Co. “Military” fount-pen pen ads, the one from Aug 25, 1917, p.17 , to compare to the 1894 Arriaza UK patent.  And here’s another ad from Oct 27, 1917, p.85 , with a clearer picture of the pen, and a picture of one of the Mountie-style hats.  There’s also the Parker trench pen from the 1918 Parker catalogue mentioned in the earlier trench pens blog post.
        With ink tablets, the first consideration was always the weather, then the convenience, and then the application in battlefield situations.  The US had not yet entered the war in 1914, so in the article “Buy These Items Now”, Oct 17, 1914, p.14, retail stationers are told that they should stock up their winter supply of inks and mucilage.  In the L. E. Waterman Co. ad on Nov 7, 1914, p.1, the ad copy tells the stationers to “Order Your Winter Supply Now”.  On Nov 21, 1914, p.20, there is another article, “Inks And Cold Weather”, urging “wholesale and retail readers” to buy their supply of ink before the freeze up.  And finally, on Dec 26, 1914, p.8, by which time it was already too late, the article “Ink Makers And The Weather” warns that shipments of ink cannot be made when “the temperature falls to 33 degrees”.  Then all the trench pen ads started appearing in 1917 after the US finally entered the war.   And as soon as the war was over, it was back to peace time applications, as the article cited above, the one from Feb 22, 1919, p.28, makes clear.  And the article from Dec 6, 1919, p.20, tells us that the War Department anticipated that the war would go longer than it did and had purchased an excess of ink tablets, and they were dumping their overstock.  The temporary craze was over.

George Kovalenko.